For Tim Peake it’s T minus 600 hours until launch. Come 15th December, the 43 year old father of two will be strapped atop 150 tonnes of rocket fuel looking skyward. He will be spending six months aboard the International Space Station, during which time he will be floating around, admiring the view, and playing with test tubes. The life of the astronaut – boldly going where no one has gone before. It’s every schoolboy’s (and girl’s?) dream job. Except that it isn’t. If they knew what being an astronaut was really like, that is.
Earlier this year I interviewed Tim while he was undergoing final preparations in Houston, Texas. I asked him about what life would be like in space and, with my doctor’s hat on, wanted to know what medical research he would be doing when in space. I learnt that going into space isn’t like in the movies. Within moments of Tim entering orbit, his body’s internal workings will be tipped upside down. As soon as he enters zero gravity, blood will rush to his head, causing his heart and kidneys to go haywire. When not nursing a killer headache, he would be emptying his bladder in the space khazi as his body fluid levels rapidly adjust. In the days and weeks that follow, his bones will rapidly leech out their calcium, his muscles will shrink and his heart get weaker. He will grow a couple of inches taller which, while not a problem in space, will give him terrible back ache when gets back onto terra firma.
You can’t appreciate it on the television, but the international space station smells horrible. Really really horrible. Fifteen years of astronaut BO, gaseous emissions and sweat have accumulated without so much as a spray of Febreeze. There are no showers and no one has yet worked out how to open the window to let some fresh air in without everyone dying. And if you can abide the smell (you get used to it apparently) then getting to sleep is a nightmare. There is no normal day-night cycle in space (they orbit the Earth fifteen times a day) and astronauts often need sleeping pills to help them doze off.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for Major Tim as not only will he be enduring these rigors but he will be using his body like a Guinea pig to take part in cutting edge medical research. Regularly sticking a needle in his arm to take his own blood, he will be testing medicines and helping find cures for osteoporosis, asthma and even cancer. Zero gravity offers insights into the body’s workings in a way that is not possible on Earth. For example, asthma is triggered more readily in space because dust never settles, causing irritation to the airways; and the rapidly weakening bones offer a unique opportunity to test ways of preventing age-related osteoporosis.
My encounter with him left me feeling inspired and somewhat in awe. One of Tim’s passions is to enthuse a generation of British kids to aim for the stars. Tens of thousands of school children have already got involved in his many educational initiatives. When they grow up, some of them will follow his brave example – just don’t tell them about the smell until they get a bit older.
Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Follow @realdoctorstu