I spent a year in outer space on the International Space Station. The experience is still suffocating me – here’s what my days were like.

Astronaut Mark Vande Hay training for a spacewalk at Johnson Space Center in March 2017.NASA

  • Mark T. Vande Hee, 55, is a NASA astronaut who spent a year in space orbiting the Earth.

  • He just came back, he didn’t expect his term to last 355 days, but he was prepared for it.

  • He said his days included meetings and experiments. On the weekends, they had a movie night.

This directed article is based on a conversation with Mark T. Vande Hee, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. Edited for length and clarity.

Before working for NASA, I graduated with a master’s degree in applied physics from Stanford University and was a professor of physics at West Point. One day during my long career in the US Army, a senior Army astronaut came to the Army Space Operations Conference looking for someone to work in the Astronaut Office as part of an agreement to expand the Army’s space operations officer experience base.

I completed my training to become an astronaut at NASA in 2011. In March, I returned to Earth after spending 355 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. I am officially the American who has spent most consecutive days off our planet.

Before our launch, there was a lot of uncertainty about how long the spaceflight would take. At first, they told me it could last up to 355 days, but that didn’t become official until about halfway through the flight. Since my wife and I knew it was a possibility, we planned my stay away all this time. My previous spaceflight took about six months, so I saw this longest and final flight as a unique kind of challenge.

The flight to the International Space Station on Soyuz was surprisingly smooth. Although watching the launch from Earth involves a lot of light and noise, on the spacecraft itself you are exceeding the speed of sound so fast that you leave all that noise behind. The dominant sound was the hum of the pumps pushing fuel out from the rear end.

When you first arrive at the International Space Station, it takes some time to adjust to the fact that the room you’re in is constantly falling toward Earth.

(L to R) Vande Hei with Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide and Megan McArthur, pose with a space-grown chile pepper for the first time aboard the International Space Station.

(L to R) Vande Hei with Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide and Megan McArthur, pose with a space-grown chile pepper for the first time aboard the International Space Station.

Left to Right: Vande Hei with Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide and Megan McArthur, pose with space-grown chile peppers for the first time aboard the International Space Station.NASA

You quickly realize that on Earth, there are a lot of things you do every day that don’t require conscious effort. So when you’re in orbit, you have to relearn how to do it. For example, if you do not pay attention to the procedures for how to go to the bathroom, you may end up in a messy situation. When you’re sitting at your laptop, it’s always important to somehow get your feet on the floor, or else you’ll just float on the ceiling.

The International Space Station is about the size of a six-bedroom house, but you can go days without seeing one of your six or seven roommates. Basically, the International Space Station is built in parts, and each part or unit can be isolated and shut down in the event of an emergency. On this latest flight, the Russians added two new modules, so the International Space Station now looks more like a seven-bedroom home.

Most days of the week start between 6 and 7 a.m. GMT

Vande Hei uses an electric razor with a vacuum cleaner to collect the hairs he cuts off fellow NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.

Vande Hei uses an electric razor with a vacuum cleaner to collect the hairs he cuts off fellow NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.NASA

We’re scheduled to wake up and have breakfast before 7:30 a.m. Daily Planning Conference. In these sessions, we check out all the ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the United States. During the day you have one hour for lunch, then two and a half hours for exercise – on the boat we have a resistance exerciser, a stationary bike, and a treadmill. Our bodies are well adapted to buoyancy, so it is important to exercise to keep our strength and bone density at a healthy level. We spend most of our days completing various tasks assigned to us by the teams on the ground.

In our team table, there is a row with each astronaut’s name and a horizontal line that moves forward slowly throughout the day. It guides us on what we are supposed to be working on and helps us stay on the right track. My favorite part is when I work with other astronauts, but we often have separate missions. If you happen to see progress in your work, you can go help someone else, which is always nice.

During this last trip, he helped us perform hundreds of experiments Whether it happens behind the boards or at ourselves

Vande Hei conducts operations for the Plant Habitat-5 space farming experiment that studies cotton genetics.

Vande Hei conducts operations for the Plant Habitat-5 space farming experiment that studies cotton genetics.

Vande Hei conducts operations for the Plant Habitat-5 space farming experiment that studies cotton genetics.NASA

I see my role as a lab technician rather than a scientist because I make it easier for experiments to succeed than to write down or analyze data or write reports.

Surprisingly, there are so few “specialists” within the onboard team. With the length of the trip, we realized that being a generalist is important because often times the plan will change during our time there. So you often need people who can do a variety of tasks effectively.

Other than meetings, experiments, and maintenance around the station, spacewalks take up the rest of the day

Vande Hei during a spacewalk to serve components on the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Vande Hei during a spacewalk to serve components on the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Vande Hei during a spacewalk to serve components on the Canadarm2 robotic arm.NASA

For example, we have upgraded and added the solar arrays located outside the International Space Station. The International Space Station is powered by solar energy, so it is important that we have constant power. Although I didn’t go out on a spaceflight myself during this last flight due to a pinched nerve in my neck, it has happened in the past.

Being in space is like falling down towards the planet, where you and everything around you fall at the same rate, and the wind doesn’t interfere. This is exactly what is in orbit.

During the week, the workday continues until about 7:15 p.m., when we’re done with another planning meeting.

On weekends we usually get off, other than about 3 hours of cleaning the house – I like to tell school kids that

Every Friday or Saturday we had dinner for the whole crew, then on Sundays we’d all watch a movie together. Each week, a different astronaut had to choose which one he wanted: one of my picks was “Yesterday” with all the Beatles songs.

Vande Hei gazes at the earth below from inside the seven-windowed dome, the International Space Station's window to the world.

Vande Hei gazes at the earth below from inside the seven-windowed dome, the International Space Station’s window to the world.NASA

During the trip, I talked to my wife every day, and I usually talked to my kids every weekend. I was able to reconnect with several relatives as well. It is a very cool situation when you call someone and they are surprised by the fact that you are talking to them from outer space. Also, I started meditating every day, and more often than not, I would do it sitting by the window looking at the planet Earth.

I still feel pretty suffocated thinking about it. It is a truly unique experience.

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