NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The eyes of the world have closely tracked space shuttle Discovery's mission so far, from the falling foam at liftoff to today's delicate repair mission. The shuttle's return to flight continues to be dramatic and emotional. So the visitors get all the attention? What about their hosts, those two astronauts who've called the International Space Station home since April, Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips? What they get out of this mission, other than some welcomed company, is a full stock of new supplies: food, water and clothes, and they get their garbage picked up, all 13 tons of it.
For the past five years, at least two astronauts at a time have called the International Space Station home. It's a cozy residence, about the size of a double-wide trailer, packed with scientific experiments and all the odd equipment required for life in microgravity. During this week, we suspect that Krikalev and Phillips have had a lot of odd couple anecdotes to share with their seven guests. But what is life like on the space station when there isn't any company, when it's back to the old routine of brushing your teeth, two hours on the treadmill and a sunrise every 90 minutes?
We'll talk with two former occupants of the ISS about life in low Earth orbit. Later in the show, we'll dive deep down into the story of a tragic underwater recovery mission in the world's largest freshwater cave. But first, the excitement and hardships of living where few humans ever have, 200 miles above the Earth. If you have questions about the current space shuttle mission or wonder what it's like to live in space, from eating, sleeping, to what experiments they perform, and what about coming down the Earth, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we'll begin with an update on today's shuttle repair mission with Guy Gugliotta, science reporter for The Washington Post. He's with us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nice to have you on the program.
Mr. GUY GUGLIOTTA (The Washington Post): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thank you. Take us through this morning's repairs.
Mr. GUGLIOTTA: Well, it started about 3:00 in the morning Eastern time and lasted about six hours. And the highlight, of course, was the replacement of these two gap fillers, little--tiny little dangling bits of fabric coated with ceramic that are used as spacers, sort of, or shins between thermal tiles on the bottom of the orbiter. A couple of them came loose during launch and were sticking out from the bottom of the orbiter, during the inspection of the--during its inspection when the shuttle first rendezvoused with the space station. Planners have been sort of scratching--or have been kind of scratching their heads, trying to figure out what kind of a hazard this posed. The fear with something like gap fillers is that they'll stick out during re-entry and cause turbulent hot spots, and at very high altitudes, that get worse as the atmosphere thickens. These, if in a desperate situation, could even cause catastrophic damage.
I don't think the shuttle folks were ever concerned about that. But they thought, since they knew about them and since they determined that the repair was a relatively easy matter, they thought, basically, why not go ahead? And it turned out to be a piece of cake.
CONAN: Now a piece of cake, as you mentioned. The astronaut stood on the end of that long arm, and I know he had a--oh, the equivalent of a hacksaw in case he had to cut it off and forceps in case he had to pull it out, but it came right off.
Mr. GUGLIOTTA: Well, yeah. I mean, if you saw it on TV, he was perched on the edge of this crane and kind of, in two preprogrammed motions, the crane swooped out and then curled underneath the orbiter and stopped him about seven feet from right in front of where these things were sticking out, and it was sort of like, I guess, you know, pick a card, any card, and he talked the crane operator in, foot by foot, until he was standing right in front of the individual gap fillers, reached out, grabbed them with his glove--or grabbed them with his gloved hand and picked them out easy as pie. The engineers had predicted that would happen, and it did. If it hadn't happened, he was also equipped with a pair of forceps, a hacksaw, and a pair of scissors and would have trimmed it if he couldn't pick it out, but it turned out to be just as easy as had been predicted.
CONAN: And went much quicker, as you might expect, than they had planned for, and I know that they said at that point, `Well, you know, it's been a long day. Why don't you come back in?' He wanted to stay out there for a little bit.
