Paper models, photos and musings of a Paper Kosmonaut

06 July 2012

André Kuipers back on earth

Besides all the paper modeling, another event in space close to home was concluded recently. André Kuipers, the third* Dutch-born person that went into space came back from his second flight last Sunday. Great return - and all of it was live on Dutch television. Not something one sees here every day. 
For most Dutchies space flight still is something they cannot grasp fully. they know very little about it, as most of the general public everywhere. So I think it was quite funny to see, read and hear all those shocked reactions on André's physical troubles the first days after his return.
He said he felt awful. He couldn't walk at all and every movement he made with his head caused severe nausea and dizziness. A lot of people thought this was something unique and I am afraid this only was amplified by the media by not telling that this was absolutely normal after being in space for so long.

Photo AP / Sergei Remezov
What happened to André and all the other space travellers who went to space for a long time is this: The semicircular canals inside your inner ear, that take care of your equilibrium and orientating abilities, are very sensitive organs. When you arrive in space, they are completely at a loss. the canals are filled with a fluid which reacts with gravity. This way your brain knows what is up and what is down. Since there is nothing as such in space and the fluids are floating freely around inside the semicircular tubes this also causes nausea and the feeling of disorientation. At such moments you realise what an important organ the vestibular system is.

Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov was the first to experience space sickness.
After a while one gets used to it, it is almost like the vestibular system shuts itself down for the time being. It has no use in space. So after a while you feel fine, you can tumble head over heels through the ISS and make weird videocips to send back to the people on earth. 
But when the crew returns in the Soyuz and its rocket engines brake for re-entry, the people inside start to feel this force of gravity again. Immediately all fluid in the inner ear flows into its active position again and cause the system to start up again. This also causes nausea. Suddenly your equilibrium starts to reset itself.

André in a soyuz during 1g training on Earth. The Soyuz is really small and crammed.
First it's not that bad. You are buckled up inside a small capsule and you're only experiencing one half g. But soon the g's start to build up (1g is what we feel here on Earth. One unit of Earth's gravity). Due to the braking on the denser layers of the atmosphere the capsule slows down so fast, going from 27.000 km/h to a gentle 500 km/h in 15 minutes or so, that the kosmonauts are pressed into their couches. 5 to 8 g's is quite normal during these re-entries. So from practically zero g they experience 7g in no time. That's not the best feeling on earth.

After the parachute opens (with a big jolt!) and the capsule slowly descends it's back to 1g again. But now it's permanently back. And the space travelers still aren't used to g's at all. The landing causes another big bump. And then, when the rescue teams arrive, they have to get out of their seats and stand up to let themselves hoisted out of the capsule. How must that feel for a cosmonaut?

First, out of this stale, recycled air into the fresh outdoor air. Lots of light, lots of people. Lots of noise. The weight of you body. The weight of your arms! Someone helps you upright. Your stomach protests. Your vestibular system protests. Then four strong hands pull you up out of the hatch opening and put you on a slide. You try hard to keep your food inside your stomach. Try not to look around, orientating yourself on the slide down.
Lots of hands and arms pick you up and carry you to a chair a few yards away.
Sitting there it all starts to sink in. Back on earth. Feeling healthy but not able to move a muscle. Feeling weak and suffering from vertigo and nausea. 

Hello Earth! Barf!

(I presume this is what happened to poor Don Pettit, who was politely kept out of the frame in the broadcast.)

But it is all very, very normal. I really wonder what Kuipers, being a medical doctor, makes of all this. When he was in the military, he actually studied these phenomena. So this must be hugely interesting for him, in between the vomiting sessions he undoubtedly must have had...

André and Don went back to the US to recuperate and revalidate, their commander Oleg Kononenko went back to Moscow to do the same. In a couple of weeks they will be generally their old self again. they will still have some trouble with their legs, I presume and the occasional mistake of just letting go of stuff while holding it instead of putting it down on a table.
He may be the third Dutchie in space, he also holds the European record now and has clocked 204 days in space all together. Welcome back, André. Hope to meet you one day.

*The first was Lodewijk van den Berg, who became a naturalized U.S Citizen.  The second, of course, was Wubbo Ockels.
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