Opinion: The personal life of American astronauts in space: What’s it really like?

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America’s last space shuttle, Atlantis, docked Sunday at the International Space Station where the crew has a full 10-day schedule of work to accomplish on the final visit of the U.S. craft.

We witnessed the Atlantis launch Friday in the bright Florida sunshine, brightened even further by the 200-foot-long flaming flare of its five muscular rockets lifting the nearly five million pounds of craft and fuel into orbit. (See launch photo and a special Jay Catalano video below)

In their explosive teamwork those rockets are generating more than 39 million horsepower. Even from three miles away, it was like looking at a monstrous welding torch as Atlantis cleared the tower, and left the awed viewers feeling the exhaust heat like a warm breeze.

From a standing start the shuttle reaches Mach 25, 17,500 miles an hour in 8.5 minutes, faster than anyone has ever gone on the 405.


During the week at the Kennedy Space Center we talked with a trio of friendly astronauts about....

...what the space experience is like from a personal perspective -- Doug Wheelock, Tony Antonelli and Mike Massimino. Scroll down to Related for our previous reports. Here’s our report from inside the space experience:

NASA scientists said one important human lesson learned from the 135 shuttle flights is to give astronauts time off even in the cloistered quarters of space, a day off for reading, relaxing or live emailing with family.

It can take nearly three hours to dress for a space walk, longer even than a columnist’s wife takes for an earthbound event. What do they do during a six or eight-hour space walk about personal needs? They wear a diaper. Do they get thirsty? Yes, there’s a pressure straw on the right side of the helmet.

What about itchy noses? Yes, they happen. At the astronauts’ request, NASA installed a little pad on the left they can rub their face against to scratch. Since they can’t look down inside the suit, spacewalkers wear a mirror on their wrist to read a clock and instruments off their chest.

Spacewalkers are usually so focused on their assignments, practiced often in the giant pool at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, they don’t have much time to sightsee. But they can’t help noticing the frequent sunrises and sunsets that occur every 45 minutes at their speeds.

Their custom-made spacesuits must change gears just as often, for the more than 300-degree difference between keeping them warm during the night flight portions and cooling them during the daytime above the atmosphere. Wheelock says in space the twinkling stars don’t look that much different than from Earth. However, there are millions more.

Wheelock, an Army test pilot who spent six months aboard the space station, said you are not so much wearing the oversized spacesuits like clothing as you are floating within them.

He describes one creepy experience during a spacewalk. His assignment was to stow gear in the cargo bay. His feet were buckled onto the orbiter arm and he began a slow journey up and over. At the end of the long, gangly arm he could only look straight ahead.

For the longest time he lost sight of Earth and the orbiter. ‘I was staring off into the utter blackness of deep scary space,’ Wheelock recalled. ‘And you think, ‘Now, that’s a very large place.’'

He knew he was safe, but found himself kicking his heels back against the locked space boots frequently just to doublecheck.

For a long time the space station, scheduled for use through 2020, had only simple windows offering straight-out views. Now it has some arranged like a cupola, offering maybe a 160-degree view. One sleep period Wheelock was tucking himself into his vertical sleeping bag like a bat, when he decided to take a quick peek out the cupola for a few minutes.

So busy are the working space inhabitants that they’re rarely aware of where they are at any one time, just as earthlings don’t track the station’s location. Wheelock spotted the familiar shape of Australia below. Then came the vast Pacific with a few dots of islands, northern Canada and then Africa where scores of lightning storms flashed like natural strobes throughout the cloud cover below. He couldn’t wait to see what was coming next.

Later, Wheelock checked the time on his watch: He’d been watching Earth for two hours and circled the globe twice. As corny as it sounds, he said that experience made him wonder why humans don’t get along better on what from space seems to be a very tiny place in a very big universe.

The consensus was a launch in the Russian Soyuz craft, now the only way for U.S. astronauts to go into space, was smoother than the shuttle. But the return -- Russian capsules descend by parachute to land on, well, land -- is something else. Wheelock sought advice from an American colleague before his Soyuz return. And the text reply contained only two words: ‘Hang on.’

Wheelock said he did. It was two or three loud explosions followed by ‘the loudest biggest car crash you can imagine.’

Back on Earth Wheelock said he felt as if he was floating for six weeks. U.S. astronauts are forbidden from driving for the same time period to ensure return of equilibrium. Even months after his return, Wheelock’s dreams often involve floating.

Still, members of the diminshed American astronaut corps, now about half the size of the peak 135, say they would make the dangerous trip in a heartbeat.

‘I’d stow away in Atlantis’ toilet if I thought I could get away with it,’ said Antonelli. The American is learning Russian to enhance his longshot chances of being picked for future launches which will be under Russian command. President Obama canceled the scheduled next generation of crew-carrying U.S. rocket.

Robert Crippen, who flew, among others, the very first shuttle mission with John Young, told the....

.... NASA Tweetup that he’d sign up to return to space if they’d let him. He said, ‘It’s the nature of the United States to press forward and explore,’ but he finds NASA’s future plans ‘very fuzzy.’

The pioneer added, ‘It’s sad from where I sit to see our space shuttle come to an end and I hope we get our act together as a country to return to low-earth orbit, the moon, Mars, somewhere.’

Antonelli offered running commentary of NASA TV’s live feed of the crew-boarding procedure at the 195-foot level of the orbiter through the White Room, so-called because it is white. ‘See, that phone there,’ Antonelli said, ‘that’s your last phone on Earth. It’s for the crew. They didn’t phone me. Guess they thought their family was more important for some reason.’

He pointed out White Room crew members handing their nametags to the boarding astronauts for a free ride into space. ‘It’s the crew’s salute to the last guys they see, who buckle them and seal the hatch.’

Then, Panelli highlighted another important astronaut procedure in preparation for launching into space at 25 times the speed of sound. ‘See that corner?’ Antonelli asked, pointing to the giant TV screen. ‘Around there is the last toilet on Earth.’


Behind the scenes of a shuttle launch

Atlantis is up and the space shuttle program is up in smoke

Where each U.S. space shuttle is scheduled to live in retirement

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Video courtesy of our new Twitter pal, Jay Catalano; more of his photos here.