Aiming for the stars
Words: Cecily Layzell
Photography: Ton Zonneveld
“I will not shower for half a year,” says André Kuipers, looking well groomed in a shirt and slacks. “Everything is done with wet towels.”
The Dutch astronaut has just stepped off a flight from Moscow, where he is training for Expedition 30, a six- month mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Kuipers has regularly traversed the northern hemisphere since the European Space Agency (ESA) assigned him to the expedition in August 2009. When he is launched into the cosmos in November, he will have spent more than two years hopping between training facilities in Russia, the United States, Canada, Japan and Germany.
Training for life on the ISS, an internationally developed research facility that has orbited the earth for more than a decade, is thorough and at times gruelling. “You have to know how the systems work in all the different modules, and in some cases how to repair them,” says Kuipers. Training for events that may never happen, such as a fire or leak, is equally important.
One of the hardest jobs is a spacewalk, which lets astronauts work on the outside of a spacecraft. “The space environment is very dangerous. If the sun’s shining, it’s 150°C; in the shade, it’s -150°C,” he says. “There’s a risk of coming loose from the station. You have your own little rocket pack, so in an emergency you can fly back. There’s also a risk of getting hit by a piece of space debris. Spacewalks are tiring, long; you only go out if it’s really needed.”
To prepare for these conditions, Kuipers has been practising in a bulky spacesuit for seven-hour stretches on a space station submerged in an enormous swimming pool. The water in the pool goes some way towards mimicking the weightlessness astronauts experience in space and imposes similar restrictions. “You can’t just open your helmet and scratch your nose,” he says.
Kuipers studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam, before joining the Dutch Air Force Medical Corps in 1987. Between 1989 and 1990, he worked for the Research and Development department of the Netherlands Aerospace Medical Centre in Soesterberg. “I got the chance to work for ESA as a research fellow,” he says. “That was only for a year, but they couldn’t get rid of me. I’m still there!” He was selected for the ESA Astronaut Corps in 1999, and completed ESA’s Basic Training Programme in 2002.
Kuipers is only the second Dutch citizen to go to space (Wubbo Ockels preceded him in 1985). In April 2004, he spent 11 days in space as part of the Delta Mission to the ISS. During his stay, he performed a number of experiments, and will be doing the same on his upcoming mission. “The purpose of every experiment is to gain knowledge,” he explains. “On earth, a lot of processes are influenced by the fact that there is weight, so warm fluids go up, cool fluids go down, you can’t build crystals properly because they fall apart because of gravity. You can’t take gravity away except for 20 seconds in parabolic flight, so if you need longer periods of weightlessness, you can only do it in orbit around the planet.”
Not all the experiments have yet been determined, but will include making ultrasound images of the heart, ECGs and blood pressure tests for the ISS’s American partners, growing plants for European universities and also Japanese and Canadian experiments.
Besides experiments, repairs and spaceship housekeeping, basic daily tasks take up a lot of time. “You eat, you sleep, you drink, you wash,” says Kuipers. The impact of the lack of running water for the latter is increased by the daily fitness regime, necessary to counteract the effects of spaceflight on the body. “You have to do two hours of sports to stay in shape,” explains Kuipers. “Of course you don’t have weight, so if you’re running on a treadmill you’re strapped down with elastic bands, otherwise you’d float to the ceiling after one step. Weightlifting is the best way to keep your bone mass, so we replace weight by working against big vacuum cylinders.”
But an astronaut’s life is not all work and no play; free time is scheduled, and it’s much the same 400km up as on earth, with one major exception. “ESA built a cupola, a watchtower with windows all around, and of course it’s fantastic to see the planet. But actually everything you do, except for going out for a walk with the dog, is what you would do at home: watching TV, emailing, making phone calls, eating with friends. We have good food.
There are some technical constraints – it shouldn’t cause too many crumbs or droplets, so hagelslag [chocolate sprinkles] is a bit troublesome.”
Astronauts can also choose bonus foods for themselves or to take up as gifts. “I want to take Dutch cheeses, treacle waffles, Hague toffees and liquorice,” says Kuipers. “On my first flight I had to eat all the liquorice because my colleagues didn’t like it!”
Kuipers will fly to the ISS in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with a Russian and an American, relieving one crew and joining a team of six already on board.
Is he scared? Kuipers asked himself the same question before his first flight. “But once in space I wasn’t afraid for myself or for the spaceship; I was afraid for the planet. You see pollution over big cities and you think, wow, this is all [we have] and the people on the ground don’t realise. They think the atmosphere is endless and they think the forests are endless.”
He confides that “astronauts’ biggest fear is of making a mistake because there are so many people watching you and scientists depending on you. And the fact is every astronaut makes mistakes and equipment can fail, but there are a lot of safety measures and back ups. Spaceflight is a long process. A lot of time goes into design, manufacturing, testing, quality assurance and safety because it’s all experimental. We have to do this quietly, slowly and check, check and check again.” But the practice will be over soon enough.
Space enthusiasts might be interested to know that KLM is supporting the Space Expedition Curaçao initiative. From 2014, passengers will be able to fly beyond the earth’s atmosphere to experience five minutes of weightlessness some 60km to 100km above the Caribbean Sea. See www.spacexc.com