May 7, 2009

Astronauts To Put Finishing Touches On ISS

Astronauts set to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) later this month said Thursday that building a new dinner table to accommodate the station's expanded six-person permanent crew would be a top priority.

The three astronauts will blast off into orbit on a Russian Soyuz capsule, and will join an existing three-person team already onboard the ISS. It will be the first time the station's permanent crew consists of six astronauts.

"We are now going to have six people in orbit, with our arrival we will for the first time be six. So we will need to engineer another table, so we can all eat and chat together," Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko told the AFP.

"Lunch is a ritual process in orbit," Romanenko told reporters at Star City, the Russian training center for the Soyuz space flights.

Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne and Canadian scientist Robert Thirsk will join Romanenko to form the first six-man crew when they launch from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 27.

The Soyuz mission will also mark the first time that astronauts from all five ISS partners are in orbit together.  The partners include the United States, Canada, the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan and Russia.

Thirsk said he would contribute some Canadian specialties to the crew's menu, including the freshwater fish Arctic Char and Caribou meat.   However, he's most looking forward to the Russian cuisine on board the ISS, he said.

"I love Russian food and I hope it will make up 50 percent of my rations," he said enthusiastically.

De Winne said the expanded crew would ease the work pace and allow for a less hectic overall rotation of space residents.

"We usually have to rush to do everything for the switch over in 10 days, but this time it's all ready. We have a lot of time," he said.

"The crew onboard will have time to show us everything over the course of four months."

Having six astronauts on board the ISS has been made possible as construction of the station nears completion after its start a decade ago.

But even as the final touches are being put on the ISS, international space agencies have their eyes on the next step in space exploration: missions to Mars.

Thirsk has designed experiments that seek to calculate the human risks of longer-term residence in space, with a mind to the next generation of space travel.

The work involves "science that is aimed at allowing future astronauts to venture further into space," said Thirsk, adding that he would conduct experiments on the effects of near-weightlessness on conceptions of space and bodily function.

"We will also be examining the effects of radiation on future astronauts to Mars," he said.

In one experiment, Thirsk himself will take medication typically prescribed to geriatric patients to oppose the effects of bone loss in space.

"Astronauts have the best job in the world, but there is always a cost associated with going to space," he said.

However, the discomfort of a few days of motion sickness could easily be shrugged off.

"We don't usually talk about our susceptibility to motion sickness, it's only a small problem," he added.


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