Living in Space — Dennis Ashton — 20th May 2019

When Dennis Ashton last came to speak to us, just over five years ago, his sub­ject was dog sled racing in Alaska, where he also wit­nessed a superb auroral dis­play which prob­ably gave him the inspir­a­tion for his latest talk.

Dennis, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, kept us enthralled for an hour with his slideshow present­a­tion on the story of the space race so far, the day-to-day prob­lems facing the 236 astro­nauts who have spent time on the International Space Station, and what the future holds in terms of space travel.

The first moon land­ing on 21st July 1969.

Dennis pre­dicts that China will be the next nation to reach the moon, and that in 200 years’ time there could be a city on Mars. Before then, an inter­na­tional mis­sion to land humans on Mars is sched­uled for 2040.

And when, in 200 years from now, people look back on key moments in the space race, he believes the two great iconic images will be the Apollo moon land­ing and the devel­op­ment and con­struc­tion of the International Space Station, where man learnt to live in space.

The International Space Station is the size of a foot­ball pitch.

Man first stepped foot on the moon on 21st July 1969, and vari­ous events are planned to com­mem­or­ate the 50th anniversary in two months’ time. A new block­buster doc­u­ment­ary film, entitled Apollo 11, is due to be screened at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema on 7th June.

Dennis’s talk was chiefly about the International Space Station, a mul­tina­tional con­struc­tion pro­ject that is the largest single struc­ture humans have ever put into space. It is roughly the size of a foot­ball pitch. Its main con­struc­tion was com­pleted between 1998 and 2011, although the sta­tion con­tinu­ally evolves to include new mis­sions and exper­i­ments. It has been con­tinu­ously occu­pied since November 2000.

Construction work being car­ried out on the ISS in 2008.

The ISS travels at a speed of almost five miles per second, or 17,500 miles per hour, orbit­ing the earth every 92 minutes while the six astro­nauts on board either carry out sci­entific exper­i­ments, under­take main­ten­ance work on the giant struc­ture, eat, exer­cise, relax or sleep, depend­ing on the time of day (which, as a matter of interest, is aligned to Greenwich Mean Time). The con­struc­tion of the ISS involved no fewer than 40 space shuttle flights between 1998 and 2010.

Whether you are a would-be space trav­el­ler or an account­ant, the stat­ist­ics are equally stag­ger­ing. Between 1985 and 2015, the bill for devel­op­ing the ISS amoun­ted to $150 bil­lion, and the annual run­ning costs come to $5 bil­lion. The United States have paid by far the largest amount, around $126 bil­lion, with Russia adding $12 bil­lion, Europe and Japan each chip­ping in $5 bil­lion and Canada $2 bil­lion.

The crew on the ISS work a 15-hour day, from 6am to 9pm, but that includes three meal breaks and two and a half hours’ exer­cise, which is essen­tial if muscles and bones are not to waste away. There is an hour’s relax­a­tion before the astro­nauts get eight hours sleep. They do not go to bed as such; in the weight­less con­di­tions of the space sta­tion, each astro­naut has a per­sonal space where their sleep­ing bag is sus­pen­ded on a wall, and they simply zip them­selves into it.

Major Tim Peake demon­strates the suc­tion oper­ated urinal.

We saw Britain’s own Major Tim Peake, who spent 185 days in orbit, doing everything from car­ry­ing out highly skilled sci­entific exper­i­ments to doing his ablu­tions, the latter also need­ing a fair amount of skill. Washing is more like a quick rub down with an oily rag as there is no run­ning water, no shower and no bath. Clothes are worn for a set number of days and then dis­carded, fin­ish­ing up in a sealed con­tainer along with human waste and then jet­tisoned in a supply vessel which burns up on re-entry to the earth’s atmo­sphere. However, 90 per cent of water used, includ­ing that which has passed through the six astro­nauts the pre­vi­ous day, is recycled and re-used, to the tune of around 6,000 litres a year, although there is also a back-up supply of 2,000 litres on board.

All meals are dehyd­rated and water pumped into the con­tainer of dried food as and when needed. Drinks are vacuum packed and sucked through a plastic straw. The only fresh food such as fruit come on board when a shuttle arrives with new crew mem­bers. Bread is not allowed because of the danger of crumbs find­ing their way into del­ic­ate equip­ment, so wraps are the favoured option.

The view from space. A NASA image of the south­ern half of Britain. The red dot is Bognor Regis.

It all seems a pretty miser­able exist­ence to me, and prob­ably to any­body else who likes their creature com­forts, and yet wealthy indi­vidu­als are reportedly pre­pared to pay $20 mil­lion each for the priv­ilege of a 10-day hol­i­day on board the space sta­tion.  Give me Bognor Regis any day.