One of these pockets must have Tabasco.
Does this zero gravity make me look fat? Yup. It’s called the Charlie Brown effect, according to Michele Perchonok, NASA’s shuttle food system manager, and it’s not because she’s fattening them up with shrimp cocktail and chicken consommé. Without the benefit of gravity, bodily fluids accumulate in the head, giving the astronauts rounder, cartoon-like faces.
As anyone who’s had a cold knows, more fluid in our facial cavities also means congestion and weakening our sense of smell. But is lack of gravity actually responsible to for all this? There’s only one way to find out: “Perchonok has asked [food engineer Jean Hunter] and her crew at Cornell to test the stuffy nose theory. To do that on Earth, volunteers will spend several weeks in a bed where their heads are lower than their feet to try to re-create that Charlie Brown effect.” This might not be what people had in mind when they volunteered for astronaut simulations.
If you were traveling to Mars solely by spacecraft, your health might take a serious hit during the 18-month or so round-trip journey–and you might not even be able to see your home by the time you got back. Throughout the journey, high-energy particles known as cosmic rays would course through your body, not only damaging your eyesight, but also increasing your risk of cancer by up to 20 percent.
Luckily, one scientist has an answer: Don’t fly a spaceship to Mars, hop on an asteroid instead.
Cosmic rays zing into our solar system from interstellar space; here on Earth our planet’s magnetic field protects us from them, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station are mostly protected by the Earth’s bulk and its magnetic field as well. But astronauts on a long-haul trip to Mars would be in more danger.
With less than 10,000 miles to go until they reach fake Mars, the fake mission to the Red Planet is going as planned. Which is to say, the space travel simulation project known as Mars-500 project is full of mishaps and surprises, as the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems tests the fake astronauts’ ability to handle anything outer space could throw at them.
The next milestone: the fake arrival in Mars orbit on February 1.
And for being confined to a 1,800-square-foot test module for 520 lonely days, the crew members are doing a stellar job. In their last update, published on the official Mars-500 website on January 14, they give a terse but positive appraisal of their condition:
226th day of the experiment. Scientific equipment is in operable condition. Clarification for implementation of special experiments is carried out. There are no alterations of health state which can interfere with participating in the experiment and realizing of scientific program.
Strap on your astronaut suit and hold on to your space shoes, because in 20 years, you could just be aboard Earth’s first mission to Mars. At least, that’s the hope of over 400 people who read the Journal of Cosmology’s special edition issue, The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet, and volunteered to take part in a not-yet-scheduled trip to Mars.
The journal spills the details about the logistics involved in a privately-funded journey to the Red Planet–a book-length brainstorm by leading scientists. What, for example, happens if you get an infection on Mars? How do you have sex in space? And, most importantly, how long do you have to live on Mars before you get to call yourself a Martian? (Ok, I made that last question up, but aren’t you curious?)
Any journey to Mars–especially one with no scheduled return to Earth–is fraught with challenges. As Fox News reports:
“It’s going to be a very long period of isolation and confinement,” said Albert Harrison, who has studied astronaut psychology since the 1970s as a professor of psychology at UC Davis…. “After the excitement of blast-off, and after the initial landing on Mars, it will be very difficult to avoid depression…. Each day will be pretty much like the rest. The environment, once the novelty wears off, is likely to be deadly boring. Despite being well prepared and fully equipped there are certain to be unanticipated problems that cannot be remedied. One by one the crew will get old, sick, and die-off.”
White noise doesn’t just drown out other noises, it drowns out taste too, says research in the appropriately named Journal of Food Quality and Preference. This could help explain why airplane food tastes so bland, why we eat more with the TV on, and why space tourists need such strong beer, the study’s first author told BBC News:
“There’s a general opinion that aeroplane foods aren’t fantastic,” said Andy Woods, a researcher from Unilever’s laboratories and the University of Manchester. “I’m sure airlines do their best – and given that, we wondered if there are other reasons why the food would not be so good. One thought was perhaps the background noise has some impact.”
