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Spacewalkers describe smoky, bitter 'smell of space'

Peggy Whitson shows off soybeans grown in orbit aboard the international space station.
Peggy Whitson shows off soybeans grown in orbit aboard the international space station.

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(CNN) -- While busy playing host to visiting cosmonauts, wrapping up experiments and packing for home after nearly six months in orbit, the residents of the international space station (ISS) took a break to talk with CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien. Following are highlights of his long-distance chat with Peggy Whitson, Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev.

O'BRIEN: One of the things I've never heard anyone describe was the smell of space. And this is in reference to when you (Whitson) brought in your suit from a spacewalk and (it) had a very distinct smell. I mean, we're talking about the vacuum of space, and yet it has an odor. Describe it for us.

WHITSON: Some people call it kind of ozone-like. I wasn't sure what ozone was supposed to smell like, but it's kind of smoky and a little harsh, bitter-smelling. And it lasts variable amounts of time. I noticed that it didn't last as long in the docking compartment after we had done three (spacwalks) out of the air lock here. But it's really interesting because it's very distinctive.

O'BRIEN: I don't think a lot of people know what ozone smells like. Is there another way to describe it? You described it in a letter (on a NASA Web site) as almost a burn smell. It's just very interesting, I think, to those of us down on Earth.

WHITSON: Korzun said it's kind of like a smell from a gun, right after you fire the shot. I think it kind of has almost a bitter kind of smell in addition to being smoky and burned.

O'BRIEN: Tell me a little about the problems with the carbon dioxide scrubbing devices (which clean the station air). I know you've been having a little bit of difficulty with that. Bring us up to speed on the air quality right now and whether having six people on board makes it more difficult.

WHITSON: Our system works for three, and that's the Russian system. The carbon dioxide removal system works great. We changed some of the software after 9A (the space shuttle Atlantis visit in October). We seem to be having some problems, so they're recycling some of the software, and we hope to have it fixed soon.

O'BRIEN: Are you using any of the stopgap measures, any of the special canisters to scrub the carbon dioxide out? What are you doing in the meantime?

WHITSON: The procedure's working intermittently, so at this point we haven't had to use any hydroxide canisters, although we have several on board as options if we need to go that route.

O'BRIEN: Let's pass it on over to Valery Korzun, the commander of the mission. Commander Korzun, as you look back on 150 some-odd days (in) space, what do you see as the highlight; what do you see as the low light of your mission?

KORZUN: I think this is not a very long flight in space. I hope for one year -- that is a very long flight. But for us, five months, this is nominal.

O'BRIEN: We have a couple of e-mails from our viewers around the world. Some questions for you. Kevin McClintock in Joplin, Missouri has this one for you, Peggy. 'Since it takes 2.5 of the three-man crew to keep the ISS operational, do you believe that the habitation module will eventually be funded and flown in space, be it through NASA or Italy or a current or new private business partner down the road?'

WHITSON: I think it probably will. I don't know if the actual time is 2.5 crew persons to accommodate all of the activities on the station. It seems like we've done more science activity this time through our mission. But I don't know how the numbers actually run out.

O'BRIEN: This is a related question from Scott Crawford in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 'Given the time and the resources already expended on the international space station project and proven success of its assembly thus far, doesn't it make sense to invest the money necessary to complete the station's promise to a seven-person scientific laboratory?' I believe, Peggy, in our business, we call that a softball.

WHITSON: For me, it really makes a lot of sense because I think we need to be doing even more science than we are now. And I think habitability is going to be really important for those crew members staying up here on long-duration missions.

But I think it is important to go ahead and fill out the station as we had originally planned in order to make it as functional and operational as we had planned, scientifically as well as an engineering accomplishment. And also obviously an international accomplishment, as well.

O'BRIEN: This next one might be a little bit of a hardball. It comes from Steven Jackson of Boston, Massachusetts. He asks, 'What's the main objective of the ISS? What are the future goals and why are we spending so much money?' Steven sounds a little bit like a skeptic.

WHITSON: I think the main objective of the ISS is to do scientific research. And from a practical level, I also think there's obviously some technological benefits to doing some engineering feats that we are accomplishing as well. So I think there are many levels that the station will benefit, and it is benefiting the Earth right now.

O'BRIEN: Tell us briefly about the experience of being where you are now in the U.S. laboratory, the heart and soul of the scientific operation there.

And then being able to step outside -- I don't know if step is the right word -- float outside in your suit and experience a spacewalk. Try to give us an analogy so we could understand what it's like to do a spacewalk, compared to just travelling in space.

WHITSON: Flying in space here is phenomenal. It's amazing just to feel your body adapt to floating around in zero (gravity). But it was really, truly amazing to me to do a spacewalk, especially at the end of the (station's robotic arm) as Valery was swinging me around.

I really just feel like what a bird must feel like flying. I felt out there alone, and it was just so beautiful watching the Earth go by.

O'BRIEN: You didn't get that sensation of falling that some people have reported?

WHITSON: No, not at all. In fact, everybody told me that I was giggling. So they realized that I was having a good time.

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