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Interview with NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer

Next July, make a date with a telescope.

You probably missed this year’s annual stellar treat, when the world’s most expensive object ever constructed - the $160 billion International Space Station - was fleetingly visible to British eyes. But next time you look up, be sure to remember there’ll be six astronauts and one super-tech robot, Robonaut 2 - flown up via the space shuttle on 1 November - on board, living a life we can only try to imagine.

It’s as near to the co-operative galactic adventures of Star Trek as we’ve ever been. A grandly ambitious joint effort by America, Russia, Japan and Europe, the ISS floats 240 miles above the Earth and boasts a permanent human outpost in space.

Though it’s the mooted manned missions to Mars and a return to the moon that seize the bigger headlines, it’s been the ISS that has, in its quiet way, been the most progressive space project since the early 1970s.

The first plans for it were drawn up by Bill Clinton’s Vice-President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1993 and it began its in-orbit assembly five years later. Within a year 136 component parts had been bolted together.

As of 2011 it’s about the size of an American baseball field and has 13 years of scientific study to its credit. Its crew work on a six-month rotation and the current team have been on the station since 25 September. They work ten hours per day on weekdays, and five hours on Saturdays, with Sundays left free to chill. One of those who worked on the space station, from December 2009 to June 2010, is Timothy “TJ” Creamer, whose six month tour of duty saw the former US Colonel as a flight engineer and the ISS’s science officer.

Creamer has been with NASA since joining in 1995 as a Space Shuttle vehicle integration test engineer, rising up through various senior departments before ending up in the Robotics branch. But until December last year he’d never escaped Earth’s orbit.

“We train so much, we train all our operations and maintenance, and we even train for contingencies, so there’s very little that is surprising to us when we get there,” Creamer tells Clint. “However, what we don’t train and can’t train is the wonder and the beauty of the view out the window. Simply astonishingly, breathtakingly, awesomely humbling it is!”

More than at any time since the 1970s, the space agencies seem intent on recruiting the next generation of astronauts through a public relations exercise that would have been manna from Heaven for the children of ‘69. There’s a constant live video feed on NASA’s ISS website and many of the astronauts regularly tweet.

For anybody coming aboard the ISS, there are plenty of things to adapt to. The lack of gravity affects everything. As there’s no down up or down in space, the ISS isn’t designed like anything we’re used to on Earth. And not only is eating and drinking substantially more difficult (the drinks are provided in dehydrated form and are mixed with water just before consumption), but their sense of taste is shifted out of whack. Imagine eating with a bad cold and you’re nearly there.

“The adaptation process goes on for weeks,” Creamer tells Clint. “You don’t fully adapt until about 5-8 weeks after arrival. Learning to live with the free-floating environment was the biggest challenge. You go through stages of adaptation - the first stage you’re excited about floating things, but you tend to lose things as they escape your awareness. The second stage, you hold onto everything, in order to avoid losing things - this is highly inefficient. The third stage, you let things float, but now you’ve adapted enough to allow these thing to remain in your awareness, and not lose them.”

The crew spend around 160 man hours per week performing experiments, which range from the study of muscle atrophy and bone loss in prolonged microgravity environments to the study of growing plants in weightlessness. The rest of their time is spent on maintenance and spacewalks. They’re also required to exercise for two hours a day, using bungee cords to strap themselves to the treadmill.

All the astronauts are trained for several years before they’re allowed up there. Most spring from the army and have some kind of high level science qualification before they begin training. “The most important skills, however, are less tangible,” says Creamer, “a good sense of humour, a wide-window of acceptability, patience, and probably most of all, a highly developed ability to get along and associate with people. After all, your crewmates are all you have up there, and you should be able to readily interact with them as social beings and also with the ground.”

There’s not a lot of privacy on a space station. So that’s six whole months where it’s near-on impossible to have a little me-time. There’s a strict no-nookie policy ("Personal relationships are not an issue. We don't have them and we won't,” said NASA commander Alan Poindexter recently), but it’s imperative the crew get on.

When they eat and drink, in their communal kitchen, they hook their feet onto tethers attached to the floor to keep them in a seated position. Velcro is used to keep the various food containers on the table. Water’s the most precious commodity on the ISS. Transportation is hideously expensive and so the crew have to go for the entire tour of duty without a shower (they use wet wipes instead) and drinks are consumed through straws.

“I missed bubbly water, and NOT drinking through a straw!” Creamer laughs. “Carbonated beverages have a problem associated with them in that the gas bubbles gather in the stomach and cause stomach aches. I missed the bubbles, and the feel of a thin-lipped glass against my lips as I drank!”

As from November the six-strong crew of the ISS welcomed another co-worker, Robonaut 2, otherwise known as R2 (George Lucas, take note). A joint effort between NASA and General Motors, it’s the most advanced robot ever constructed. It’s eerily human and is intended to act as a butler of sorts to the crew. “The idea is not to replace humans ever,” says NASA spokesman Ashleys Edwards, “because the human experience is what we’re all about.”

“Functionally, I think R2 will be an asset,” Creamer tells Clint. “To be able to help us in the weightless environment, holding and fetching things. R2 will be even more useful if there are social interaction skills programmed into its skill set, as well as humour triggers, and the ability to SEE opportunities to help and offer to do so. Natural Language Recognition will be even more useful, in a human interaction format, such as R2.”

As for the future of the International Space Station, NASA had planned to shut her down in 2016, as decided by George W Bush’s administration back in 2004. But President Obama has extended its life through to 2020, and also signed into law a $19 billion budget that adds a space shuttle mission, a new deep-space rocket and the development of commercial space taxis. After being underfunded and undervalued for a generation, space is back on the big agenda.