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Vol. LXVI, No. 15
July 18, 2014
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‘Definitely Takes Your Breath Away’
Astronaut Hopkins Recounts 6 Months in Space

On the front page...

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins
NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins

Nothing can really prepare you for being in outer space. Sure, the months of simulations and other intense training can get you ready for space flight, but nothing on Earth can match the actual experience. That’s what NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins told a Lipsett Amphitheater crowd June 10, as he described his voyage to the International Space Station.

“You can dream about it, you can think about it, but you don’t know—until you actually experience microgravity—you’re never really sure what it’s going to be like,” he said, describing his first moments off the planet. “When that third-stage rocket shuts off, you’re in space. You’re in orbit. You’re in microgravity. You kind of get thrown forward a little bit in your [safety] straps. At that point, I felt like I was falling. So if everyone was to hang onto the ceiling and then let go, that’s what it felt like…It’s a little weird, a little different. But eventually your body does adjust.”

Continued...

From Sept. 25, 2013, to Mar. 10, 2014, Hopkins served as a flight engineer aboard the space station during expedition 37 and 38. It was Hopkins’s first trip into space. He trained for about 2½ years, the typical prep time for space travel. When launch day finally arrived, Hopkins said he felt relief more than anything else.

“This is a big moment for any astronaut,” he said, describing liftoff of the small, cramped Russian Soyuz capsule atop its launch vehicle.

From departure in Kazhakstan, the crew took about 9 minutes to reach orbit. Six hours later, their vessel docked with the space station. With leak checks and pressurization, it would be an additional hour and a half to 2 hours before the hatches could be opened and the 3 new arrivals could float from the spacecraft toward the 3-member crew already living on the station.

Hopkins engages in “daily life” aboard the International Space Station—routine maintenance on the facility. Here, he works on the COLBERT treadmill in the Unity node of the station. He replaced a failed accelerometer in the exercise device. Down to Earth. Hopkins presents a poster of expedition 37/38 images to Dr. Stephen Katz, director of NIAMS, which hosted the astronaut’s visit.
Hopkins engages in “daily life” aboard the International Space Station—routine maintenance on the facility. Here, he works on the COLBERT treadmill in the Unity node of the station. He replaced a failed accelerometer in the exercise device. Down to Earth. Hopkins presents a poster of expedition 37/38 images to Dr. Stephen Katz, director of NIAMS, which hosted the astronaut’s visit.

Roughly the size of a football field with living quarters comparable to a 4- or 5-bedroom house, the space station is about 240 miles above Earth.

An engineer and a U.S. Air Force colonel, Hopkins said daily life on the station typically consists of three activities: routine maintenance on the facility—“If the toilet breaks, everything else stops until it’s fixed,” he quipped; physical exercise for at least 2 hours a day; and the scientific research that is the expedition’s primary goal.

“We had some ants come up with us for a science experiment to see how they behave in space,” Hopkins said, “and then there’s a lot of experiments where we’re the guinea pigs. We do a lot of experiments on ourselves as well.” During his trip, his crew also handled a few unusual tasks:

  • A relay of the 2014 Winter Olympic torch—This event prompted accommodation of 9 people aboard the space station at one time. Three new crew members delivered the torch; 4 days later the departing crew delivered it back to Earth.
  • Christmas Eve spacewalk—Hopkins went on a couple of unscheduled spacewalks to repair a malfunctioning cooling unit outside the station. Add in the need to maintain secure footing outside on the station’s robotic arm as well as work with potentially hazardous ammonia that the coolant unit uses and Hopkins logged quite a bit of excitement.
Before his talk in Lipsett, Hopkins and NASA colleagues including Dr. Victor Schneider (r), research medical officer at the agency’s Biomedical Research and Countermeasures Program, met with several NIH scientists.

Before his talk in Lipsett, Hopkins and NASA colleagues including Dr. Victor Schneider (r), research medical officer at the agency’s Biomedical Research and Countermeasures Program, met with several NIH scientists.

NIH Photos: Ernie Branson
Space Photos: NASA

Another activity—gazing out of the station’s glass cupola—occupied quite a bit of free time. Otherwise mundane, looking out the window has new meaning at 240 miles above Earth.

