If everything goes according to plan, the majority of my day will be spent on science. Normally it takes six years for scientists to get experiments going aboard the ISS because there are so many experiments in the queue and such limited flight opportunities. I recognized that I had a unique opportunity and approached the African academic community for possible experiments to conduct. I had a flutter of proposals, which I whittled down to four flight experiments. The Russians have also asked me if I have time on the mission to do an additional two, so I may end up doing as many as six experiments.
One involves stem cells in human embryos. The team at the University of Stellenbosch and I hope to further our understanding of their development in a different environment. Performing the experiment successfully will require a lot of precision. Every second day I will spend a couple of hours working with needles and syringes to feed the embryos with nutrients and keep them alive for the ten-day mission, making sure not to contaminate one test tube from the other. I'll probably go through 240 needles in total. And I may have to start the experiment on the Soyuz during the flight up to the ISS, where there is very little space. That will be quite challenging. I will also have to exercise on the bicycle and the treadmill to conduct another experiment on muscle development and atrophy designed by the University of Cape Town.
How do you run on the treadmill if you're weightless?
The treadmill has elastic bands on the sides of it and a harness attached, which creates 80 kilograms of force from your waist down, so your legs are carrying a similar kind of force as the one generated by your weight. But it's not as though I'll be running for hours on end. The scientists at Cape Town really just want to get a trace of the heart's performance as you start and stop exercising, and that doesn't require heavy-duty exercise. Unlike me, long-term crew members experience quite significant physiological effects from the weightlessness, so they need a very active daily exercise regimen to counteract them.
Will you have any free time aboard the ISS?
Well, officially, we are allowed to rest from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. In practice, I think the astronauts use some of that time for looking out a window, catching up on e-mail, and preparing for the next day.
On this mission, there will be six people on the station. We each have sleeping bags and the station commander will tell each crew member where he wants us to sleep, which means finding some place to clip your sleeping bag so it doesn't drift around. You can sleep on the roofthere is no "floor" or "ceiling" up there. But you do want to be near fans and ventilation systems that will circulate fresh air past you because carbon dioxide and oxygen don't disperse naturally in space. And you also want to be in a place where you can have some quiet. There are quite a lot of valves and things that go on and off all the time in the station, so it can be quite disruptive.
What will you do when you return?
I have an education foundation, The Shuttleworth Foundation, which is creating software to aid school administrations in developing countries. The project should be moving faster, so I'd like to invest some time in it. Aside from that, we'll see what other ideas catch my fancy when the dust settles. I trust that something interesting will come along when this is all done.
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