What’s it really like to be in space? We ask the tough questions, the ones you always wanted to know the answers to. The biggies.
Tim Peake is the UK’s very own space hero: only the seventh UK-born person to venture into the great beyond and a member of the International Space Station for six months between December 2015 and June 2016.
A machine of a man, he ran the London Marathon while aboard the ISS, participated in the first spacewalk outside the ISS by a British astronaut and, while aboard completed approximately 3000 orbits of the Earth and had covered a distance of 125 million kilometres.
This is a man who has ventured beyond. He’s been out there. He knows things. So we wanted to ask the tough questions, the ones you always wanted to know the answers to. The biggies.
Do aliens exist? And how exactly do you go to the toilet in space?
This is what he told us when we caught up with him at the Space Rocks science and music live event at the O2 Indigo…
Are aliens real?
Yes, I think they are. Not from my experience, I hasten to add - I haven’t found any or seen any. But when you look at the probabilities of the universe I think the number of galaxies in the universe and the number of stars we know already to have planets around them, and even now we know that there are dozens and dozens of planets in the goldilocks zone around other stars, the probability is that life has formed elsewhere in the universe. And now whether or not we’ll find evidence of that, who knows.
How does going to the toilet in space actually work?
It’s actually a very simple process and it all revolves around switching on the fan - as long as you remember to switch on the fan first, that causes the suction and the suction keeps everything going in the right direction. So you simply pee down a tube, and then when you finish you leave it on for 30 seconds to make sure everything’s sucked in and then you switch it off. And the same with a number two; you’ve got this little bag that’s like a teabag, really - it’s got thousands of tiny perforations so it collects the solid matter, where the air-flow can go through it so everything gets sucked in. You just have to have a good aim.
Does it feel the same as going on earth?
Going to the loo feels the same, but what feels a bit weird is your digestive system does take a good while to get used to microgravity. Because, of course, gravity helps us digest our food here and it helps everything go down and helps you go to the loo, and so people have been sometimes constipated in the first couple of weeks in space because their body isn’t used to pushing food through without the use of gravity.
Why hasn’t anyone had sex in space yet?
You’re assuming no one has had sex in space! Maybe the answer to that question is they have - there has been a husband and wife couple in space; I believe on one of the shuttle flights, so who are we to say no one has had sex in space!
Are there any other ways of ‘getting relief’?
Let’s not go there!
Do you ever see space junk, and should we be worried about a Gravity-style situation?
We don’t see space junk because it’s going too fast, and also it’s tiny - well some of it’s very big - but the stuff that’s impacting the space station is tiny tiny fragments, micrometeorites. So it causes chips, it causes dents, etc - we hope it doesn’t ever puncture the pressurised hub of the space station. But yes, on the second half of the question, we should be worried about a Gravity situation. This cascade effect is a very real effect, the Kessler Syndrome of one spacecraft hitting another and hitting another, and then you just have this massive cascade effect and suddenly you’ve got a debris cloud. It’s a very real scenario.
Do you and other crew members ever play any space pranks on each other?
Oh yeah, of course we do, there’s space pranks all the time, depending on who the crew is up there. There was this one payload that we had called sapphire, it came up in a visiting cargo vehicle called Sickness, and when we undocked it full of trash, it was going to burn up in the atmosphere - NASA wanted to try and learn a bit more about how spacecraft catch fire and how fire propagates through a spacecraft, so they can learn about fire protection systems.
So there was a big incendiary device in this cargo vehicle, and they were going to set fire to this cargo vehicle just before it reentered Earth’s atmosphere and then they were going to analyse the data. So I was down unpacking Sickness and there was Sapphire at the bottom, and this big old payload, massive incendiary device, and you can imagine the safety they had to go through to get an incendiary device on a space vehicle that was attached to the space station.
So I made up this very professional-looking fabric strip, and printed out a sign which said ‘Danger: Pull to Ignite’ and I threaded it into this payload, knowing that Tim Kopra [NASA astronaut, and the former commander of the International Space Station] was going into the cargo vehicle next, to carry on packing. Of course he’s there unpacking, pulling things out, and he suddenly sees this long tag that says ‘Pull to Ignite’ on Sapphire, which had him fairly concerned for about five minutes before I told him it was a wind-up!
Has anyone ever taken it too far?
Yeah, I think there was one crew - we have communication breaks where the communication satellites sometimes hand over to one another and we’ve got maybe two minutes of comms breaks. So mission control at Houston lose voice and they lose video, and then they pick us back up again. One crew, I’m not quite sure why they decided to do this, but during one of the breaks they got one of the crew members, laid them on the stretcher and then started doing CPR so that when the video camera came back on, all that mission control saw was the rest of the crew doing CPR to another crew member on the stretcher, and that was taking it a little too far. I think there were a few words spoken!
How do you make a brew in space?
It’s not easy because, of course, the problem you’re left with is if you drink it straight away it’s really weak and towards the end of each pouch you’re sucking on a teabag - because we drink everything through a straw and metal pouches. So you’re adding hot water to your metal pouch and it’s got a teabag and it’s got creamer - and creamer in tea is not good anyway - and sugar if you like sugar. But the problem is, of course, you start with weak tea, halfway through the pouch you have a decent brew, and then you end up sucking on a teabag.
Do you get a choice of brand?
Well I like Yorkshire tea, and they actually bagged that up for me so I had two pouches of Yorkshire tea a day.
What’s the most nervous you get? Is it in that gap you mentioned before, with no comms?
We’re quite happy to go hours with no comms on ground, it’s no problem to us, on board the space station we can carry on doing everything normally and actually there’s some people saying we should start going for hours without comms to start getting us ready for these trips back to the moon and to Mars. At the moment, if anything, we’ve become too reliant on two-way video and audio.
What would happen if World War III broke out while you were up there? Is there a gameplan?
There probably is a gameplan. We haven’t been briefed on it - but it was interesting, one Soviet cosmonaut went up to the Mir space station and came down as a Russian cosmonaut. He was there for the longest period of time, and the reason he’s got the record for the longest continuous stay in space is because the Soviet Union was transitioning during this period and they didn’t bring him down until they were ready to bring him down. So it’s not something we’ve been briefed on.
Have you ever fallen out with someone while you’ve been up there?
You know the crew quite well by the time you fly, and we’re all good friends and most of us can deal with those situations before they ever arise. Genuinely, there is very little friction on board the space station as a crew, and if you even think a situation is developing then you either speak to someone about it or you can go and get your own space as well. It sounds like you’re living in a tin can together, but actually there’s plenty of room on the space station to just chill out and go hang out somewhere by yourself for half an hour and cool off if you need to. I’ve never had to do that - I was lucky, I had a great crew, I knew there had been a couple of times in the past where some crew members hadn’t quite got on well together, but it’s never caused a problem.
(Images: Getty/AllStar/Yorkshire Tea)