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Astronauts Prepare For Departure


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. This weekend, three members of the crew onboard the International Space Station will be returning to Earth after over six months in orbit. Flora Lichtman had a chance to chat with some of them, and she's here with us. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira. That's right, just another day at SCIENCE FRIDAY, calling space.


LICHTMAN: We linked up with the station yesterday morning and had a quick chat with a few of the flight engineers as they zoomed 200 miles above the Earth.

Station, this is National Public Radio. How do you hear me?

DON PETTIT: NPR, we hear you loud and clear.

LICHTMAN: I hear you guys loud and clear, too. It's better than my cell phone connection. So Expedition 31 flight engineers Joe Acaba, Andre Kuipers and Don Pettit, thanks for talking to us from space today. Don Petit and Andre Kuipers, you've been there I think about six months now. Are you ready to come home, or does it feel like you've just gotten there?

ANDRE KUIPERS: Well, actually, I think I'm ready because I'd like to see the family again. That's a long period. But there's so much things to see, so much things to do that I would love - in that sense, I would love to stay longer, or better to come back here. It would be great here sort of two, three weeks a year, as a holiday after this. So it's a fantastic place.

And I have to go back, but I'd like to come back, too.

PETTIT: And I just ran out of vitamin supplements, so I figured it's time for me to go home.

LICHTMAN: Don Pettit, walk us through how you'll get back to our planet this weekend.

PETTIT: We will get in our Soyuz spacecraft and under the command of Oleg Kononenko, and Andre Kuipers will be flight engineer one or board engineer one, and I'm board engineer two. And we work together to get this spacecraft back home, starting off with undocking.

We start off, we get inside, the close the hatch, we have to do a leak check, make sure the hatches don't leak. And then we strap in and undock, and then we do a de-orbit burn. And then as we hit the atmosphere, the spacecraft separates so that only the descent module comes through the atmosphere in one piece.

And then our parachute comes out, and we go thump, roll, roll on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

LICHTMAN: That is amazing. What is the Centaur garment that I read about?

PETTIT: Oh, the Kentaver. The Kentaver, think of it as Spandex on steroids.


PETTIT: And it's this tight garment that just goes around. It's like a pair of boxer shorts for your waist area, and then you have another Spandex thing that goes around your calf. And then when you wear this medical harness, you kind of look like you walked from the scene of "Gladiator."

And then - and what this does is it keeps the lower part of your body from getting bloated with all the water running downhill after we've returned to Earth. So it has a medical purpose to it.

LICHTMAN: Not your everyday Spanx, I guess. Joe Acaba, Andre Kuipers, you've been studying the human condition in space. Have you found any differences in how our bodies behave in weightlessness?

JOE ACABA: Well, I think there's a lot of different things that happen to us while we're up here. Of course, you're all familiar with the fluid shift, and when you say astronauts have big heads, it's really - it's a physical feature that we have while we're up here.

But the body, it's amazing to me, I've been here for about a month now, how quickly you do adapt to being up in space, and after just a few days, it's just a natural environment to be in.

LICHTMAN: Really? What about your senses? Do you find that when you drop things, you still look down, or do you acclimate to no gravity?

KUIPERS: Well, we get used to it, but it's still sometimes troublesome, if you lose something, how to find it back also because you tend to focus on the walls and the floors, and it may just be floating just in front of it, and you might just miss it. It's amazing how you can look around for something which is right in front of you.

So that's still going on, and I think our brain has a hard time to deal with the three dimensions, but we are - we are careful to prevent it. So everything we have, we fix it with Velcro, with tape, with Bungee cords. So we are pretty good in preventing to lose something.

LICHTMAN: You know, one of our favorite topics on SCIENCE FRIDAY are the microbes that live in and on us. I wonder, have you guys looked at how microbes respond to space or if the same microorganisms live with us when we're in - when you're on Space Station?

PETTIT: You know, I think the microbes are with us whether we like it or not. And as far as I know, the behavior of a single microbe in weightlessness is probably close to what it is in gravity. What may be different would be cultures. If you had a tank of fluid filled with some kind of microbes, they may clump in the absence of gravitational-driven buoyancy forces. They may clump in a manner that's different than the same culture growing on Earth.

So there may be some interesting three-dimensional structure in colonies of microorganisms, and that in itself may affect the way the colony grows as a whole. So you bring up an interesting question. Maybe that could be a future Saturday Morning Science.

LICHTMAN: I hope so. So about a month ago, we watched you guys capture the Dragon, and actually we literally watched you capture the Dragon, we huddled around this computer in the SCIENCE FRIDAY office. And you made it look just effortless. But how was it for you? Was it a stressful day in the office?

