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The View from Space

Life on Mir: Plenty of food, but hang on to your pencil

By John Holliman

e-mail: jholliman@CNN.com

February 10, 1998
Web posted at: 4:54 PM EST (1654 GMT)

In this column:

(CNN) -- What an audience you are! Since we set up an e-mail address just for this column, it's been overwhelmed with responses from you. I've learned a lot and I'll pass along as much of it as there's time for.

There's a Web page for the astronauts planning to fly on the next shuttle mission. It's not a NASA page, and it's possible you could get more unfiltered information about what it's like to prepare for space flight on the new page.

Folks at Penn State are assisting the STS-90 crew in putting the page together. It's at http://www.psu.edu/nasa and, like most Web pages, it's a work in progress.

A 'long-distance' call with Andy Thomas

Hope you got to listen in on Tuesday's interview with Andy Thomas. He's the Australian-born, now American astronaut living aboard the Mir space station for the next four months. You can see highlights elsewhere on CNN Interactive's space page, but Thomas is getting settled in and seems to be enjoying himself with a full house of four Russians and a French cosmonaut as roommates.

Thomas explains zero gravity as a flashlight floats in front of his face   
Some of our conversation did not get broadcast live, so let me give a few highlights from what Andy said. First, he's doing lots of experiments, including one in which he's growing a human cancer tumor. Here's what he said:

"We've activated a number of experiments and the one I find most captivating from an interest point of view is the growth of cellular tissue in a bioreactor -- an attempt to grow human cancer cells in artificial environment.

"The idea that you could synthesize an artificial tumor which you could use for biomedical studies. It's going to take a long time to do this of course, because the growth is very slow, but so far indications are that it's going quite well and we're quite pleased. We have some other experiments undertaking studies of the environment within Mir because we want to ensure we maintain a good environment with regard to contaminants. We're documenting the background radiation on Mir and experiments to do plant growth studies, and shortly we'll do studies on behavior of the human body in this rather unusual zero gravity environment."

Thomas says Mir is a hard place to work because of the obvious reasons.

"It's proving to be a very interesting place to live and work. Living in zero gravity is a truly unusual sensation. If you want to have fun, zero G is a great place to do it, but I would have to admit, if you want to do careful detailed work, zero gravity is tough because you'd be amazed at how easily you lose things. You take something and you let it go for a minute you turn your back and you come back and it's gone somewhere and you won't find it again."

Before launch Andy and I spent a week together at Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow. He told me several times he expected life on Mir to be hard. He said it again in our interview. "Yeah, it is hard, it's hard because you're isolated. I have a stimulating work day every day a lot of challenging activities and the view is always there and it's amazing, but each day tends to roll into the next.

"There becomes a certain monotony and you have to use your own resources to make the life interesting ... It's undeniably a challenge because you're in a confined space, it's crowded, you have difficult objectives."

What would happen to you, if you were weightless for three weeks? I asked Thomas what's happened to him, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

"I don't notice personal changes. I guess the biggest surprise is I've come to expect and adapt to the idea that things are weightless. You get use to the idea that things like this are in front of you and that's the norm ... and you know if you think about it, that's a really bizarre concept after 40-something years of living on the planet and not being able to do this ... I've adapted in the space of a few days of accepting this as a perfectly natural thing. which was an unexpected occurrence."

I dropped my 4-and-a-half-year-old off at school Tuesday morning and asked him to come up with a question for Andy. His question was about food.

"We have plenty of food. Essentially two meals a day of American food, and two meals a day of Russian food. There's a lot of food, a great variety of foods. It's freeze dried, like you'd take on a camping trip. There's regular canned food. It's got a good cross section of tastes -- chicken, fish, poultry, red meat, fried foods, cookies, cashews. It's a very full diet. There's a good selection of juices, tea and coffee. I have more than enough to eat -- probably too much, John."

Thomas told me a few weeks ago that Mir will be a crazy place until the current commander, flight engineer and the French cosmonaut leave. It's putting a strain on life support systems to keep all six of them in good health during the three weeks of overlap between the arrival of the new crew and the departure of the old one.

Your opinion of NASA

I asked a question last week that literally hundreds of you helped to answer. The question: Why has the public's opinion of NASA gone up so much since 1993? Here in part is a review of your answers:

NASA is focused on specific goals now. Better, faster, cheaper, is really better for the space program. The good economy in the United States causes people who might argue with space spending to feel better about it. But by far, the thing NASA has done to convince you that it's a good or excellent agency is to land the little rover that could on the surface of Mars last July 4. The rover and the hundreds of pictures it transmitted to Earth of the Martian surface have done more than anything else to convince CNN Interactive readers that NASA is back and doing an inspiring job.

There was also lots of talk about the new international space station, which is going to get into orbit soon. The fact that this project is months rather than decades away was a theme in many of your responses. Thanks for getting back to me. Also thanks for the great suggestions for topics we can discuss here and via e-mail.

Another reason cited for low support of NASA in 1993 was the continued aftermath of the Challenger disaster. Some of you believe that one big mistake like Challenger will send public support plunging.

Doing double duty

Many of you have asked for longer columns here, and I'll try to find the time to write more, but for now, I'm splitting my time between space coverage and helping CNN get ready for a new possible conflict in the Persian Gulf. You may remember I spent time there over the past eight years, and I'm looking at improvements in the U.S. military arsenal that could make a difference if there's another attack on Iraq. Some of it involves space.

I'm spending a few days at U.S. Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, getting briefed on what our surveillance satellites can do for field commanders in the Gulf.

I'll let you know what I find out when I get back to this keyboard.

Several of you asked for more information on the new space station and complained about the pictures we had here to illustrate the first couple of pieces. I've found the ultimate reference manual for the new station. It's called "Improving life on Earth and in space". Its the total research plan for the new space station. It's 50 pages long and requires Adobe Acrobat, but I printed it at home last weekend and am taking it with me everywhere I go.

The Internet address is http://station.nasa.gov . Once you get there, you'll find links to recent NASA releases on station progress and this huge research report. Take a look.

The view from space, Hubble style

Did you see the latest from Hubble Space Telescope? We talked earlier about fact that new pictures were coming this week, and although they're computer generated, they're pretty good at explaining what happens when a supernova explodes and begins spreading its mass into space. Not bad stuff, the pictures are on the CNN space page.

There's a symposium on the next phase of Martian exploration coming up February 15 in Philadelphia. Wes Huntress, the top space scientist at NASA, will be there along with experts from various disciplines, including the Centers for Disease control and SETI. I