After two days in the Soyuz spacecraft, sharing a very small space with two cosmonauts, you dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and you are asked if you would like to smell space?
“When they opened the hatch, there’s a little bit of space captured between the Soyuz side and the space station side. I took a whiff and it smelt like a burnt almond cookie to me. And that became this big thing [among the other astronauts] ‘space smells like an almond cookie to her!’ Later on I found out it’s because the thrusters they fire when they are trying to dock use a fuel that has cyanide in it and cyanide has an almond smell.”
So space probably doesn’t smell of anything?
“I don’t believe so [she laughs]…”
So what does the space station smell like?
“The space station is almost like a bachelor pad, so I don’t think they keep it up that well. On top of that you have equipment and wires and experiments. I’m an engineer and I’ve been in technology labs so it smells of that wire smell and also it’s a closed environment, so the air gets recycled and recycled, so it’s a very stale environment.”
A bit like if you were stuck in an aircraft?
“Imagine if you were stuck in an aircraft and the door wasn’t opened for several years – it’s something like that.”
But in your blog, you describe being on the space station as feeling like home?
“I’d never felt so at home before because it [space] was the destination I always wanted to go to. And I was finally there. It meant I’d accomplished something that everyone told me I couldn’t. I described it to some people as being like when people go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. For me it was my pilgrimage and I was there, I finally made it. I did feel at home and I didn’t want to leave.”
You had eight days on the ISS – you must have felt that was nowhere near enough – but what did you do in that short time?
“You’re given a pretty packed schedule. They even schedule your sleep, when you’re going to brush your teeth, everything is scheduled. There were a few experiments I was part of for the European Space Agency and there were set times that I performed them. I looked out of the window a lot and I did a lot of outreach because I felt it was important to share this experience. I felt that I was very privileged, that I was very lucky to be there. I know that there are lots of people like me who dream about this, so I wanted to share this experience and take them on the journey with me.”
You have been particularly keen to inspire women and must be pleased that Nasa recently announced that half of its latest astronaut intake is female. An announcement made, incidentally, almost 50 years to the day since the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, flew into space?
“I love to see more involvement from women all over the world in the space programme. I think we bring a new perspective into everything we do because of the way we look at life. I always want to make sure that space and our access into space is used for peaceful purposes and I think by having more women involved, the chances of that happening will be greater. I want to see more women in all fields of science and engineering.”