When astronauts turn guinea pigs in space

When astronauts turn guinea pigs in space

When you spend 165 hours in space, you turn yourself into a guinea pig for every experiment conceivable. That's exactly what French astronaut General Jean-Francois Clervoy did, as sensors dived deep into his digestive, immune, visual, urinary systems.

Years after those exhilarating days of extreme adventure in low earth orbit, Clervoy had enough memory to keep the audience riveted to his slides of total recall. As the 'Astronauts Panel' went live at the ongoing symposium on 'Human Spaceflight and Exploration' here on Thursday, Clervoy was clearly the cynosure of all eyes.

A veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle expeditions, Clervoy had lived through all the associated risks of spacewalking, launch and re-entry and the extremely critical tasks within the claustrophobic confines of the spacecraft.

“Confined and isolated, our job was to operate a thousand switches and be alert always in a demanding environment,” he recalled. “We had to go back to school, learn the basics, fix everything, change plans everyday. We were operators of very complex instruments.”

In zero gravity, there was no way Clervoy and his fellow space mates could hold onto the tools at all times. “We would keep losing objects. We had to be better organised. We lost an average of 20% of stuff, and we didn't know where they were!,” he said, as the audience burst out.

From up there, the Earth would always look breathtaking. “You could see the sun rise and set every 45 minutes,” Clervoy recalled, as a visual of Kashmir and the Himalayas came alive on the screen.

For German astronaut Thomas Reiter, those visuals were part of his daily life once. Reiter had spent 350 days in space, holding an European record for years. Performing risky spacewalks had become second nature to him.

But on Thursday, he turned the spotlight on the European Space Agency (ESA)'s plans for the future beyond sending humans to low-earth orbit. Reiter explained, “We are working with NASA to bring back samples from Mars through robotic missions.”

Dr Oleg Kotov was the only cosmonaut at the event. But the veteran of 526 space days, six spacewalks and multiple flights aboard the Soyuz had his task cut out: To ensure that all the life support systems were in ship shape, the space biology experiments were in order and astrophysics labs were well-maintained.

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