Mr. GUGLIOTTA: Yeah, sure. When--yeah, when Steve Robinson, the space-walker, had finished pulling out the second one, he drew back--they drew him back five feet so he was in no danger of hitting the underside, and he said, `Well, let me take some pictures,' and then they started to bring him back and they lifted him up and, as you mentioned, this whole operation was predicted to take about an hour and a half. Instead, it took barely an hour, and so he got up and he was about to be pulled back over the side and into the payload bay of the shuttle, when he said, `Wait, wait, stop,' and his fellow space-walker, Soichi Noguchi, was standing up on the orbiter looking over the side at him, and he said, `Oh, what a great shot. He said, `It's like Soichi rising,' and so he got a picture of Noguchi from the bottom of the orbiter looking at the space station, and these views have never been seen in space before. The pictures that he had were absolutely amazing.
CONAN: So as far as we know, everything's set for the completion of the mission and then return early Monday morning.
Mr. GUGLIOTTA: No. Well, actually, that's not the case. This whole mission has been sort of a continuing soap opera, and today they--the shuttle engineers, Mission Control, raised an issue about a thermal blanket that has come loose below pilot Eileen Collins' window, and it's on top of the orbiter, so there's no concern about heating. During re-entry, the top of the orbiter doesn't get nearly as hot as the 2,500 degrees that the underside sees. But what they are worried about is the possibility that a piece of this blanket may come loose and whack something on top of the orbiter as they're going into a heavier atmosphere on Ea--as they come into Earth's atmosphere. So what they're trying to decide now is whether to order yet another space walk. This would be the fourth, to have somebody go out and either cut that away or trim it up or do something about it. My sense is that it's about 50/50 right now, and we may not know until tomorrow.
CONAN: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Mr. GUGLIOTTA: My pleasure.
CONAN: Guy Gugliotta, science reporter for The Washington Post, joined us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Well, that's the shuttle. On to the space station. Construction of ISS began in 1998 and continuous residence started in 2000. Two of its former occupants join us now. Edward Lu, a current astronaut at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, welcome to you.
Mr. EDWARD LU (Astronaut): Hello.
CONAN: And also with us is Jim Voss, a retired astronaut, who's with us on the phone from Reston, Virginia, and nice to have you on the program as well.
Mr. JIM VOSS (Retired Astronaut): Well, thank you, Neal. Good to be here.
CONAN: And, Edward Lu, let me ask you, what were your thoughts as you watched the shuttle repair today?
Mr. LU: Well, it all seemed to go pretty well, pretty much what everyone expected. None of us thought that it would really be terribly difficult down there. The hardest part was actually getting the guy down there, and that went pretty smoothly. And I think the whole thing, from start to finish, once he was positioned in place, probably took only a couple minutes, so it was nice to see.
CONAN: Let me ask you, Jim, are space walks always nerve-wracking or are they also awesome?
Mr. VOSS: Well, doing space walks from the International Space Station is particularly interesting and a wonderful experience. Looking back at the Earth through a helmet is even better than from inside. It's like looking out through your window at home or walking outside, and having the space station there with all of its structure around, it's even more spectacular.
CONAN: Now how long did each of you live aboard the space station? Why don't you go first, Jim?
Mr. VOSS: Well, I was on Expedition 2, and we were there for a hundred and sixty-seven days.
CONAN: Ed Lu, how about you?
Mr. LU: And I spent a hundred and eighty-five days on Expedition 7.
CONAN: Whoo, that's a long time.
Mr. VOSS: Man, I was ready to come home after a hundred and sixty-seven days, so I'm glad Ed was able to handle the longer flight.
Mr. LU: Yeah. Actually, the time went surprisingly fast up there. I didn't expect it to go so quickly, and I remember remarking to my crew mate about five months in that we only had a month left, and we were both sort of a little surprised and, at that point also thinking, boy, we've got a lot of stuff to finish up that we haven't done yet. We'd better get moving. And the next thing you know, time's up and we're back on the ground.
CONAN: Do you ever get used to it? Does it ever become routine?
Mr. VOSS: You know, I think that you don't really become routine, but you do get used to living in space. Things that you have to think about when you first get up there become natural; moving around, using your feet instead of your hands or not worrying about your orientation. Just the normal daily things that are a little bit different than doing them on the ground here become secondhand and normal when you really live in space.
CONAN: So we read all those weird mechanics involved in just going to the bathroom and you get used to it, Ed?
