As journalists, it's our obligation — nay, our duty — to ask the hard questions. So when presented with the opportunity to ask a living former astronaut and American hero Mike Massimino about his two trips to the final frontier to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, without any real impetus or news peg, we knew what to do. We bombarded him with the dumbest questions we could think of.
Mike Massimino in 2008 (Image: NASA/James Blair)
Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of the interview.
Ryan F. Mandelbaum: So, what's the weirdest smell in space?
Mike Massimino: As far as smells go, you smell each other of course. But I think the most interesting smell is what we call the smell of space. I first heard about it when I was a new astronaut and one of the Russian cosmonauts said it was the same smell he smelled on Mir (a space station operated by the Soviet Union and Russia from 1986 to 2001). After the space walk is done, and you're in airlock, it re-pressurises and you open the hatch. There's a distinct smell for just a few minutes. We don't really know what space actually smells like. It's probably the outgassing of the metals in the airlock — it's a very distinct metallic smell. But I'd like to think that's what space smells like.
Rae Paoletta: What's the best and worst astronaut food?
MM: The best astronaut food is macaroni and cheese. It's easier to cook than the mac 'n' cheese on Earth. On Earth you gotta boil the water and mix everything. The mac 'n' cheese in space is dehydrated, you just gotta add water to it, let it sit for 10 minutes and you're done. My least favourite food is something that I didn't eat in space — the astronaut ice cream. It's really disgusting. That's the worst astronaut food I've ever tasted. It's not really astronaut food.
RFM: What are the weirdest bodily changes you have to get used to aside from microgravity?
MM: I would say probably the bathroom habits. Going to the bathroom isn't something you think so much about when you're living in civilisation. Getting your digestive system working and your stomach adjusting was different. Our digestion is helped a bit with gravity, so it takes a while to adapt. My very first day in space I felt a bit nauseous but that only lasted a few hours.
Truthfully, you adapt really well. On my first flight everything was new, my back ached, I grew an inch and was stuffed up. On my second flight I was better prepared and knew what to expect. The surprising thing was how good I felt.
RP: What kind of music did you listen to?
MM: Some music went with what you were looking [at] out the window. I liked listening to Radiohead, Sting and U2. You can kind of tell how old I am. I also liked listening to Coldplay and some movie soundtracks: John Barry, soundtracks to those epic movies play pretty well if you're looking out over the cities. Sometimes you have music when you're working on something. You can hook up your iPod into the speakers, then there's music I'd listen to while looking out the window. I flew a CD for Radiohead, and my kids got to meet them after the flight. They're a cool group of people.
RFM: So how do you shower up there?
MM: Showering doesn't really work. Water droplets stick together through surface tension, so you can get a blob together and play with it and drink it. You gotta be careful though, because it can get on stuff and cause trouble, and it's a resource you don't have a lot of. It's like a sponge bath. You get a rag and put some water in it, soak yourself and towel yourself off. We use waterless shampoo — you put a little water in your hand, it foams up and you can dry it off with a towel. You can get clean but you're not really clean. You're ready for a shower when you get home.
RP: Is the worst feeling having an ear itch you can't scratch while in your spacesuit?
MM: For scratching we have something that will help. Inside our helmet we have a Valsalva pad. It's the technique to [expel] air out to clear your ear. It's usually on aeroplanes for when your ears pop — there are pretty prominent changes in pressure and your ear can't keep up with those changes, so you need to be able to seal your nose. You put your nose over the pad then breathe out and it clears your ears that way. You can also have to move your head against your helmet. You use whatever you can find on your helmet to scratch yourself.
RFM: If you sneeze or fart hard enough can it propel you forward or backwards? And what's farting in space like?
MM: Theoretically any propulsion like that could move you, but generally you react to it. Its's not as propulsive as you would think. But if you're really still and gave a good sneeze, that would give you a little kick, yes. People have thought, 'Oh it would be a funny thing to fart around the space station.' It's easier said then done.
As far as farting, sometimes your diet isn't the way it should be. You're a little stuffed up, you might not be able to go to the bathroom, and it leads to more gas. But farts can kind of hang out. There's not as much airflow as on Earth. You gotta introduce airflow to get rid of contaminants and carbon dioxide. We kind of have that going on too in space. The nice thing to do is to go to the restroom where there's more ventilation to take the odour away. Probably similar to the way it happens on Earth, if you have to do it, either you do it in private or get people mad at you. That's the kind of thing that can lead to crew disharmony.
RP: I have a question from my mum. How badly do you worry about dying?
MM: Dying is a big thing you don't wanna have happen. There's a couple of things to worry about. You want to be as prepared as you can be with emergency procedures. We are very careful that the space suit is all set up [before spacewalks]. We also practise the other areas of the flight and reentry. We haven't lost people during spacewalks but have during the launch and coming back. You use that to motivate yourself. You don't worry about it while you're doing it. You can prepare all you want but if the rocket blows up, what can you do? But you try not to go to space angry with anyone. You want to clear up every argument. I wanted to go in with a clear conscience just in case.
RFM: Do people drink in space?
MM: If you're going to be responsive to whatever is going on, even anti-nausea medication can affect your performance, so you want to be careful with those. You want to be alert is the idea, just like you would want someone who's driving to be alert. It's more of a safety issue. If you have a bunch of drunk people and an emergency, then what?
But if a person is there like a passenger on an aeroplane I think it might be OK. Maybe you can have a champagne toast when you get to orbit. On an aeroplane you can have a drink of champagne or beer or wine if you're over 21. On a spaceship I think it would depend whose job it is. Maybe you can have a sip of champagne to make it more memorable but you don't want to be unconscious up there. You can do that in your own room. It's so cool flying in space you won't want to miss out on anything.
RP: If people were up there, maybe for a tourist flight, they might want to have some time together. Is sex in space dangerous?
MM: Would sex in space be dangerous?
RP: You know, the fluids, maybe it would be a mess.
MM: I'm not sure it would be dangerous. There are more dangerous things you can do in space than that. We're still at our beginning stages of all this but if you start sending families to space or people settling on different planets, you want to have kids, right? Having sex in space would be a requirement. But there's also the problem of how a fetus would grow. If you're looking for sex not to procreate but just to experience it, that's one thing, but how would a fetus develop in zero gravity? It probably wouldn't go very well.
Don Pettit grew a sunflower in space. Generally when you see sunflowers growing on Earth they have these big long stalks. In space, the flower looked the same but the stalk was a thin wire. If it were a developing child, their bones wouldn't need to be strong — we need strong bones for gravity. Imagine what it would be like in space — it would be bad! I don't think we're ready for that.
RFM: And how about pooping — where does all the poop go?
MM: On the space shuttle toilet, the poop is compacted and brought to Earth. On the space station, you poop into a can with a plastic liner, then tie up the bag, push it to the bottom and put a clean bag in for then next guy (note: Mike pointed out that he only flew on the Space Shuttle, not on the ISS). When the toilet can gets filled up you take the seat off of it and cap it. It's like a big metal container more or less. Then you put it into a resupply vehicle. Some of the resupply vehicles that come up with supplies get emptied out and garbage goes in there including the cans of poop. [The resupply vehicle] deploys the hatch and [the poop] burns up on reentry.
RP: Is space good?
MM: Yes. It's extraordinary. It's magical, it's the most beautiful thing you'll ever see. It also allows us to study our planet and also our universe. I think it's good for those reasons. We've figured out a lot of things, but there are some questions we need to go to space to answer. Where do we come from, what's out there, where do we go from here. It's a great way to earn a living if you're lucky enough to get into the space program. Space is good.