PETTIT: I think you can call it a stressful day in the office. It's something that we'd practiced for. And we practiced 27 different ways with 27 different kinds of malfunctions and what happens if A happens, do we do B, and if B doesn't work, we do C and so on and so forth.

And personally, I was happy everything was nominal. When you're working in a frontier like this, you don't want to be a hero where you jump up and save the day. You'd rather have everything be nominal so that nobody has to be a hero and save the day. And fortunately, that's the way Dragon turned out.

And it turned out that way primarily because of all the hard work and folks on the ground that had sharpened their pencils and done a really good job of the engineering.

LICHTMAN: We heard a lot about Dragon, but where there other events that happened in Space Station, another top event that you think should have gotten more due that we haven't heard about as much?

PETTIT: Well, we're doing a lot of fascinating science, and sometimes that doesn't get as much headline news as the single events. And I think one of the reasons why is that science in the process of being made isn't necessarily exciting. In fact, some people might call it boring. If you're sitting in front of a piece of scientific equipment, maybe a glove box, and, you know, your hands are poking in there, and maybe you scratch your nose every so often with your shoulder because you can't - because your hands are in the glove box. And, you know, someone watching you do that is just going to be bored, but the science that's going on in the glove box may be really, really exciting.

And so when the documentary is made in 10 years, the professional journalists and actors will be able to make it exciting. But the course of a real scientist doing real science, I think it's pretty dry.

LICHTMAN: Oh Don, I think you do a pretty good job, to my mind. So I wondered, are there - were there challenges to living in Space Station that you hadn't foreseen, or did this experience test you in ways that you didn't expect, maybe?

ACABA: Yeah, I think there's a lot of challenges up here, and I think you really notice it at the end of the day, when you're really, really tired. Like Andre was saying before, you always have to be aware of things that might float away. If you're working a procedure, you don't want to miss a step that could be critical that could break some equipment.

And so everything you do from when you wake up in the morning, and you have breakfast, to using the bathroom, to the procedures you use all day, it is really, really tiring, and I think that's one of the biggest things that I noticed since I've been up here.

LICHTMAN: I think we have just a little under a minute left, so maybe as a quick, quick ender, are there qualities that you would identify for a long-term mission now that you've spent so much time up in space?

PETTIT: Yes, what I would do is, any perspective crew member, I would go and look in their garage, and if their garage is a mess, a hodgepodge, then that would be an automatic disqualifier. If their garage is nice and neat, then you know that they are going to be able to take care of all the equipment on Space Station and put everything away in its proper place.

LICHTMAN: Thank you so much, Expedition 31 flight engineers Joe Acaba, Andre Kuipers and Don Pettit. Thank you for talking to us on SCIENCE FRIDAY from the International Space Station today.

PETTIT: It's been a pleasure. Bye now. SCIENCE FRIDAY is one of my favorite NPR stations.

LICHTMAN: Oh, thank you, Don, and safe trip back to Earth.

JACK FISCHER: Thank you, National Public Radio Station. We're now resuming operational audio communications. And Don, I just cleaned my garage last week.

LICHTMAN: That last voice, by the way, was - the guy who had just cleaned his garage, was the voice of astronaut Jack Fischer, and he was acting as CAPCOM in Mission Control Houston that day.


FLATOW: That garage test eliminates me.

LICHTMAN: Absolutely, as if I didn't need more elimination, that would be it.


FLATOW: Well, it's not the Kentaver that we're - without those as the SCIENCE FRIDAY official garments, but the garage test.

LICHTMAN: Another thing I don't think I'd want to wear.

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to have a memorial to a famous resident of the Galapagos, but let's talk a little bit more about that conversation. They seem to be eager to get home, and I would think after six months in space, I'd want to get home also, you know?

LICHTMAN: That was my first question because I was like I bet after six months, you're not itching to do six more, and it did sound like they were ready. I think - you know, it's close quarters with all those roommates. That alone would make me crazy after that long.

FLATOW: Yeah, you know, you've got to be the right - they go through all these tests, right profile, psychological profile and everything.

LICHTMAN: I think you have to be pretty easygoing.

FLATOW: But the one final test I would not be able pass is the garage test.

LICHTMAN: The garage test, thank you to Don Pettit for pointing that one out to us.


FLATOW: All right, take a break. As I said before, we'll come back and talk about a famous memorial to a famous resident of the Galapagos, Lonesome George, and I don't mean that old comedian George Gobel, this one's a tortoise. We'll talk about when we get back. Stay with us.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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