“It definitely takes your breath away,” Hopkins said. “It’s something that never got old for the 166 days that I was in space.”

Hopkins’s talk was hosted by NIAMS, which along with NIA and NIBIB, works with NASA to conduct research about the effects of space travel on the human body. According to NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, NIH and the space agency have a long history of collaboration dating back to the 1960s and Project Gemini, which was the second human space flight program.

“When the Space Shuttle Program was active, NIH intramural and extramural researchers developed dozens of experiments for 11 missions, including the famed Neuro Lab in 1998,” said Katz. Currently three basic research projects are under way, employing the space station’s microgravity environment to explain how gravity influences cell behavior on Earth.

“As anyone who’s watched astronauts returning from their missions knows,” Katz noted, “when it comes to NIAMS, space travel takes a real toll on the musculoskeletal system—not only muscles, but also bones…the national laboratory of the International Space Station provides a virtually gravity-free environment that can unmask cellular and molecular mechanisms.”

Before Hopkins spoke in Lipsett, he and several NASA colleagues met with Katz and some of the NIH scientists who collaborate on projects with the space agency. Following the 25-minute video journal of his venture into space, Hopkins took audience questions.

With 9 people aboard the space station at one time, cool starburst photo ops are possible. Above, Hopkins, at the 3 o’clock position, poses with colleagues last winter.
With 9 people aboard the space station at one time, cool starburst photo ops are possible. Above, Hopkins, at the 3 o’clock position, poses with colleagues last winter.

How does food taste up there? Overall, he said, foods taste the same as they do on Earth, only blander. Space travelers, he explained, often experience nasal congestion and other mild allergy-like symptoms, which can affect the tastebuds.

“Fluids shift,” Hopkins said. “You don’t need as much fluid up there…In general things taste the same, but with your nose stopped up you don’t get the exact same taste. We tend to use a lot of hot sauce to spice things up.”

How does TV portrayal of space stack up to reality? “I definitely see shows with more of a critical eye,” he joked.

When his world view changed, did his World View change? “Absolutely,” he replied. “You don’t see borders up there…You appreciate the little things. It’s always 75 degrees with no wind and no rain. It’s the small things you miss, like feeling a breeze.”

What advice would he give to kids dreaming of spaceflight? A father of two boys himself, Hopkins concluded, “Astronauts come from all walks of life…Find something you’re passionate about.” Adding that he applied 4 times during 13 years before his eventual acceptance to go on a NASA mission, Hopkins said, “Never give up.”

The full presentation is online at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=14298&bhcp=1.

Children’s Inn Launches Partnership with NASA

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins drops by the Children’s Inn.
NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins drops by the Children’s Inn.

“How do you shave in space?” was just one of the questions asked of NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins when he met with youngsters and their families at the Children’s Inn at NIH on June 10. Other things kids wanted to know included: “How do you tie your shoes in space?” “What if you get sick when you are up there?” “Is there a microwave on the space station?” The visit from the astronaut was part of a new partnership between the inn and NASA headquarters.

Hopkins launched into space with two Russian cosmonauts last September. They docked with the International Space Station and spent the next 166 days in space, performing science experiments and conducting spacewalks to make repairs to the station. During the expedition, the crew orbited the earth 2,656 times and traveled more than 70 million miles. “We saw the sun rise and set 16 times a day,” said Hopkins.

Performing everyday tasks like shaving and brushing one’s teeth poses a number of challenges in zero gravity. The inn families heard not only about how the astronauts shaved in space, but also how they brushed their teeth, drank coffee and how they kept clean without being able to take a shower for several months. They learned about what the food is like on the space station (lots of dehydrated burritos and mac and cheese, and no fresh fruits and vegetables) and how easy it is to lose things when you lack an “up and down” orientation. Hopkins also talked about the biomedical research they do while in space—learning how to prevent bone loss during extended space travel can help shed light on preventing bone loss among elderly people here on Earth.

“We are looking forward to more astronaut visits,” said Laura King, director of volunteers and community outreach at the inn. “We also have a range of other activities planned, including an outdoor lighting ‘shooting stars’ display during the holiday season, a NASA star-gazing activity using telescopes, science and space-related educational activities at Camp InnCredible and guided tours for our families of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the National Air and Space Museum.”


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