Mr. LU: Yeah, you do. And, in fact, you actually have a bit of an adjustment process when you get back home. For instance, up there, you have to--for instance, if you're holding a pen or something like that, you can't just put it down on the table like you can on the ground, so you have to either Velcro it to something or stick it underneath something, and I found myself for the first couple weeks back here holding something, having the urge to tuck it underneath something or hold it in my pocket. I would hold on to things rather than letting them go.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question we have from Bridget. `I teach third grade. Is the space station outside of the gravitational pull of the Earth? Are the astronauts weightless? And what's the biggest challenge caused by the lack of gravity?'
Mr. VOSS: Well, you know, Neal, we are really still within the gravitational attraction of the Earth. It just happens that we're moving away from the Earth at the same rate that it's pulling us back, so it's apparent--apparently, we have no gravity, but it's very, very low gravity there. But you really don't feel anything. You float around, just like there is none, and it's quite a nice feeling to be able to work like that.
CONAN: Hmm. We talked about how the size of this, Ed Lu, is about the size of a double-wide trailer, but we don't use the ceiling of our double wides very much, so maybe, is it a little roomier?
Mr. LU: Actually, it is. If you just look at the modules as they sit in the ground, you might think, `Oh, it's kind of cramped,' but when you're up there, you can spend your time up on the ceiling or on the walls or wherever you want, and it feels a lot roomier in three dimensions than here on the ground where you have to stand on the floor.
Mr. VOSS: An interesting thing happened to me when I came back. I went to look at the multipurpose logistics module mock-up on the ground, and when I looked into it, I said, `This isn't right. It's much too small.' And they assured me that it was exact dimensions, and I remember it being cavernous on orbit, just huge, and then I thought about it and realized that normally, when I looked at it, I was drifting up towards the ceiling, and it gives you a much different perception of the size of a room. It makes it look a lot bigger if you're looking at it from that view.
CONAN: We're talking about life aboard the International Space Station. When we come back from a short break, we'll talk with the guinea pig for an extreme experiment in water recycling. You don't want to know the source. What are your questions about life in orbit? We're taking your calls at (800) 989-8255. You can also send us e-mail, email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The International Space Station, which currently orbits the planet like history's most expensive double-wide trailer, is only humanity's latest attempt to make a life for itself in space. Remember Mir and Skylab? Space station survival has long been a balance between scientific discovery, daily risk and itty-bitty living space.
Today, we're getting the inside scoop on the low Earth orbit lifestyle from a couple of astronauts who spent some time there. Jim Voss, who is with us on the phone from Reston, Virginia, and Ed Lu in Houston at the Johnson Space Center. We want your questions or stories of involvement with the space station. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's go to the phones, and Brad calling from San Diego.
BRAD (Caller): Yeah. How are you guys doing? I am concerned about the health effects of the astronauts when they're living up there. I'm not sure what it's like at zero gravity. I've also heard that it's possible to grow--the human body to grow in length living in zero gravity. I'm wondering if that's true at all or if they experienced any health effects?
CONAN: Hmm. Ed, why don't you go first?
Mr. LU: Well, the body does grow a little bit, and I think the typical astronaut's probably about an inch taller in space, and that's just because you don't have the weight that's normally compressing your spine down here on the ground. You know, when you stand up, you're actually supporting all of your weight, and up there, your--so your spine relaxes a little bit, and I know that some astronauts have had, you know, a little bit of lower back pain in the first day or two because of that.
And as far as the other effects, there are some effects dealing with weightlessness, but we have a pretty decent handle on those. The principal effect is loss of muscle and bone because you don't exercise them much. Now in zero-G, we've gotten around that by having exercise equipment up there, and we've had pretty good results in the last couple of missions. I, for example, did not lose any bone loss--or did not have any bone loss during six months in space.
CONAN: Hmm. Jim Voss, what about you? Which piece of equipment did you work out on? Was it the treadmill or the bicycle?
