An interview with an astronaut

HIW: What were your main roles on the ISS?

PN: I was one of the flight engineers for the space station. We do a lot of things up there. The main purpose is to take advantage of the micro-gravity environment and the position of the ISS for all sorts of experiments. Most of them you cannot do on ground because of the presence of gravity. I would say that 30-40 per cent of the time was passed carrying out scientific experiments in many fields. I did some in life science – for example, how my brain adapts to the micro-gravity environment, and all sorts of tests on computers and other stuff. The reason for the work on my brain was because when you go into space you actually enter a new environment and the brain has to adapt to the new situation. It’s very similar to someone on Earth who has an accident and loses a part of the brain or a limb and needs to re-learn to do all these things.

In space suddenly there is no more gravity, and you can’t just walk, you have to push yourself, you have to do things in a new way. You have to invent a way to do it by looking at how the brain adapts. Doing this enables scientists to figure out [techniques and therapies] that can be useful on the ground. For example, I was a guinea pig for osteoporosis. They gave me a special diet for weeks, one week at a time. They were changing my diet, from having lots of proteins and other ones, lots of vegetable proteins, and another one I tried was having lots of potassium, which is thought to interfere with the osteoporosis mechanism. They do all these things, they look at you and check your body parameters, figuring out if there are any relatively simple solutions, like does food affect how people lose bone mass?

About 50 per cent of my time was spent maintaining the station. It’s amazing how work intensive it is to maintain a laboratory like this. You have supply ships arriving every month. It’s like you lived in your house and never left, but once a month a truck would come to your front door and dock there. Everything you’d need for that month would be in that truck. The air you breathe, the water you drink, all the supplies, all the equipment, all the spare parts, pieces of tubes for plumbing, electricity, a new TV, new computer, new telephone; I really mean everything. And then you have to take everything from this truck and put somewhere you can find it again. You cannot just pile it up in space, because it floats away. After it’s unpacked, you take all your waste, everything you don’t need, and shove it in the supply vehicle so that it gets thrown out and burns up in the atmosphere. That’s a lot of work. Apart from the supply ship you need to cook, clean filters and put together facilities so that you can carry out experiments. A lot of things go into the basic running of the space station.

The last ten per cent or so of my time was for physical fitness and educational or PR activities, such as talking to schools on the phone. My expedition actually had the record for schools contact – 77 – which meant thousands of kids were talking to us. You do a little video clip for this and that, or you do an interview; let’s call it outreach activity. Then, in the evening, there is about an hour and a half for planned pre-sleep activities, then you have eight hours of sleep, and after that are one-and-a-half hours of post-sleep. In pre-sleep you take care of yourself, do recreational things, clean up, eat, this kind of thing. In the morning you’re supposed to have breakfast, a shower, the usual things. What I would usually do would be to compress activities. I would not sleep eight hours, instead I’d sleep about six, which left me with three or four hours free in the evening. Then I could take more pictures, eat, sort out my photos, put them up on Twitter and Flickr, or call some friends. On the space station we have a phone, and often write emails.

HIW: Can you call whenever you want?

PN: You can pretty much call when you want. It’s a special phone – though looks similar to that you’d find on any desk. It works through a satellite system and since you are rotating pretty fast you tend to lose the connection quickly and sometimes there are holes for 10-20 minutes. You can’t use the phone continually. In general if I want to call somebody that evening one way or the other I manage to call them. In the evenings I mostly talked to my wife and daughter.

HIW: How do you shave on the ISS?

PN:This is one of the things you need to learn to do differently. Obviously you cannot always take a shower, as there’s not much water and it goes all over the place. Shaving you need to learn to do things in a whole new way. First I put a bit of water on my face, then take a pea-size amount of shaving cream and just make it stick there on my face. Next I take a fresh new razor blade and get shaving. There’s no way you can actually clean the razor blade, so you just try to make it work for the whole face, and then throw it away. There’s nothing else you can do. Then you use a wet towel to rinse your face, and that’s it.

HIW: How do you stay clean on the ISS?

