Mark Shuttleworth - February 07, 2002: head rush - Oops. I miscalculated slightly on the clothing side. The colours aren't nearly as scary as they seem - it's just the SAMPLES that are a little way out there. We arrived at our clothing/food/medikit session this morning to find a team of specialists from Energia, the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) who were there to walk us through each item of clothing in detail and then help us choose our wardrobe.
Roberto and I had a good chuckle because 'choosing our wardrobe' meant filling out a form, where we were supposed to request a specific number of clothes of each type. However, in most of the categories, our clothes 'have already been sent to the station'. What that means, in translation, is that there are some leftover items up there that will be assigned to us. So Roberto and I will be tossing a coin (can one DO that in space?) to see who gets the bright yellow t-shirt, and who gets the bright red one. In the other categories we were instructed what to put in each block. I have put in a plea for one variation - thin socks in addition to the thick woolies they have allocated already - but we'll have to see whether or not those materialize. Here's hoping.
The specialists were all lovely ladies, and it's clear they take great pride in their work. While the styles may be... different... the functionality is very well thought out indeed, and I'm happy to know that our underwear will be flame retardant, even if I hope not to test the limits of that technology. It was a good laugh. Also, in many areas, we learned that they are starting to switch to current off-the-shelf goods. So Gillette Sensor Excel is currently the space-certified Russian razor. Which is a relief, given the cutthroat appearance of the 60's demo models in the packages we saw.
We also worked through some of the items of clothing that have medical and biological functions (beyond the obvious). For example, the 'Bracelet'. Our bodies have evolved to push blood from our feet back up the heart, against the force of gravity. When you remove the weight of the blood, those mechanisms continue to push the blood out of your legs with the same force. The end result is the pumpkinhead syndrome - large amounts of fluid shift to the upper body and head from the legs. This is very uncomfortable - your head and face literally swell up dramatically. So the Russians send every cosmonaut a set of bracelets that are strapped tightly round the upper thigh, and which trap the blood in the legs. If you get the tightness just right, you maintain some circulation but reduce the pumpkinhead factor. Over a period of days the body adjusts, so apparently it's usually not necessary to use them for more than four days.
Coming home of course you have the reverse problem. Having stopped pushing your blood back up to your head, your body is flummoxed by the fact that gravity now sucks blood into your legs. As a result, any time you stand up you get dizzy. And of course the toughest part might be the re-entry, when we pull 4-9 G's, which means we 'weigh' 4-9 times our normal weight for a few minutes as we smash into the atmosphere on the way home. So before we don our suits for the re-entry we put on another contraption called Kentavr, which is a very tight set of cycling pants, effectively, and which squeezes blood out of the legs into the upper body during descent and after touchdown.
In general, the whole area of medicine in space receives tremendous attention. Not only is much of the manned space flight science devoted to biology, but there is a tremendous amount of medical technology developed just for space flight. The Soyuz, the Shuttle and the ISS each have comprehensive medical kits developed to support cosmonauts for their flights. In each case the kits are tailored to the capacity of the craft, the length and nature of the mission and crew that the craft is designed to handle. Typically a Soyuz has a crew of three and will never fly for more than 4 days on an ISS mission, so it's kit just has to sustain the crew till they reach the ISS or reach the ground. A shuttle mission would be longer, with a crew of up to 7 and up to 10 days of free flight on an ISS mission, or 17 days on a dedicated flight. The ISS on the other hand has to support three people for many months of flight. The way the ISS works, at the moment, if one person needed to return to the ground, then the entire crew would have to abandon the station. That's not the end of the station, because it can be locked up and the lights turned out, and it will look after itself more or less until the next crew arrives, but it would be a major expense and massive disruption to the program.
So the ISS medical kit is pretty huge, and can support almost any situation that does not require immediate surgery. Everything from headaches through sleep disorders, depression, infections, cuts, burns, motion sickness and dental decay can be handled on station. In a severe case, one could stabilize and immobilize a sick crew member for the return home. There is a wide array of medical equipment on station, from a defibrillator to a pair of pliers for tooth extraction. Most if it is custom engineered for the unique conditions of space. At Johnson Space Center last week we were given a great set of lectures on the medical kit (I was very remiss in not describing it earlier - apologies Laura Lea) along with demonstrations of the more critical procedures and equipment. The medical department also covers the exercise equipment on the station for research as well as proactive primary health care. Again, it's very interesting to see how the equipment is designed and used in an environment where weight does not exist. No point in 'lifting weights' in weightlessness!