Q How do you wash your clothes in space?
A There is no washing machine on the space station and water is a very precious resource, so we just wear the same clothes for several days, before we exchange them for a new item and throw the old ones away. It is not as bad as it sounds. We live in a temperature-controlled environment, so clothes do not get as dirty as they might on Earth. Some of the items, like socks and our exercise gear, sometimes have antibacterial materials in them, too.
We change our clothes according to a set schedule. This ensures that we will have enough items to last us the six months. For example, we change underwear every two to three days, T-shirt and socks every week, and trousers or shorts every month. Then we have a few extra polo shirts for smarter occasions (such as recording video messages and other public-relations activities) and a couple of sweatshirts, as the space station can sometimes feel cool in the evenings.
The clothing that is worked the hardest is our exercise gear. We change it every week, but when you’re working out for two hours a day, then you certainly welcome a fresh set, come the weekend.
Q Mine is a bit of a daft question maybe, but . . . when I watched you run the London Marathon, I wondered what happened to the sweat you produced? I’m assuming you’d sweat normally, so did it float around in droplets or stay stuck on you and make you hotter, rather than helping you to cool down? – Caroline Mallender
A This is not a daft question at all! When running, I thought that the sweat would form droplets on my skin and remain in place, without having the effect of gravity to pull the droplets downwards. This was indeed the case for my arms and legs. However, what was really interesting was observing the sweat on my face and head. The motion of running caused the droplets to coalesce into a much larger bubble of sweat that migrated to the top of my head. Every 20 minutes or so I would feel this bubble wobbling around in my hair and have to towel my head dry. I found the space station much warmer than I would have liked for exercising. I have always enjoyed running in a cool, damp environment (give me some good old British drizzle any day, as the perfect running weather!). As such, I probably sweated more than usual while running in the 21-degree warmth of the space station, so it was always important to drink plenty of water in order to rehydrate after exercise.
Q What’s the grossest thing about living in space?
A Ha, what a great question! By far the grossest thing about living in space is watching the soles of your feet disintegrate during the first couple of months in space. We hardly use the soles of our feet on the space station, and there is seldom any weight on them (except when we exercise). Because of this, they become very smooth and soft, like a newborn baby’s. Six months in space is akin to having the best pedicure you could imagine.
The gross part is that all the dead, hard skin that builds up on the soles of your feet starts coming off. After living in space for a few weeks you have to take your socks off very carefully, otherwise there will be a shower of dead skin-flakes ejected into the cabin. As nothing sinks to the floor in microgravity, this skin would just hang around until the airflow gradually pulled it towards one of the return air filters. Meanwhile you would rapidly become the least popular member of the crew!
Equally gross is the fact that we develop ‘lizard feet’ on the tops of our toes. We are constantly hooking our feet underneath metal handrails, straps and bungees and using this force to hold us down and stabilize our body position whilst we work. All of this abrasion causes the skin on the tops of our toes to become very rough and scaly. In fact the European Space Agency has even experimented with specially designed socks, in an effort to prevent this. The socks have a soft rubber coating over the top of the toes and do help, to some degree.
Excerpted from Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space by Tim Peake. October 2017 Little, Brown and Company. Published with permission.
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