Last updated on February 7, 2012
By the time she returns to Earth, astronaut Sunita Williams will have spent more than six months inside the international space station. It takes endurance to be an astronaut and Williams is proving to be tougher than most. If you don’t think she’s tough, just picture yourself spending half a year in an enclosed space with two men who never take baths.
Williams isn’t taking baths either, but that’s okay, because she’s a woman and women naturally smell better than men, as my wife often says to me, while gliding, ever so naturally, toward the perfume bottle.
I’m not sure what would happen if you tried to take a bath or shower in the gravity-free space station. Perhaps the water would shoot straight up. Perhaps the soap would float. And perhaps if you’re middle-aged or older, you’d have reason to celebrate, realizing that no part of your body is pointing downward.
Williams and her fellow astronauts do try to stay as clean as possible. As Traci Watson described in USA TODAY, the astronauts wash their hair with no-rinse shampoo, their bodies with cleanser-soaked gauzy fabric, and their hands with baby wipes. It may not be as effective as taking a shower, but it provides great relief for the astronauts. In fact, as soon as the men are done cleaning themselves, Williams can loosen her nose clip slightly.
The hardships on the space station go far beyond that. With no sink around, the astronauts have to swallow their toothpaste after brushing, something they haven’t done since they were 2. (But on the positive side, they usually end up with “shiny white” and “minty fresh” intestines.)
The station does not have a flush toilet either. The astronauts must use a specially designed, state-of-the-art hole in the floor. Every time they use it, they create a new satellite around the earth. One of the privileges of being an astronaut is naming these satellites.
Russian cosmonaut: “What did you name yours today?”
American astronaut: “Osama. What did you name yours?”
American: “Bush? What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you think he has enough satellites?”
Actually, the astronauts use a Russian-designed lavatory that, as Watson describes, “sucks waste away with a vacuum.” The waste is stored in buckets, which are moved into a Russian cargo pod that eventually “burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.” Now you know what people mean when they say, “It’s raining buckets.”
Unfortunately, astronauts do not always have access to the lavatory. During liftoff and spacewalks, they must wear a Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG), a type of heavy-duty diaper. It’s a tough life, really. They wear diapers, use baby wipes and swallow their toothpaste, yet everyone expects them to act like grown-ups.
American astronaut: “Hey, that’s mine! I took it first.”
Russian cosmonaut: “No, gimme that. I took it first!”
American: “No, you didn’t!”
Russian: “Did too!”
American: “Did not!”
Russian: “Did too!”
Sunita Williams: “Stop it, guys! Please act your age. I’m sure there are enough Elmo bibs here for all of us.”
The astronauts may fight over bibs, but I doubt they fight over food, considering that it’s all canned, freeze-dried or precooked. It tastes rather bland, but does provide the necessary nutrition, including carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. That’s why it’s important for astronauts to have a college degree. They’re able to appreciate the food, because they’ve eaten much worse stuff in a college cafeteria.
Of course, it isn’t easy to eat in the space station, with the lack of gravity and all. Food can go everywhere, as Williams learned when she tried to create imitation sushi by putting wasabi paste on some bag-packaged salmon. The wasabi went flying around, staining the walls and leaving a strong smell in the air. It was so strong that, for about a week or two, Williams couldn’t smell the men.
American astronaut: “Hey, what’s that smell? It’s been around for a few days.”
Russian cosmonaut (sniffing air): “I’m not sure. Do you think it’s her perfume?”
American: “No, I don’t think so. This isn’t quite that overpowering.”