What would it be like to live in space? In this imaginary story, inspired by a conversation overheard in The Museum of Flight’s new space exhibit: Space, Exploring the New Frontier, a young Native American boy named Etchemin describes what daily life is like on the International Space Station in the near future.
My name is Etchemin and I’m 16 years old. I guess you could say I’m the luckiest kid in the world, which is funny because really I’m the luckiest kid out of this world. You see, I’m living on the International Space Station. I won an international contest to design an experiment for the station. I’ll be here for three whole months. There is so much to talk about, but the Commander says I have to keep it short so I’ll skip the shuttle launch, which was brilliant, and start with the docking procedure.
Docking with the ISS Final approach starts when we are about 50,000 feet away from the station. About 2.5 hours before we dock, the shuttle fires some of its rockets. We call this the Terminal Initiation burn. As we get closer, our rendezvous radar system and trajectory control sensor give the crew range and closing data. Several correction burns put us around 1,000 feet underneath the station. Now the Commander takes control. We start the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM), a 9-minute, 360-degree backflip that allows us to take up to 300 digital pictures of the shuttle’s heat shield. These images will be sent back to Earth through the space station’s communication system. There, system engineers and mission managers will study the photos to determine the condition of the shuttle’s thermal protection system.
Once the rotation is over, we are facing the space station. The Commander lines us up with the Destiny docking port. Moving at one-tenth of a foot per second relative to the space station, we make contact. Latches attach us together. Steering jets are deactivated. Once the motion between us and the ISS stops, the docking ring is retracted and a final set of latches closes.
We have arrived!
I think the best way to describe my life here is to tell you about a normal day. We begin just like on Earth by waking up to an alarm clock. We sleep in sleeping bags attached to a wall, so we don’t float off and bang into things. We are scheduled for eight hours of sleep (but during my first couple of days, I was too excited to sleep much more than six).
We don’t have a shower room. If you want to take a bath you use special soap and shampoo; you don’t need water to use them. Even so, you have to be very careful when you lather up so the soap bubbles don’t fly off you. Then you wipe off with a towel, no rinsing off with water. Tooth brushing is waterless, too. When you’re done, you spit the used toothpaste into a washcloth.
Space food has gotten a lot better than it was in the early days before we went to the moon. Then, food was in tubes that you squeezed into your mouth. Now we have freeze-dried foods and many beverages like orange juice, lemonade, tea and coffee. We have an oven but no refrigerator. People here like tortillas because they don’t make crumbs which can get into filters. (Tortillas make great Frisbees, too!) I’ve been eating Russian food, which is good and spicy, which means I can taste it even when my head swells up from the effects of weightlessness. We have special food trays fitted with Velcro so we can attach the trays to our legs if we need to. Still, food can get away from you and float in front of your face. Taking meals is kind of like fish eating in a fish bowl, and you are the fish.
I’m skipping getting dressed which is similar to being on Earth except, occasionally, if you’re not careful, you have to chase your clothes around.
Since I just mentioned them, I can talk a little bit about our clothes. We change our outfits a lot less than on Earth. We get one work shirt, a T-shirt and a pair of pants or shorts once every 10 days. Every other day, we change our underwear and socks.
Because we exercise every day, we get two pairs of running shoes: one for the treadmill and one for the exercise bike.
On Earth, if you miss a PE class it’s no big deal. On the ISS, you must exercise every day. Because we float around, we don’t use our leg and back muscles every much. So they can get weak. That is why we work out on treadmills and exercise bicycles, do somersaults and run from one end of the space station to the other. Our blood and heart work differently in space. On Earth, we stand on our legs. Because of gravity, our blood goes into our legs so our heart has to work hard to pump our blood to other parts of our body. In space, our blood flows to our heads and chest (which makes it hard to taste bland food) tricking our brain into thinking we have too much fluid in our bodies. So our body makes less fluid.
When I return to Earth, I will need to rest for a couple of days so my body can replenish my blood and water.