Traveling among the stars has been a dream of humanity since time immemorial. And while our species still has a long way to go before we can make interstellar travel a reality, we are much closer to this dream ever since the first among us ventured into outer space. It was on April 12, 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel to space aboard his spacecraft, Vostok 1.
Nine years later, in April 1970, the crew of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission swung around the far side of the moon at an altitude of 158 miles or 254 kilometers. Since this was approximately 60 miles or 100 kilometers greater than the orbital altitude on the other Apollo missions, it put astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise at 248,655 miles or 400,171 kilometers away from Earth. This was the farthest any member of our species has ever been away from the comforts of our home planet.
If you’ve always wondered what it was like to have to live in space or work in space missions, you’ve come to the right place. This article lists down some interesting facts that you can use as conversation starters the next time you have a date or a Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives.
The vacuum of space is a dangerous environment
Vacuum is technically defined as a space devoid of matter and an environment with a gaseous pressure much less than the atmospheric pressure found at sea level on Earth. While outer space is not a perfect vacuum, it’s certainly a high-vacuum one, one that is hostile to human and animal life.
Many works of fiction have depicted the fate of astronauts when they are exposed to the vacuum of space. The movies Mission to Mars (2000) and Gravity (2013) portrayed the exposure as something that results in a person’s body immediately freezing, while others depict more gruesome phenomena. However, astronauts are really more likely to lose consciousness after a few seconds of being exposed to the vacuum of space before dying within minutes because of hypoxia, the condition in which the body is deprived of oxygen. The person will also experience ebullism or the formation of gas bubbles in one’s body fluids, which is likely cause their body to swell to twice its normal size. Thankfully, when going out on spacewalks, astronauts are equipped with specialized suit that is especially designed to prevent these dangers.
Astronauts always go out on spacewalks in pairs
NASA’s extravehicular activities (EVA) or spacewalks are always done in pairs precisely in order to prevent harm to an astronaut in case something goes wrong—like when one of them experiences hypoxia.
EVA suits are colored white because this makes a good contrast against the black background of outer space. Moreover, since the astronauts always go in pairs, one of them typically wears distinguishing marks on their EVA suit so that the other crew members will know which one is which. For NASA astronauts, the marks are red stripes in 4 places on the suit.
Specialized space equipment are amazingly high-tech but expensive
Astronauts use a variety of tools, with iconic items like the pistol-grip tool and the spacewalking safety tether being among the most familiar with the general public. However, space missions—both manned and unmanned—also typically require specialized robotic equipment that are especially designed for high-vacuum environments and are resistant to extreme pressures and temperatures.
For example, the ultraviolet coronagraph spectrometer (UVCS) instrument in the unmanned Solar and Heliospheric Observatory—launched in 1996 by NASA and the European Space Agency—used high-vacuum linear stages and linear actuators that are rated to operate in the high-vacuum environment of space.
Another good example of high-tech space equipment is the Canadarm robot crane, which cost the government of Canada some CAD 1.4 billion to develop over the course of 20 years. It’s an equipment that plays a vital role in the assembly and maintenance of other equipment in a spacecraft. The latest iteration of this robotic arm—the Canadarm2—is 17.6 meters long when fully extended and possesses 7 motorized joints. It is currently in use in the International Space Station.
Everyday rituals are more difficult to accomplish in space
It goes without saying that the space constraints (no pun intended) inside spacecrafts cause difficulties among astronauts when they need to attend to their daily rituals and hygiene practices. However, the physics and chemistry of outer space are probably even greater challenges to surmount.
Sleeping in zero gravity, for instance, is no piece of cake, as astronauts have to secure themselves with tethers so that they don’t get tossed around while they get the Z’s. It’s also not easy to clean oneself in space either, since you can’t really shower with water or wash your hands from the tap. Instead, astronauts use pre-packaged, no-rinse soapy water, which they can just squeeze into their hands and lather all over their body.
If these weren’t hard enough, consider the particularly messy rituals like having to go to the toilet, shaving one’s hair, or getting a haircut. These involve waste products, which are thankfully efficiently taken care of by specialized on-board equipment like vacuum-equipped hair shavers, liquid waste vacuum tubes, and a zero-gravity toilet for solid waste.
The dawn of the Space Age is a new era for humankind that represents tremendous advances in engineering and our understanding of the cosmos. On a granular level, it’s also fascinating to understand what life is like for those who are at the frontier of our discovery endeavors.