Mr. VOSS: Well, actually, we worked out on both, and another device called a resistive exercise device that was used kind of like a weight machine. We did all of them because we needed to work out a lot to try to maintain our cardiovascular conditioning and bone mass, and it does seem to have worked, because of all the hard work and exercise our crews are doing, they have seen less bone mass loss than was seen on the Mir Space Station.
CONAN: Hmm. OK. Well, Brad, thank you.
BRAD: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Let's go now to Brian. Brian is calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
BRIAN (Caller): Oh, hi there.
BRIAN: Listen, do you know of any experiments in quantum mechanics that have been conducted in low or no gravity environment?
Mr. VOSS: Ooh, Ed, you'll have to take that one. You're the scientist.
Mr. LU: I can't think of any up there, fundamental experiments in quantum mechanics that we're doing on board at the moment.
BRIAN: OK. And also, I was wondering, where are we at regarding recycling air and the possible potential for using algae or plant material for converting CO2 to O2?
Mr. VOSS: We actually have a process on board where we take the water that we recover from condensate--that's our sweat and from the atmosphere--and we turn that into oxygen and hydrogen. We throw the hydrogen away, but we use the oxygen. That's what we breathe. It's a device that's on the Russian segment called the Elektron. It works very well at doing that conversion. We're not recycling everything at this time, but we are making good strides in it, and we hope to do even better in the future.
CONAN: Thanks, Brian.
BRIAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And speaking of recycling, NASA estimates that it spends tends of thousands of dollars to transport one gallon of water from Earth to the space station. To cut down on costs, the space agency is working on a new purification system that would transform urine, sweat and wastewater into a cool, refreshing drink. Sound a little disturbing? Well, joining us now is one earthling who recently gave this a shot. Tom McNichol is a contributing editor for Wired magazine, and he's with us by phone from his home in San Francisco. Good to have you on the show, Tom.
Mr. TOM McNICHOL (Wired Magazine): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks. You tested this new technology by drinking your own purified urine.
Mr. McNICHOL: Yes. Now the story can be told.
CONAN: I see.
Mr. McNICHOL: I did. This is part of a NASA purification system that's not in the space shuttle or not in the ISS now. They're talking about doing it within the next couple of years. But there is a commercialized version of this that's being tested here on Earth for places in the Third World that need water to be purified. So I actually did test this system.
CONAN: Well, without being too graphic, what was the process?
Mr. McNICHOL: Well, basically, it consists of a series of screw-in canisters that strip away contaminants, and so the contaminated water is sent through a series of filters that remove things like dirt and sediment and debris and then it goes on to a carbon filter and then to a iodine resin filter that basically can strip away just about anything, everything from E. coli and polio virus to even just common contaminants, urine and things like that. So I actually did test this system.
CONAN: And so how long did it take to process the material, as it were?
Mr. McNICHOL: Actually, it's pretty surprisingly fast. It takes about 30 seconds to kind of wind its way through these series of filters, and then it just kind of comes out on the other side, and then you have to kind of take it on faith that the water has been purified.
CONAN: What color was it?
Mr. McNICHOL: Actually, it looked and--everything about it was pretty much like tap water, except I would say for the taste. It was fairly tasteless. It didn't have...
Mr. McNICHOL: ...some of the minerals and salts that are in regular tap water, so that would be the biggest difference, I think. If you tasted it, you would say it's fairly bland.
CONAN: I thought maybe you might have mixed it up with a little Tang.
Mr. McNICHOL: Well, that would be the thing. And considering the fact that, you know, I kind of tested it by contaminating it with my own urine, the fact that it tasted bland, considering the alternative, I think I was pretty happy about that.
CONAN: Tom McNichol, you may never work in this town again.
Mr. McNICHOL: See, I may never.
CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. McNICHOL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Tom McNichol, contributing editor for Wired magazine, joined us by phone from his office in San Francisco.
And we're still talking with NASA astronaut Ed Lu and with retired NASA astronaut Jim Voss, who's now vice president of space exploration systems at Transformational Space Corporation. He's with us on the phone from Reston, Virginia.
Does that sound like something--I guess you could get used to it.