To test this theory Woods had a group of taste testers eat a variety of foods with head phones on and piped in either white noise or no sounds. The white noise not only made the food less tasty, it also increased the perceived crunch of the food. The noise could be drawing attention away from savoring the food, Wood said to BBC News:
“The evidence points to this effect being down to where your attention lies — if the background noise is loud it might draw your attention to that, away from the food,” Dr Woods said.
Along with the rest of the criteria that make for a good astronaut–some heavy degrees in science or technology, a tolerance for cramped spaces and freeze-dried food–let’s add another one. The ideal astronaut should have narrow hands to prevent his or her fingernails from falling off.
National Geographic reports that the design of astronauts’ space suit gloves can lead to hand and finger injuries, including an icky condition called fingernail delamination in which the nail completely detaches from the nailbed. While missing nails do grow back in time, if the nail falls off in the middle of a spacewalk it can snag inside the glove, and moisture inside the glove can lead to bacterial or fungal infections in the exposed nailbed. MIT astronautics professor Dava Newman told National Geographic that astronauts take this medical prospect seriously:
For now, the only solutions are to apply protective dressings, keep nails trimmed short—or do some extreme preventative maintenance. “I have heard of a couple people who’ve removed their fingernails in advance of an EVA,” Newman said.
One of the requirements for flying in a spaceship used to be near-perfect vision. When NASA relaxed its vision standards (to 20/200 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20 each eye for a mission specialist) they in turn created a new requirement–for near-perfect astronaut eyeglasses.
TruFocals (made by Zoom Focus Eyewear, LLC) might improve current astronaut spectacles by allowing space-travelers to focus mid-float on both near and far objects, whether they’re dealing with experiments or cooling loop warning indicators. As Scientific American reports, the glasses are currently undergoing NASA evaluation for space readiness–tests that include burning. The lenses will correct the condition known as presbyopia, in which aging people’s eyes lose focusing ability, making it difficult to see near objects. That’s the condition that causes people with good eyes to pick up reading glasses, and those with glasses to turn to bifocals.
Walking by a replica of Sally Ride’s flight suit during visits to NASA and Space Center Houston, Calvin Dale Smith would snicker. Later, he told his wife that he knew the location of Ride’s original flight suit. He didn’t tell her that it was in their home, in a duct tape-wrapped suitcase.
As Wired reports, Smith allegedly got his hands on Ride’s flight suit while working as a contractor at Boeing’s Flight Group Processing Office, which maintains the suits. During his time there, he also stole a NASA Omega watch and several machined spaceship parts (including a safety tether and airlock parts).
According to court documents (pdf), Smith’s wife turned in her husband, who had previously served jail time for domestic violence, after being asked to send her estranged husband his belongings. He wanted a suitcase, “the suitcase.”
It’s official. Even people in space are tweeting. NASA announced today that astronaut T.J. Creamer on the International Space Station has become the first person to tweet directly from space, making use of a brand new direct Internet connection. Creamer tweeted: “Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station — the 1st live tweet from Space! More soon, send your ?s”
Yay. Space tweets. Sweet.
In the past, astronauts could use email and twitter–but they had to relay their messages to ground control in Houston, who then sent them on. But now, thanks to the new system of personal Web access, called the Crew Support LAN, astronauts can take advantage of existing communication links to and from the station and browse the Web directly.
Astronauts can’t be all business all the time; sometimes you just have to cut loose. Well that’s exactly what billionaire red-nosed clown Guy Laliberte intends to help the astronauts do when they blast into space tomorrow.
From the AP:
The man who hopes to be the first clown in space, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, said Tuesday he would tickle fellow astronauts as they sleep aboard the International Space Station.
The crew must be ecstatic to have him aboard. Laliberte might want to stick to handing out red noses and let the astronauts rest up so they can, um, fly a space shuttle.
MSNBC.com compiled a slideshow of their top nine space antics, a list that will surely include Laliberte’s ticklefest in the future. But for now it seems that astronauts’ favorite pastimes involve playing space golf, eating space fast-food, and dumping space trash.
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