Reg chats with ISS veteran

Astronaut Andre Kuipers on life in space

Space Week The International Space Station (ISS), a collaboration between the space agencies of the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe, is currently the world's most important manned space project and has been orbiting the globe 15 times a day for well over a thousand days. When completed, the 450 tonne structure will house seven crew, consist of several linked up modules designed by the varius space agencies, host a multitude of experiments in material science, fluid physics and life science under the special conditions of zero gravity, and will provide a testbed for humans living under space conditions to prepare mankind for possible longer stays on the Moon or trips to Mars.

Seen from earth, when arcing across the night sky in a journey time of ten minutes, it is is the brightest object in the heavens after the Moon. Its current location at any given time is shown at the European Space Agency's website

Dr Andre Kuipers, 46, was the second Dutch astronaut to go into space when he spent nine days at the ISS in April 2004. He talked to El Reg at a recent space congress in Brussels about his experiences.

You travelled up in a Soyuz capsule... What is the difference between the US and the Russian space equipment?

Russia has been responsible for transferring all cargo and personnel up to the space station since the US space shuttle fleet was grounded two years ago after the Columbia disaster.

The US is very good at creating comfortable living conditions in space. The Russians are good at making simple, strong engineering that actually works. We travel up in the Soyuz capsule the Russians have been using since the Mir space station. It has heat shields all over and so is quite sturdy

Tell me about the events in your life leading up to your trip

After I was selected, I trained for about three years - both in the broad range of skills of basic astronaut skills, which include things like scuba diving. This was followed by a year and a half of specialist training - I was a flight engineer. To get used to to the space station, we spend part of our training in Star City in Russia, in a module mockup the international space station, as cramped as a caravan. It prepared you for the real thing.

What was lift-off like?

You are on your back, and most of the G-forces are felt through the X-axis, so the pressure is not so great. Getting into space is very quick - the ISS is in the lowest of space orbits, only 400km up - but you spend two days manoeuvring the Soyuz capsule into docking position

What was life on board like?

The toilet seat is just 15 square centimetres. You need to hold on tight to the seat and a special stream of air makes sure everything gets to its proper destination. Urine and faeces are collected and sealed in bags. They will be put in a container ship if not used for scientific research. The compounds found in this waste can tell scientists what products are lost by the body during weightlessness. We have to be careful when we eat because crumbs can easily float off the dinner table and around the station, clogging up the filters. The food you eat has to be as sticky as possible. You add water to dried original product and knead it into shape - it can typically be soup or pasta.

Doesn't sound very appetising...

Space food tastes okay.

How was sleeping?

You lie in sleeping bags strapped to the walls. There are no specific sleeping quarters, you just sleep in an airlock or a connecting module.

Has anyone had sex in space yet?

That really is a private affair - though men and women have of course been in space together! But getting pregnant in space would really pose an ethical dilemma. The effects of zero gravity could really cause problems for foetus development, even during the early stages.

What about the air you exhale? Doesn't the water drops in human breath float around the cabin?

The humidity is used and recycled - the water is broken down into oxygen and reused while the carbon dioxide is flushed out of the space station.

Did you suffer vertigo?

Yes, when you shift your head slightly under zero gravity you feel sick because you cannot recognise the new perspective. Even though "up" and "down" are colour coded, it is not much help. Also there is the vast blackness of space, compared to looking down at Earth. It makes you feel very protective of our planet.

I have heard that some astronauts go mad - or religious

Some of the American astronauts turned to religions - or drink. But no greater a proportion than the population at large. I have met Neil Armstrong and he is normal. Buzz Aldrin is very young at heart and still promoting space. He is in Brussels this week.

Did you do any space walks?

No, I wasn't trained to do that. After basic astronaut training, which takes two years, you spend a year specialising. I became a flight engineer and I also had to supervise some 21 scientific experiments.

What are the ESA requirements to become an astronaut?

Well, the right personality is of the greatest importance. You have to be extremely good at dealing with people - when you realise the cramped conditions of space you realise why. You have to have a medical, engineering or science degree and three years of professional training. You have to be between 153 and 190cm tall, and speak good English.

Is there a minimum and maximum age for becoming an astronaut?

Well - minimum age is about 27, since you need a three years of training in your profession after taking your degree. The maximum age is supposed to be 40, but they are a little bit flexible: I was 41 when I started training.

Well, John Glenn was 76 when he went into space the second time....

Yes. Nasa felt he had supported their cause in congress for forty years and they wanted to reward him. Of course he was very fit but they wanted to show old people can cope in space too.

Nine days in space after all that training is not much is it?

No, when the station is completed there will be room for seven crew. At the moment there are just two permanent crew and because of their nations' respective contributions to the ISS project, there is always one Russian and one American. Europeans have to go up for shorter durations. Every six months, the Soyuz capsule always docked at the ISS which functions as an escape vehicle has to be replaced as its batteries degrade. So a new Soyuz capsule is sent up, and the old one brought down. I went up as part of that exchange, and on my this trip there was also an exchange of crew. The Russians have been doing this replacment service free of charge as their commitment to the project, but if you pay $12m they will launch a Soyuz capsule more often.

There is a queue of European astronauts at the moment. I know the Swedish astronaut has been waiting years and understand there is some amused media coverage in his own country about his failure to go up! The Swedish government could pay $12m but I understand has been unwilling to do so.

Are you hoping to go up into space again?

Yes of course. The idea is that you pay a short visit then spend a longer period. But nothing is scheduled yet.

There are two former astronauts now sitting as MEPs in the European parliament. Would a political career appeal to you, given astronauts have to be "so good with people"?

At the moment I am an ambassador for the Space Agency - which is why I am attending this congress. But not at the moment. ®

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