For years, scientists have been conducting studies aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to determine the effects of living in space on humans and micro-organisms. In addition to the high levels of radiation, there are also worries that long-term exposure to microgravity could cause genetic mutations. Understanding these, and coming up with counter-measures, is essential if humanity is to become a truly space-faring species.
Interestingly enough, a team of researchers from Northwestern University recently conducted a study with bacteria that was kept aboard the ISS. Contrary to what many suspected, the bacteria did not mutate into a drug-resistant super strain, but instead mutated to adapt to its environment. These results could be vital when it comes to understanding how living beings will adapt to the stressful environment of space.
Some people like an adventure, but don’t want to leave their home behind — like old Carl in the movie “Up.” So, if you wanted to go to space and take your domicile with you, what would it take? Certainly more than thousands of balloons; it would likely take millions of dollars. The folks at the housing blog Movoto Real Estate wanted to know just how much, saying they were inspired by the upcoming commercial launch by SpaceX to the International Space Station. Using launch costs for the Falcon Heavy, they computed an approximate weight-to-square-foot ratio of 200 pounds per square foot for a single story house and put in other variables. They built a “Home Blastoff Calculator” — an interactive infographic that allows anyone to figure out how much it cost to launch their house into space — noting that they computed weight, not volume. While certainly not feasible, it’s an interesting and fun concept, and the infographic also provides comparisons of launching other things into space, like dogs or chimps, or what it takes to put people on the Moon.
“As you can imagine, all works comes to a stop on the Space Station when the toilet breaks,” said astronaut Don Pettit, known as Mr. Fixit among the astronaut corps. In this latest edition of “Inside the International Space Station,” Expedition 30 astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit discuss their glamorous life in space of having to fix the toilet, upgrade their computers, and take out the garbage. This sounds just like living on Earth, but there are a few orbital twists for doing those things in space. And of course Pettit nails it with his vivid descriptions.
NPR (National Public Radio) put together this video from 1980s-era NASA video with commentary by astronauts of various missions. The edited footage comes from VHS tape (you do remember that, right?) and is a playful “instructional video” and a look at life in space on board the space shuttle.
Last year at this time, astronaut Sandy Magnus was living on board the International Space Station. When the holidays were approaching in 2008, Magnus decided it was time to spice things up a bit in the culinary department in space. “When you think about it, food is an important part of our lives,” Magnus said. “Family gatherings, celebrations and holidays all center around food, and when you invite people over it seems everyone always ends up in the kitchen. The same holds true on the space station, but you have to be able to prepare and eat food in microgravity without making a big mess!”
And now that she’s back on terra firma, have her cooking techniques changed because of her experiences in space? “I certainly appreciate gravity a lot more because your food actually wants to stay in the bowl, which is a good thing!” Magnus said.
“Sandy is our astronaut who has done the most experimenting with cooking in space,” said Vickie Kloeris, who heads NASA’s food lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “She has definitely given us some ideas about advancing food preparation on the space station.”
Magnus told Universe Today there were two different levels of cooking she did in space. “One was special cooking for the holidays which took hours. My favorite was what I called ‘Italian Night,” where I took some rice, chicken, black olives, sundried tomatoes, cheese, garlic, onions and pesto and put that together. On an everyday basis it was easy to combine foods that were already prepared by Vickie and her group. My favorite everyday meal was taking black beans, tomatoes and artichokes and putting it on a tortilla with picante sauce. That was very tasty.”
The astronaut food on the ISS—while leaps ahead of the food “tubes” that early astronauts endured – still has to meet many different requirements. It has to last for long periods of time without refrigeration, have the appropriate nutritional value, it has to be appealing and tasty, and it has to be packaged to be able to be used with the food warmers and rehydration system on the ISS and space shuttle.
“There is probably on the order of 300 different foods and beverages up there when you look at all the food from the US, Russia, Europe and Japan,” said Kloeris. “We stow the food pantry style, and so the crew members are able to pull different items and they are not restricted to a certain food on a certain day.”
Astonauts often say their tastes change in space, and Magnus agreed. “Yes, it did a little bit. I noticed on my first mission that the tomatoes and eggplant that I loved on the ground, when I got on orbit it didn’t taste quite the same to me. I’m not sure exactly why – I think your sense of smell gets disrupted which of course affects your sense of taste.”
When Magnus was on the ISS, the crew size was just three. Since then the crew size has expanded to six. And when a shuttle crew visits, there can be as many as 13 astronauts to feed. How does that change how food is prepared?
“Fortunately, with the increase in crew size we have an extra food warmer or two,” Magnus said, “which is really the big issue for planning a meal because it takes about 20 minutes to heat some of the food. And so with six people you have to start perhaps a little earlier and you are using all three food warmers on board so six people can eat together.”
“When the shuttle is there we typically have family dinners, if you will, in the evenings a couple of times. The shuttle astronauts will prepare all their food in the shuttle, bag it up and bring it over and we’ll all have one big family dinner in the service module or Node 1, which ever table we decide to use.”
One of Magnus’ favorite holiday foods while on the ISS was one that many on Earth would probably agree with: frosted Christmas cookies. “We are able to bring up some personal foods, as long as they don’t need refrigeration,” Magnus said, “and I brought up some cookies and there was some icing already on board. The entire crew really enjoyed having frosted cookies for the holidays.”