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Arisson Jyrkkanen summed up his Chris Hadfield experience in a single word: “Epic.”
During an afternoon question-and-answer session at Thompson Rivers University’s Alumni Theatre on Friday, Oct. 4, Hadfield called the 11-year-old onto the stage to help him answer a question about the effects of space travel on the human body.
After pointing out the ways Arisson’s body is well-adapted to life with gravity — from his circulatory system to his skeleton — the former International Space Station (ISS) commander wrapped his arms around the boy’s chest and lifted him right off his feet.
“There’s Arisson, beautifully evolved over tens of millions of years on Earth — and now, suddenly, he’s weightless, floating around,” Hadfield said.
“So, now, most of those things don’t apply.”
Without gravity, the circulatory system doesn’t need to work as hard to pump blood to the brain, so the heart shrinks.
Ditto for the skeleton.
“The first time your body goes into space, it says forget the last million years, I’m now in weightlessness,” explained Hadfield, who said he lost about eight per cent of the bone mass in his hips and upper thighs on his last six-month space mission.
“I don’t need those calcium and minerals. I don’t need to hold my head up any more.”
Hadfield is arguably Canada’s most famous astronaut today, thanks to YouTube videos, Tweets and a song co-written with the Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson while Hadfield was in command of the ISS for six months in 2012 and 2013.
But, that wasn’t his first trip beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Hadfield also helped build Russian space station Mir and, on his second mission, became the first Canadian to spacewalk — an honour that will land his picture on the next $5 bill.
In Kamloops to give a TRU President’s Lecture based on his new memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield’s afternoon session with science alumni and school children was a more informal kind of chat in which he answered questions about eating and sleeping in zero gravity — “I would go to space for the sleeping, but not for the food,” he said — becoming an astronaut and for-profit space travel.
He also answered a few more personal questions, including how astronauts go to the bathroom in space.
While urine is collected using a hose and funnel apparatus so it can be recycled into drinking water — a fact that elicited plenty of groans from the audience, though Hadfield pointed out water-treatment plants on Earth aren’t so different — solid-waste collection is more complicated.
“If Steve’s going to the bathroom in space,” Hadfield said, using another audience volunteer, “the first thing that happens is he sits on the toilet and he floats away.”
So, before doing anything else, astronauts have to buckle their bathroom seatbelt.
“The solids come out of Steve’s body and go down into a Russian-designed toilet that’s got a little blue bag that you put in each time,” Hadfield said.
Meanwhile, air flow inside the toilet pulls waste away from the body, since gravity isn’t available for the job.
“What’s interesting is, because you don’t have to flush the toilet in space, because it’s collected in a bag, you don’t have to use disposable stuff to clean your body up, like toilet paper,” he said.
Instead, astronauts favour wet wipes.
“Which means he has an extremely clean bum in space,” Hadfield said.
“Like a little baby’s bum. He has a perfectly clean bum the whole time in space. And that’s good because your underwear lasts way longer.”
On a more serious note, Hadfield offered three tips for kids in the audience aspiring to some day aim for the stars: Get an advanced degree in something complex, stay healthy and show you can make good decisions when it’s most important.
“I wouldn’t just focus on those three to be an astronaut,” Hadfield said. “Those are useful skills no matter what you want to do in life.”
Astronaut Chris Hadfield gives 11-year-old Arisson Jyrkkanen a hands-on example of the effects of zero gravity on the human body. Andrea Klassen/KTW.