PN: The space station is now in its complete assembly stage. All the planned modules are up there. For years they camped on the station, but now we have what they call crew quarters. These are telephone booth-sized spaces that have your sleeping bag, computer, personal stuff on the wall and changes of clothes, etc. You can close the door and it’s pretty private and dark. Your turn the lights off and you’re isolated and insulated; you can’t hear people outside. For a personal space it’s quite convenient. You try to use it on the ground though and, oh my God, you never think you’ll be able to sleep there because it’s vertical and narrow. In zero-gravity though it becomes very comfortable. We do have a facility, which technically is called the Waste Hygiene Compartment. It’s another telephone booth-sized place that can be closed. Inside there is your toilet, and you can take your clothes off and wash in a bit more comfort. We usually do wash ourselves in a piecemeal fashion here and there or just use a towel. If you want to take a shower, you go into this booth. We like to use this Russian towel, which is very thin and impregnated with soapy disinfectant liquid, and you wrap this towel over your body. It’s pretty nice and you feel pretty clean when you do this. For washing your hair we have some rinseless shampoo; you put three or four teaspoons of water in your hair, wrap it through and then dry up with a towel and then that’s it.

We don’t wash clothes up there; you just tend to sort of use the same clothes over and over. They don’t get dirty because it’s so clean up there. On Earth you go out and you’ll get dust or grease all over them, but in space only bits of food might get on them. They don’t particularly smell bad until a few months of use. In six months I used only three pairs of trousers and I started with only four shirts. When they told me that’s all I’d get for six months I couldn’t believe it, but it was fine. When you do physical fitness you use a special shirt to collect sweat. You use it and then hang it to dry somewhere. We use this same shirt for a month and it’s fine.

On the station it’s all pretty clean, but sometimes there’s a smell and we cannot open a window to get some ‘fresh air’. Instead, the air is changed by the turnover systems and it’s continuously circulated, filtered and cleaned, the humidity is removed, and some of the toxic things are removed. It’s pretty clean. There were cases that the carbon dioxide equipment was purposefully kept at a low rate, and then you feel a little bit of space dust, but normally we feel very clean.

HIW: What was it like being the only person in history to see the Space Shuttle attached to the ISS?

PN: Well you know, I never thought ‘Wow, I’m the only person to see this with my own eyes, I’m the one taking the pictures that will be in the history books’. If I thought all this I would get scared, so I didn’t. The manoeuvre to take the pictures was not an easy one. It had some risks and there had been discussions forever between NASA and the Russians about this, because they were supposed to do it on the previous Shuttle mission but it was voted down; the Russians didn’t let them because of the risks.

I was really concerned when I unstrapped from my seat and flew over the commander, who was manually piloting. There’s not much space in the Soyuz, so everyone was worried I would knock some of the controls and send the Soyuz spinning out of the sky. Then we had to open the hatch, which was already sealed – also something that is usually a big ‘no’. If you have closed and sealed it you don’t want to go and break the seal, but we had to. Eventually I’m up there, I’m looking outside and seeing this magnificent view, and it was astonishing. I found myself staring at it for 15 seconds, and then I had to snap myself out of it. ‘You are here to take pictures,’ I thought. ‘You better take some or you will really become famous!’ I grabbed the camera and started snapping pictures, trying to be attentive. I thought there was some reflection from the window and I saw some smudges, so I was thinking ‘Wow, I hope these are coming out!’. In the end I took about 200 pictures and several minutes of video.

Paolo took this historic and iconic photo of Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the ISS from Soyuz TMA-20 on 23 May 2011. It was the only time NASA's Space Shuttle had ever been pictured attached to the ISS.

It was funny because when we landed the camera was left in the module to burn up in the atmosphere. We only brought back the memory cards. When we landed the Russians requested me to surrender the memory cards to the commander of the Russian spacecraft, and he was instructed to leave them in the capsule. I didn’t understand why they did this, because I wanted to see them immediately, but by doing this they were closed up in the capsule which was being transported from Kazakhstan so Moscow. It took some time to get them; there’s a big committee that sits down in Moscow and opens the hatch and pulls out things. In the past things have disappeared and broken, so a big committee pulls out everything and classifies everything that’s supposed to be there, things astronauts brought back. They checked, marked, verified and certified everything, but when this was all done, more than 15 days after landing I was scared; I was thinking the reason they are not releasing is because they have screwed up and lost them, but then they came out and it was fine. Phew!

HIW: Will you, or would you like to, go into space again?

PN: Well, if I had a choice, I would love to go up for another mission. I feel now that I know what’s going on up there, so I would love to do things differently, pace myself better, and enjoy things a bit more. The reality is that flight opportunities are scarce – even more so for Europeans – and we have young astronauts that have never flown, so it’s kind of a situation where many things go into the decision process. At this point I would like to go up again and I’m ready if that were to be the case, but if not I have been to space and I have been so lucky to realise a dream I’ve had since I was a kid, and I’m very grateful for that.

All images courtesy of NASA/ESA