The View from Space
Life on Mir: Plenty of food, but hang on to your pencil
By John Holliman
In this column:
Web posted at: 4:54 PM EST (1654 GMT)
(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
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
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.
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
Thomas explains zero gravity as a flashlight floats in front of his face
"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
"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.
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:
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
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
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
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.
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 think their goal is to get more
public support for
sending a super scooper to Mars and bring something back.
If you want to ask a question of Andy Thomas, drop me a line,
and I'll pass it along to him the next time we talk. My best
guess is we'll have another chance to chat in about a month.
See you next week.
John Holliman's View from Space appears each Wednesday.