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Shuttle-Mir Stories - Thomas on "Typical Day on Mir"

During his stay on the space station Mir, U.S. astronaut Andy Thomas published several "Letter from the Outpost," to family and frineds on earth. Here is one of them.

"A Typical Day on Space Station Mir," by Andy Thomas, May 1998

Although we are orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and see a sunrise 16 times a day, we still base our activities on a normal 24-hour day using Moscow time. We generally get up at about 8:30 each morning, clean up, shave, brush our teeth, etc. It may sound simple, but it all takes time because we can not easily do things in zero gravity that we normally take for granted on Earth. For example, you might think it would be easy to just cup your hands full of water and splash it on your face. However, in space, water will not stay in your hands but will creep around all over them and be drawn along the backs of the fingers under the action of capillary effects, or more correctly, surface tension forces. In any case, we would not want to splash the water as that would send the water everywhere in an explosion of droplets. So we have to use a wash cloth, and have to carefully wet it down from a water bag, taking care not to let drops of water escape to float around the cabin.

Washing our hair and rinsing under a stream of water is also not possible, so we use no-rinse shampoos that can be toweled out. But we have to do it slowly or soap droplets will end up floating around in the air we breathe. Even brushing our teeth is more challenging as we need to keep our lips pursed around the toothbrush so that droplets of toothpaste will not spray out into the cabin. It all takes time and requires learning new methods to maintain hygiene.

After cleaning up, it is time for breakfast and we generally eat our meals together in the Base Block or core module of the station. At one end of this module is a table with foot restraints in the floor and a hot and cold water dispenser. The foods we eat come in a variety of forms and are much like the food you might take on a camping trip. We have both American food and Russian food in rehydratable packs, or in cans, and juices in drinking bags with a drink straw that can be closed off. For breakfast I usually have scrambled eggs, juice, bread, and coffee. The hot food is prepared by injecting hot water into the packet to rehydrate it. But eating in zero gravity is another one of those challenges that makes space flight interesting. As you cut open the food pack, you need to be careful to make sure that the food stays in the pack and does not come loose. The moisture in the food helps it cling together, but you need to spoon it out very carefully or it will come free.

Of course, powdered salt and pepper are out of the question. Instead we use water solutions of salt and pepper that are in small squeeze bottles that we can spray on our food to taste. And contrary to many beliefs, swallowing food and drinks in space is not difficult and does not present any gastric problems. It is just like on Earth. Also, I have found no deterioration in the ability to taste food either, as has been occasionally reported.

After breakfast we begin the work day. Each morning we receive a radiogram that outlines the tasks for each crew member and the approximate times that they need to be done. Most of my work takes place in the Priroda module and is dedicated to the scientific experiments that we are carrying. My cosmonaut colleagues, Commander Talgat Musabaev and Flight Engineer Nicolai Budarin, have both scientific studies and preventative maintenance and operation of the station systems. And we all have housekeeping tasks that are needed to keep the station habitable.

I will usually start the experiments over the course of the first several hours after breakfast, sometimes stopping for a coffee break. Occasionally, I will receive additional instructions via voice radio from the mission control center in Moscow, or text messages sent through the radio link.

At about 1:00 in the afternoon I will stop to do some exercise. This helps to prevent some of the deconditioning effects of zero gravity and we have two treadmills and a cycle ergometer at our disposal. I use a cassette player to provide music while I work out on the treadmill. Of course running in zero gravity without restraint is not possible so we have to wear a harness that has elastic bungies to hold us down to the treadmill platform. It is quite effective, and applying a load to your leg muscles and feet after a long time in weightlessness feels very good.

Often, after the exercise session I will float over to a window in Priroda or the Kristal module, and remain there quietly listening to music while watching the Earth go by. I try to time this so as to be during a night pass as I find the stars and the distant city lights below me particularly peaceful.

After the exercise session, we usually have lunch together and I then return to work on the scientific program, or perhaps housekeeping duties if necessary. But even the housekeeping in space presents some interesting problems. For example, occasionally we have to clean up water that has condensed from the air onto cold surfaces behind some of the walls. In zero gravity, it does not drip to the floor as on Earth so you cannot just wipe it up with a towel. Instead, it congeals under capillary action in different locations as large globules of liquid. It is quite amazing to see these silver spheres of water clinging to the crossbeams. We use a small electric pump to suck them into a tank. Unfortunately a lot of air gets drawn in as well which poses another kind of problem because the water, of course, does not just settle down to the bottom of the tank. There is no down in space, and no bottom to the tank. Instead, you end up with water and myriad air bubbles suspended in it. In fact the tank can be quickly filled with this mixture even though only a small fraction of it may actually be water. So we use a separator to spin the mixture allowing the heavier water to be centrifuged out and fill the tank for later disposal. All this is necessary just to clean up the condensation and it demonstrates how even a simple task on Earth can become quite complicated in space.

By about seven o'clock at night, we wind down the work day and it is time for the evening meal. Often we will watch a video while we are eating, and talk about the day's work, and what lies ahead for the next day. After dinner is a good time to write letters, or read, or just watch the world go by out the window.

We are usually in bed by about 11:00 and use sleeping bags that we tie to a wall or to the floor. Sleeping in zero gravity is actually quite easy as you do not have the discomfort of a mattress pressing against you making you toss and turn. In fact there is no point rolling over in zero gravity, because with no up or down, nothing changes by rolling onto your side. Also, I have found that it is unnecessary to use a pillow as my head will just float to its most comfortable position and I can drift off to sleep.

Related Links:
Thomas Increment
Profile: Andy Thomas
Andy Thomas Oral History (PDF)
Thomas' "Letters from the Outpost"

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Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty