“One of the things you’ll find in space is that your wrist is one of the primary sources of how you move your body around, so astronauts do a lot of exercises with their hands and wrists to make sure they’re strong enough,” Tinch explains. “It’s a long day in those suits as you’re working against the suit and working against yourself, trying to get the work done.”
Quite how difficult space walking could prove to be was first brought home to Nasa in 1966, when astronaut Gene Cernan left the confines of the Gemini 9 spacecraft for the world’s third EVA. Later described by Cernan as “the spacewalk from hell,” he fought to control his tether and tumbled in a “slow motion ballet.” By the end, his heart rate had tripled, his visor had fogged up and he struggled to get back into the capsule.
Although I wasn’t in any danger (except perhaps from falling off my chair), forty-six years later, I experienced similar problems. If I moved my arm one way, my virtual body spun the other. The normal rules of movement that we are accustomed to on Earth do not apply in space. Imagine the simple act of tightening a bolt – without something to push against, as you turn the bolt you end up spinning in the opposite direction, achieving nothing. To overcome this problem, the ISS is fitted with handrails, footholds and often the crew will also use a robotic arm to assist them.
And they cannot just pop outside when the mood takes them. Lessons learnt over the years mean that every EVA is meticulously planned and choreographed. In fact, “space dance” might be a better way of describing what’s involved. Tinch explains that the VR lab enables astronauts to solve problems before they try it for real.
“If I have these four bolts I have to undo, what’s the best way for my body position to be? So you’re trying to do the choreography of the EVA and trying to figure out what works best for that workspace.” For those already on the ISS, the lab is developing VR helmets that can hook up to the station’s own laptops so astronauts can refresh their training on the job.
After 20 minutes in orbit, I’m exhausted. My back aches, my face is dripping with sweat and my wrists are sore. As he lifts off the helmet, Tinch assures me that astronauts trying this for the first time have similar problems.
If this were real, I would be wearing a bulky spacesuit, looking through a visor and would not have the luxury of stopping when I got a bit tired. The experience has given me a new appreciation of the training, skill and effort it takes to operate in the uncompromising space environment. A reality check for those of us who advocate manned missions to the Moon and Mars that we should never take this stuff for granted. Space walking may look like fun but, once you get over the amazing view, it is hard. Really hard.
In future columns Richard will be reporting from inside the space station control room and the full-sized mock-up of the ISS at Houston to discover what it takes to keep the astronauts alive.