Mr. VOSS: I guess you could. You know, the Russians had been converting urine back to water that they would use for their Elektron device to make oxygen, but they weren't drinking it, and I've heard about people who do this. It just seems like I would rather that they make oxygen with it myself.
CONAN: OK. Here's an e-mail question from Ryan. `Say I went to space and I wanted to call my mom. Would that possible? If so, who did you call from the space station?' And what did you talk about, Ed Lu?
Mr. LU: It is, indeed, possible. We have something up there, which is kind of like a Voice over Internet type phone, and that's because we have a computer network up there, so it kind of acts like a phone, and you could make phone calls, and I used to call my family all the time.
CONAN: Here's another e-mail, this from Mike Sklout(ph). `Tell me about sleeping in space--what you wear, what you're strapped to, how good a night's rest you get--those sorts of things.' Jim.
Mr. VOSS: No. Sleeping was one of the three things I liked best about being in space, Neal. It was just wonderful sleeping. There's something about it. There's no tossing and turning, because you have no pressure points, so I would climb into my sleeping bag, which was hung on the wall, so I was sleeping hanging on the wall. In the shuttle, you can sleep on the ceiling or the floor or anywhere you want to. And once I climbed in, closed my eyes, I would go right to sleep, and I would wake up in the morning and I felt like a teen-ager again. I would jump out of bed and be ready to go to work, it was so restful.
CONAN: Ed, I wonder, were there any days you woke up and said, `Where am I?'
Mr. LU: No, not really. But it is a neat feeling, as Jim says, to just sort of float out of your sleeping bag and head on down the corridor.
CONAN: What kind of dreams did you have?
Mr. LU: For me, it was pretty much the same as I kind of do on the ground, I think. I don't really--although I--you know, you do dream about, you know, your life up there, so in your dreams, you're weightless.
CONAN: In your dreams, you're weightless. I guess that's a little like those flying dreams that all of us like so much.
Mr. LU: Except that they're real.
Mr. VOSS: Yeah. I have those.
Mr. LU: They're true during the day, too.
Mr. VOSS: In fact, I thought that I was living my dream while I was up there.
CONAN: Let's get Judd(ph) on the line. Judd's calling us from Miami.
JUDD (Caller): Yes, hi. I was curious--I keep on hearing all the news about debris when the shuttle takes off but what about debris in space with regard to hitting either the shuttle or the space station?
Mr. LU: That is a concern, and we do have debris bumpers on the outside of the space station, but we've, thankfully, been pretty lucky so far. In fact, if you--they can actually calculate how--what the percentage of--chances of these things happening, and we think we're pretty well-covered. But, you know, you can always get unlucky.
CONAN: Yeah, is that right--are those protections from micrometeorites or from junk that men have left up there?
Mr. LU: For either.
Mr. VOSS: And, you know, in fact, we've had several hits on the space station. Someone has seen a place it hit a solar array when they were outside. And we actually heard a hit on the laboratory module one day while we were inside. It sort of startled us. It was like a BB hitting the outside of a garbage can, that kind of a sound, and we rushed over to look at our pressure gauges to make sure there was no penetration, but it does happen. It does hit the space station. We've just been very lucky with no penetrations.
CONAN: Judd, thank you.
JUDD: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Let's go to Richard, Richard in Warren, Pennsylvania.
RICHARD (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. Want to first to say that astronauts are probably the few people who appreciate the gravity of their situation no matter where they are.
CONAN: Yuk, yuk, yuk.
RICHARD: Yeah, I know. But my question has to do with the quantity of training that people go through, like roughly how many different procedures a person has to learn before they either run--take off on the shuttle or actually participate in the space station, and the follow-up to that is there's probably redundancy, which means somebody learns part of what they do, and I wonder how those are selected and what percentage of what you learn is redundant in somebody else?
Mr. LU: Well, in the space station, for two people--two-person crews, like I flew on, you pretty much have to learn absolutely everything because, you know, there's only one other person there, and oftentimes, you know, somebody is busy doing something else, your crewmate is busy doing something else, so you pretty much have to learn everything.
RICHARD: And everything turns out to be a whole combination...
