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My Son, the Astronaut, Part II:
Zero Gravity

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

Experiencing zero gravity is not only about twirling dreidels in midair. It's a matter of managing your body and your environment in a whole new way, as attested to by the "Letters Home" from Mir - which Jewish astronaut David Wolf posted on the Internet for all of his anxious friends and family to read. "My mother would be proud of me," he boasted, describing his chores on Mir, "I spent most of today in the bathroom, organizing and cleaning it...Yesterday I spent the morning capturing the water that accumulates as big wiggling, floating blobs on the heat exchanges of our condensate recovery system."

"I have also been put in charge of the local lost and found...Up here things don't necessarily stay where you put them," he continued. "If you don't nail it down (up here we use Velcro) there is literally no telling where something will float."

Even eating is a challenge in zero gravity. In his letter entitled "The Great Blackcurrent Jelly Juice Spill" Wolf described his calamitous opening and mixing of a juice bag.. "What on God's Earth could that rather large mass of thick dark-purple material, heading for the commander's head be?...Tolya's [Commander Anatoly Solovyov] wide eyes rolled in disbelief as he dodged the incoming mass. We all watched helplessly as the amorphous blob pressed on to ground zero..." he wrote. "Now you know the real reason I have taken on a few extra chores related to house cleaning around here."

Despite all the hard work involved in the mission, Wolf found time to occasionally enjoy the unique aspects of weightlessness. And he eventually mastered complex tasks such as dressing, drinking and keeping track of his belongings. He admits that although he would love to go to the Moon one day, "I like space, and on the Moon there's gravity, and although it's mild, I really like true zero gravity."

Effects of Long-Term Flight On Human Health

Weightlessness apparently can cause serious health problems in some people who have experienced long duration spaceflight. David Wolf himself has suffered physical consequences from his four month stint in orbit. "I had a fourteen percent loss of some bones' mineral content," reported Wolf. "It took a year to regain my bone mass...[it took] a fair amount of working out and exercise." Wolf revealed that some individuals who have endured long space missions "have not regained their bone mass, and we're trying to understand that, possibly as a key to understanding why some people with osteoporosis don't regain their bone."

"The psychological effects I found were the most persistent, in that just being away from the country for years and in space a long time, I found it very difficult getting organized again in the United States," Wolf reflected. "The chores to keep a house in condition, and cars...paperwork, insurance, licenses, bankcards...when you've left it for years, it takes a couple of years [to recover]....The psychological element was at least as hard as the physical."

"My girlfriend Tammy was definitely critical to getting through this," revealed Wolf, referring to Tammy Kruse, a nurse, originally from Indianapolis, who lives with him in Houston. "We talked a lot from space and she was a real moral support, and when I came back, she was a miracle in getting me readapted to Earth and settled in the U.S."

Regarding another long-term space mission, perhaps even a mission to Mars, Wolf reflected, "The human spirit dictates that we need to send a human, or a group of humans, to Mars." He thoughtfully continued, "Our exploratory spirit dictates that...It will be anywhere from a two to three year mission, and I'd have to think long and hard, but I'd probably end up begging to go."

"I'd miss Tammy a lot, and my family," he admitted. He declared that he would ask permission to take Tammy along. "If they ask me, I'll see if I can get her to go. I think she'd make a good astronaut."

Wolf explained that NASA has considered the human element of long term space travel. "The psychological elements of that kind of mission are extreme. And NASA is spending a lot of time now studying the expedition type scenarios." Wolf reported, "We've created an expedition corps within our astronaut office. These are people who study and participate in exploratory work at the poles of our Earth, and various long-duration, self-sustaining work... So we're paying a lot of attention to the psychological elements that are required to do an effective true expedition."

(Coming Soon: Part III, David Wolf, Scientist and Inventor)

© 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman