By Professor Mark McCaughrean

27 September 2017 - 14:05

'When the ISS was eventually launched, it was a symbol of cooperation between East and West – literally at the highest level.' Photo ©

skeeze, licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.

The European Space Agency's Professor Mark McCaughrean explains, among other things, what ‘international’ means when you put this word in space.

Big characters aren’t very good in space

Our astronauts are all massively qualified technically. As far as personality is concerned, the biggest requirement is being able to work in a team in a very close environment.

The space station is huge – around 100m across – but much of that is filled with equipment and supplies, with passages that twist and turn so you have to move around by slithering in between it all from place to place. Left and right aren’t the only options in zero gravity; you have to remember up and down as well. It can be a bit disorientating.

Heating, cooling and the movement of air all have to be done by machines - there’s no gravity and so no convection to make the air circulate. This makes for a noisy environment.

The standard mission is around six months, and some astronauts can stay in space for up to a year. The need for teamwork in an isolated environment is why big characters don't necessarily do so well.

Astronauts work nine-to-five 

Well, not nine-to-five exactly. The space station runs on GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and astronauts don’t operate in shifts - they get up together, go to work together, and clock off together, turning the lights up and down to reflect that.

In reality, the space station has a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes, because it travels around the earth 16 times a day.

During the working day, everything astronauts do is monitored from the ground – it’s like being in a lab with controllers in the next room.

Often, astronauts will work separately, focusing on their own experiments. They come together for space walks, when they get suited up and do experiments on the outside of the station or repair hardware. This doesn’t happen every day because it's quite dangerous. If a large piece of space debris were to hit an astronaut, their space suit would offer very little protection.

In the evening, some astronauts hang out in the cupola, the observatory module in the space station with big windows that allow you to look out over the space station and watch the world (literally) go by.

Astronauts have regular contact with their families through email and videoconferencing. There’s a high bandwidth from the space station because it’s only 400km away from the earth, so you can have a good video conversation – often much better than with someone else on earth.

Then it’s bedtime. Each astronaut has his or her own cubicle, a small space with a sleeping bag which they zip themselves into to avoid floating around.

There’s no bread in space

Crumbs would get everywhere in zero gravity, and keeping the space station clean is really important. That's why there’s no good bread on board.

That’s not to say that there’s no fresh food – every couple of months or so, we have resupply vehicles that go up with fresh vegetables and fruit. Most of the time, however, the daily diet is heat-stabilised food from a can, or re-hydrated powdered foods.

You need to be careful about food waste and dirt, because fungi can grow very easily among those twisting wires and racks. You can’t just open up the doors and let the air into a spaceship for a good spring clean.

Astronauts don’t have beards

Our astronauts are medically trained, and there are escape vehicles on board if anyone became unwell and had to get back to earth quickly.

One of the phenomena of being in zero gravity is that the immune system becomes weaker. This is one of many things that we are investigating on the ISS. There are groups of genes in the immune system that for some reason need gravity to operate. Examining the reasons for this offers insight into why immune systems might fail on earth for other reasons.

There are no showers on board the ISS. Washing is done with a little water, liquid soap and dry shampoo. They do, however, have a hair-cutting machine with a vacuum. That's another reason why not many astronauts have beards.

Astronauts need to speak Russian

All astronauts learn Russian, no matter where they are from. English and Russian are the working languages on board, and they speak a mix of the two. Russian is particularly important because the Soyuz capsules that you use to get back to Earth from the ISS are Russian-made. This means the buttons are in Russian; if nothing else, you need to know which ones of those to push.

The International Space Station is international in every sense

The idea of the ISS came out of the Cold War. During détente in the 1970s, American and Soviet capsules linked up in space. In the late 1990s, when the ISS was eventually launched, it was a symbol of cooperation between East and West – literally at the highest level.

There is also the practical question of cost. No country on its own could afford the kind of projects that we carry out on the ISS – in reality, there can be no ‘national science’. To carry out projects like these, the whole ethos must be to work openly and transparently and share information.

The ISS also involves the Japanese space agency, the Canadian space agency and, of course, the European Space Agency.

Did you know that the European Space Agency has 22 member states and a budget of six billion euros a year? Find out more on the European Space Agency website.

Professor Mark McCaughrean will be speaking in Bucharest on 27 September as part of the Bucharest Science Festival, which runs from 27 September until 1 October in partnership with the British Council.

The British Council will celebrate European Researchers' Night on 29 September with a Hall of FameLab event, live-streamed from the Natural History Museum in London.

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