Mr. LU: In some ways it's more challenging than training for space station than it was training for space shuttle. Like I flew on the shuttle twice, and just because of that fact, because you don't know exactly what you're going to be doing up there, you're up there for a much longer period of time, and there's less of you.
CONAN: Jim, you were trying to say?
Mr. VOSS: Well, I wasn't, but I'm happy to comment.
Mr. VOSS: I agree with Ed. It takes an awful lot of training and we also cross-trained. We just thought everybody should be able to do everybody else's jobs as backups so we trained for everything on the station, and there are--they plan for an 18-month training template just for space station but it takes far, far longer than that. And there's never time to do all the training. We had over a thousand hours of training we did not have time to do on the ground before we went, and we just learned the things once we got on orbit.
CONAN: How busy were you up there?
Mr. VOSS: We were--we felt extremely busy. We worked from the time we got up in the morning until right before we went to bed at night. There's so much to be done on the space station with the assembly task and then trying to get in some science work while you're up there, it just takes a lot of time, every day.
CONAN: And there's maintenance, I assume, Ed Lu?
Mr. LU: Quite a lot of that. In fact, I would say the majority of our time is actually spent keeping the shot operational, which is actually a good thing, I think, because I think that's primarily what we're learning with the space station is how to keep these things operational, how the--all this equipment, many of which--much of the equipment has not been tried before, how it works, how it doesn't work, how to fix it, how to keep it running.
CONAN: All right, here's an e-mail from David, David Bregman(ph). `What time zone is the ISS in?'
Mr. VOSS: It--of course, it travels around the Earth, and so it changes one time zone to another, but they use Greenwich Mean Time onboard the space station. That's the time in roughly London, England. We did that as sort of a compromise between us and the Russians so that we would be on a time between the two mission control centers.
Mr. LU: Make it equally inconvenient for both control centers.
Mr. VOSS: But it doesn't matter to the crew too much. Because the ground's always there, the teams are on the ground to help us all the time, and our day usually went from a wake-up at 6 in the morning until we went to sleep around 10 or 11 at night.
CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call.
We're talking with astronaut Ed Lu and with former astronaut Jim Voss about their time aboard the International Space Station.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's another e-mail question. This from John Hadden in Huntington, Vermont. `I've heard that the ambient noise on the space station was quite high. Is that so, and how loud is it?'
Mr. VOSS: In fact, it was. During our expedition, we measured sound environment that was a little bit louder than the specifications allowed, and on the Russian segment it was some--a good bit higher. It was around 72 decibels for a 24-hour period was what we measured, and that's pretty loud. We actually have had astronauts who have had hearing loss because of their stay on the International Space Station. But I do believe it's getting better. I hope it was better by the time you got there, Ed.
Mr. LU: Yeah, we've, actually, installed a whole bunch more things to dampen the noise and they seem to work pretty well. To give you an idea of how loud that really is, just on a commercial jetliner, when you're up flying at altitude, there's a background sound of rushing air and, you know, the fans inside the aircraft and so on and it's about that loud, I'd say.
CONAN: Do you bring some of those noise-reduction headphones?
Mr. VOSS: In fact, we do, and we--my crewmate, Susan Helms, actually wore hers while she was working some of the time. I would wear earplugs at night and we used the noise-canceling headsets while we were running on the treadmill and we used them to actually listen to movies that we watched to pass the time while we were running.
CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller in. Willie--Willie's calling from Dayton, Ohio.
WILLIE (Caller): Hi, there.
WILLIE: I have two questions that can be rolled into one. I'd love to know about the social stresses you endure and if you have or if you've developed some kind of space etiquette.
CONAN: Ed, why don't you go first.
Mr. LU: Well, the social stresses--onboard we found it quite easy. We only had two people up there. The biggest stresses I think were actually in the training program in the years leading up to your actual flight, flying back and forth to cross the ocean for training and that sort of stuff I found much more stressful than actually being in-flight.
Mr. VOSS: And, you know, I think that we had a very different dynamic having three people onboard. I think we were luckier because we would have someone different to actually talk to. One of the things I found interesting about being up there was when we had visitors come up on the shuttle, something else I guess Ed didn't get to do, we actually were really pleased to see other human faces because we didn't get to see other people very often and it was very pleasant to see a different person.
