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How astronauts deal with the boring parts of being in space

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin airs some dirty laundry about, well, dirty laundry.

leland melvin
leland melvin
Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin at a speaking event.NASA/Carla Cioffi

Mundane tasks suddenly become extremely complex in space. I spoke with former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, who flew two missions to space, to learn about how astronauts handle the day-to-day. Here are a few of the highlights.

When it comes to everyday, mundane tasks you needed to relearn to do in space, what are some of the things that first stood out to you? 

When you go up, all of your clothes are shrink-wrapped—all the air is sucked out. And when you undo the vacuum seal, you’ve now got to stuff those shirts back in your locker. You have to think about trying to figure out “How do I get this thing in there?” Stuff is now starting to float around you. Most of the time when you lose something, you look up and it’s just floating above you. 

Cleanliness was also a big thing. You work out regularly in space like you do on Earth, but up there you have what I like to call this “running shorts gantlet” of used gym shirts and shorts and sports bras just floating around, and you're trying to get yourself as small as possible to get through [this corridor] without having something wipe you in the face or your mouth or your eyes.

When I was shaving, I had to go up to where the air is getting filtered and there’s a positive airflow, so that my little shavings would just go up into the filters. Because you don’t want these little hair particles to get in your eye. This type of stuff is mundane like it is on Earth, but it’s mundane with a twist in the face.

Is there training at NASA or elsewhere for this kind of stuff?

There are analogues of the space station and the modules to prepare you for how to handle things. You go see how you’re going to do the so-called mundane things you’ll be doing in space. And when it comes to figuring out how you’ll do these things in space, there’s the parabolic flights you go on, where you experience weightlessness for 25 seconds at a time. 

But we never really take weightlessness training to do other things, like cleaning your teeth. So you really have to figure that out, make that connection from your zero-G training to the actual working and living in space. And I think most people make that transition fairly quickly. People will have to figure these things out. I think once you visualize the environment you’re going into and have had some zero-G training, then you have this thought exercise on how you do this in microgravity. And I think those are the people that really get it quickly, because you’ve already kind of done it from visualization.

One of the reasons we’re talking about this is that Tide just announced a new partnership with NASA to develop and test out detergent that could be used to clean items in water-scarce environments. Astronauts might finally be able to do laundry in space. This seems like small stuff, but why does it matter to astronauts and to future space travel?

We throw away our clothes in space, because we don’t clean them. When we’re finally going on future lunar or Martian missions, or one day when we’re even further out, we won’t be able to throw anything away. We’ll have to reuse everything. And I think that’s critical for exploration. Washing clothes would seem mundane, but it’s life. It’s a must-have for the future of exploration. Or we’re not going to have enough clothes to exercise and work out in and do our jobs.

There are a ton of new opportunities coming up for civilians to go into space. How do you anticipate astronaut training evolving and transforming to accommodate these kinds of people? What could new technologies like VR do? 

There’s a company called Star Harbor Space Academy that’s looking to have a Natural Buoyancy Laboratory for training people for space, along with zero-G flights in an airplane, robotics, and even VR. I mean, what if you had a VR suit that gave you the tactile sensations, the smell, the temperature—all the senses that you have to be excited by what you’re perceiving as the experience of space? Like if you’re doing a spacewalk, and you’re going out in this suit, you open the door, and you’re feeling the sun is there. That’s 250 degrees Fahrenheit, right? This immersive experience—that would be a great tool for helping people train.

Is there any major advice you have for the civilians who are going to be going on these missions?

Self-care before group care: you take care of your stuff first, before you try to go help anyone else. Because what’s going to happen is you’ve got to go work the robotic arm while someone’s on the end of it, or tasks like that. But now suddenly you’re worried about “Hey, did I put my shirts back in here? Did I get the right thing that I need? Did I do all my stuff?” So take care of your own personal space, your gear, your hygiene, all of that stuff as quickly as you can. And then if you can help someone, then do it then. 

The other thing is visualization. I would close my eyes and say, “Okay, I’m transitioning from the space shuttle through the hatch through the space station. I’m rotating around 180 degrees …” It’s like what we did when I was playing football: we would go through this whole paper exercise of me running the route, catching the ball, making the touchdown. And you can do the same thing in space for something like working the robotic arm: “I am moving the translational hand controller out, and the payload is moving this way I’m moving …” And I think that’s something that I think civilians that are coming up should start doing.

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