Air & Space Per Diem: The science of space

Jul 30, 13 • 5enses, Guide4 Comments
Astronaut-EVA

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II, mission specialist, participates in a extra-vehicular activity, a few meters away from the cabin of the shuttle Challenger, Feb. 11, 1984. Photo by NASA, WikiMedia.Org, public domain.

Gravity is an inescapable facet of life on Earth. Flora and fauna have developed in tandem with it, but, while scientists can quantify and describe its effects, the mechanism that facilitates “action at a distance” remains a mystery.

If you manage to escape the Earth’s roughly 9.8-meter-per-second-squared pull, though, you’ll gain a new perspective on things.

With variable and zero gravity some activities are easier, some are harder, and some are just different. We know this because of a handful of brave pilots and astronauts (and test(y) animals) who’ve braved extreme conditions and returned to tell about it. Some of these effects are discernible on an airplane, but many require a literally extra-terrestrial experience.

Want to know what it’s like to be in space? Science has you covered.

The information in this guide is just a smattering of highlights from numerous scientific studies and papers on the topic. (Incidentally, Mary Roaches’ “Packing for Mars” is a wonderful primer. Make sure to read the footnotes.) Details and caveats have been omitted for the sake of clarity, conciseness, and, in some cases, caprice.

You experience the world through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Why not flex those five senses to experience space?

 

Sight

The majesty of space —second-hand knowledge for all but a tiny percentage of people alive today — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Reports of headaches, nausea, and vomiting are ubiquitous in astronaut interviews and memoirs. That’s because, sans normal gravity, up is no longer up, which wreaks havoc on your brain when you someone or something that’s supposed to be on the same plane as you is perpendicular or inverted. “Your body is really confused. You’re dizzy. Your lunch is floating around in your belly because you’re floating,” says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the International Space Station commander who produced a video in April about the “astronaut barf bag.” “What you see doesn’t match what you feel, and you want to throw up.”

If you can weather the adjustment period, though, and look back at Earth, you’re in for something really special. Just ask retired astronaut Edgar Dean Mitchell, who, after his record-setting 9-hour, 17-minute moon walk, reported having achieved an altered, euphoric state of consciousness. Mitchell, who has an honorary doctorate degree from several educational institutions, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, set up his own Institute of Noetic Sciences to study, well, let’s call them “alternative human potentials” — things like psychic healing and ESP. Less colorfully, other astronauts reported what a Time journalist dubbed “The Lunar Effect” — namely, a deep-felt sense of awe, appreciation, and humility that transformed their lives. Not everyone went full-on Prince Siddhartha à la “Little Buddha.”

 

Sound

If the producers of “Alien” are to be believed, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Earlier this year, researchers from Cambridge University put that theory to the test. After eliciting scream videos from the public, scientists packed the 10 best on STRaND-1, the world’s first smartphone satellite, originally scheduled to launch into space in December 2012, then rescheduled for February earlier this year. No public update yet, but 5enses has requested further information from Cambridge University Space Flight. Odds are, there won’t be much to hear, but it’s a fun armchair way to contribute to space exploration.

There’s no sound in space. It’s almost by definition: On Earth, sound travels by vibrating air molecules; in space, there are large, empty expanses without a single air molecule to vibrate. Light waves in space? Sure. Radio waves? Of course. Sound waves? Not a chance.

 

Smell

Space, rather infamously, has a smell. NASA has hired chemists to recreate it for training purposes, and it’s sweet and acrid. Think welding. Think foundry. “It is hard to describe this smell,” writes astronaut Don Pettit on a NASA blog after his 2003 mission. “It is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as ‘tastes like chicken.’” Granted, this is the smell of space particles inside after a spacewalk or some such. The interior of a space suit in contrast, smells like plastic while the space station itself mostly smells like a machine shop or laboratory, by most accounts.

 

Touch

Perhaps the most glaring facet of space travel is weightlessness. Physics become interesting but, once your feet are no longer in contact with the ground, not as much changes within the human body as you might think. That’s because all vital bodily functions use muscular or osmotic forces, neither of which require gravity. During long periods of idleness, some muscles may atrophy, though. That’s not a problem if you stay in space, but, as any astronaut who’s spent a length of time in space can no doubt attest, you’re weak when you return to Earth’s gravity.

After about two months in space, your feet might start to change, but that’s largely for pragmatic reasons. The bottoms of your feet become soft while the tops of your feet become raw and sensitive, according to NASA video by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The former effects is because of lack of use while the latter is because of increased use; without gravity, feet become convenient hook tools to pull or tether your way around a spaceship.

 

Taste

Odds are you’ve never had a good meal on an airplane. That’s not because of the chef or the altitude, though — it’s the plane. In 2010, Manchester University researchers announced findings that loud background noises lead people to rate foods as crunchier and less sweet or salty than people listening to silence or soothing sounds. Dr. Ellen Poliakoff, one of the scientists behind the study, theorizes that distracting white noises could either distract people from properly tasting food or, perhaps, the stress of the noise itself mitigates the pleasure centers of the brain’s response to eating. Astronauts have reported similar taste issues in space, which may or may not implicate background noise. Regardless, food prepared for air and space travel tends to be saltier to help mitigate this well-known but little-studied effect. If you find yourself in either environment, you may want to pop on some noise-canceling headphones before dinner.

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