CONAN: I've read that one of the effects of microgravity is in fact that the fluid sort of rises to your head and it's a bit like having a cold all the time. Is that right?
Mr. LU: Well, I found--I find that the case whenever I go up there for the first couple of days. And then after maybe less than a week or so, I think that pretty much calms down and I don't even notice it from there to the end of the flight.
CONAN: And nobody gets sick because I guess there's no germs up there other than the ones you bring along.
Mr. VOSS: We were lucky. Didn't have anyone really get sick. We did have someone who had a little bit of a stomach upset one day during the whole time. We think that was probably just some food that disagreed with them. But there was no illness.
CONAN: OK. We're talking with Jim Voss, formerly NASA's astronaut, and a former resident aboard the International Space Station, now vice president of space exploration systems at Transformational Space Corporation, and with current NASA astronaut Ed Lu, about their time on the International Space Station.
We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, the phone number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. We'll also plunge deep below the surface of the Earth for a harrowing story of divers in one of the world's deepest freshwater caves.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.
In Iraq today, 14 Marines and their civilian interpreter were killed when their vehicle was killed by a roadside bomb in the Western province of Anbar. Six Marines from the same Ohio-based battalion were killed in combat on Monday.
And Korean scientists announced today that they've successfully cloned a dog. The cloned Afghan puppy, named Snuppy, was born in April.
You can hear details on those stories, and much more, of course, later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION we'll trace the immediate events leading up to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred 60 years ago this week. And today we're looking to the future, or at least the futuristic existence of astronauts on the International Space Station, and the question of what it's like to spend months at a time a couple of hundred miles above the Earth.
If you have questions about life aboard the space station, give us a call at (800) 989-8255, or zap us an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guests are astronaut Ed Lu and retired astronaut Jim Voss. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Jim. Jim's calling from Ahoskie (pronounced ah-HOASKY)--I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly--in North Carolina.
JIM (Caller): Very close. Ahoskie (pronounced ah-HAWSKY).
CONAN: Ahoskie (pronounced ah-HAWSKY). All right. One way or the other. Go ahead.
JIM: OK. Got a question. How do they, aside from the Internet, keep up with current events up there as far as news and all? Do they have some type of a satellite downlink or, you know, aside from the computers themselves?
CONAN: I think it would have to be an uplink from where they are.
JIM: Or uplink. Excuse me.
CONAN: Yeah. But, Ed, what do you do?
Mr. LU: In fact, they--just over the--our e-mail, they would e-mail me the Web version of the newspaper from up there so that's how I kept up.
CONAN: And Jim?
Mr. VOSS: Yes. Same kind of thing. You get news from home a couple of times a day. They uplink things to you. We don't have Internet so we can't look ourselves. We kind of took the news as they wanted it. One of the things they did for me was send up baseball scores. I had--I actually made the mistake of saying I was a baseball fan and I started getting just pages of baseball scores every day so I waded through those but I never told anyone I really didn't want that much information.
JIM: OK, thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks, Jim.
Mr. LU: Be careful what you ask for, huh?
CONAN: Yeah, yeah. All right. Here's an e-mail from Ted in Brooklyn. `I'm curious about plants grown in space. Do they grow well? Do they get a lot of light on the International Space Station?'
Mr. LU: We have tried growing some plants up there and they--we grow them under artificial light. We don't--that's because of the--the light from the windows is constantly varying and--as the windows point in different directions. They don't grow the same as they do on the ground. And that's because the roots don't have--don't know which way is down. And the shoots don't know which way is up. They tend to grow towards the light.
CONAN: Here's another e-mail. `Do they still drink Tang in space, and what's the food like?'
I guess you guys never get over the Tang jokes, do you?
Mr. VOSS: Well, we have a lot of drinks like Tang but I don't think we actually have Tang. We have a lot of variety, different kinds of things. We have tea, coffee, coffee with cream, coffee with cream and sugar, different types of drinks--orange, orange mango, orange pineapple--a variety of different things. You can find something that you like while you're up there.
CONAN: And the food--Ed Lu, how's the food?
Mr. LU: The food's actually pretty good although it does get a little bit monotonous after a while. I wish (technical difficulties) more variety up there. But all in all it's actually not bad.
Mr. VOSS: One of the things about it is half of the food is Russian and that's what helped us a lot. We got--we of course liked American food first. It's just--meets our tastes better but the longer we were up there, the more we drifted over to the Russian food and then we went back and forth. You get tired of one thing and you find the other nation's food seemed to taste a lot better.
CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. John calling from Detroit.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. I'm actually calling to check to see how injuries happen up there, say you cut your finger or, I mean, perhaps just a bruise.
Mr. VOSS: Ed, I don't know if you had anyone have an injury. Someone cut their finger once and someone else cut their head, and you treat it pretty much like you normally do. The blood sticks to the body. It doesn't just pump out into space so it kind of flows out over the surface of the body because of surface tension and then you treat the wound just like you normally would protect it from infection and bandage it up.
CONAN: All right.
CONAN: John, thanks for the call.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: E-mail--this from Henry. `Can you see the stars in space or is space all black except for the moon?'
Mr. LU: You can see the stars really well. It--provided your eyes are dark-adapted. It's very similar to on the ground. If you're inside a bright room at night, looking out the window, you don't see much and it's just because your eyes are adjusted to the light inside, but if you turn the lights off for a while, let your eyes dark-adapt, you look out and you see an awful lot of stars. And, of course, if you're out doing a spacewalk, you can really see a lot of stars out there, too.
CONAN: Let's get one other caller in. This--Glen. Glen in Raleigh, North Carolina.
GLEN (Caller): Hi. Yeah.
GLEN: A few days ago when NASA announced it's going to ground the space shuttle, NPR reported that they were going to leave a few extra laptops behind because they wore out more quickly in space. And I was just wondering what the reasoning behind that is and does it apply to other electronics?
CONAN: Ed Lu?
Mr. LU: They wear out just because of the heavy use they get. The keyboards on those things get beat up just because you're using them all the time. And we have had some other failures, electronic failures within them. I don't know if it has to do with space or not or the fact that they're just on 24 hours a day all the time.
GLEN: So it's more the actual physical use of them, that they're just being worn out?
Mr. LU: Yeah, mostly what's giving out up there lately has been keyboards, connectors, that sort of stuff.
CONAN: Glen, thank you.
GLEN: Thank you.
CONAN: And, finally, this last e-mail from Scott Kennedy(ph) in Brighton, Michigan. `Is the space station the beginning of a new direction for space exploration or is it just another '70s-era Skylab?'
Mr. VOSS: I think it's a very valuable laboratory in space for our and the other nations that are participating in the International Space Station program. We're going to use it to help us to learn the things that we need to go back to the moon and on to Mars and further exploration of our solar system.
CONAN: Ed, did you want to weigh in on that?
Mr. LU: Yeah, I think where we are right now, to sort of use an analogy, is sort of where we were with sailing ships maybe back in the 1200s, 1300s (technical difficulties) you sailed around harbors, you stayed near coasts. We didn't really have the technology to do deep ocean, transoceanic voyages. And I think we're kind of in that position right now in spaceflight. We can stay near the Earth, we have a lot of equipment that will work, provided you send up new parts every couple of months or that sort of stuff, but we don't have things that will run for years, and that's really where we need to be able to get to, and I think that's what we're learning on the space station.
CONAN: Ed Lu, thank you very much for being with us today.
Mr. LU: Thank you.
CONAN: Edward Lu, a NASA astronaut and research physicist joined us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and, Jim Voss, our thanks to you, as well, today.
Mr. VOSS: My pleasure, Neal; enjoyed talking to you.
CONAN: Jim Voss is a retired NASA astronaut and now a vice president of space exploration systems at the Transformational Space Corporation. He was with us by phone from his office in Reston, Virginia.
When we come back, it's down below the Earth.
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