The thing Is with Steve Canavan - December 17, 2015

British astronaut Tim Peake gives a thumbs up during suit pressure testing following suiting up on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, ahead of today's launch to the International Space Station. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 15, 2015. See PA story SCIENCE Peake. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

British astronaut Tim Peake gives a thumbs up during suit pressure testing following suiting up on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, ahead of today's launch to the International Space Station. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 15, 2015. See PA story SCIENCE Peake. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

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Well, what an exciting couple of days it has been.

I don’t know whether you’ve heard – probably not because it’s hardly been on the news at all – but a British chap has blasted into space.

He is called Tim Peake, possibly the most underwhelming name of all time for any hero.

I like my heroes to have exotic monikers like Benedict Cumberbatch, Clement Attlee, or Helena Bonham-Carter

Tim Peake sounds like a man who works in B&Q and gives you advice about the best cladding for your shed.

People say it must be marvellous to be an astronaut but I can honestly say that given the choice between heading to the International Space Station or spending a weekend in a static caravan in Whitby, I’d opt for the latter.

In both places you’re stuck in a very small, cramped environment with little to do, but at least in Whitby you can nip out for fish and chips.

Granted, I imagine the first couple of days in space are fantastic – the views of planet Earth, the sensation of weightlessness, the knowledge that you’re away from the wife for a full six months.

But after that it must get incredibly boring and frustrating, too, for even the smallest, most routine of tasks takes a great deal of effort.

Take going to the toilet. It sounds a right faff. You have to – and apologies if you’re halfway through a ham sandwich – fit a funnel over your nether regions before you urinate.

The sit-down kind of toilet visit is even trickier because, what, with no gravity in space and all that, you can’t sit.

To that end, the toilet on a space station comes with foot restraints and a thigh bar that pulls down over your lap, like on a roller coaster. What you then do is sucked into the toilet using ‘a flowing air system’ and goes into an on-board storage container, which some poor beggar back at Nasa has to clean – presumably the work experience – when the rocket arrives back on earth.

Though I’m not interested in going to space – I’d miss my weekly badminton sessions and I wouldn’t know who wins Strictly – I do find the whole subject quite fascinating.

Did you know, for example, that your feet start to disintegrate when you’re up there because astronauts don’t walk, just float, the skin on their feet begins to soften and flake off. When they change their socks – which doesn’t happen often because there are no laundry facilities at the International Space Station (astronauts wear the same underwear and socks for days on end) –it has to be done very gently, otherwise loads of dead skin cells from their feet float around the weightless cabin. Which wouldn’t be very pleasant.

Another odd thing about being in space is that you get taller. Quite significantly taller. Because gravity is not pushing you down, your spine straightens and your height increases by as much as 5cm. Which means that if you permanently lived in space, you’d have a much better chance of being a basketball star.

Though Tim Peake’s mission is all very exciting, it doesn’t, of course, come close to the most famous space mission of all time – the 1969 moon landings.

One thing I discovered recently while reading a book about the subject, was that the powers-that-be were so convinced Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would die from some weird disease the moment they stepped on the moon (they’d clearly been watching too many sci-fi films), president Richard Nixon had a speech prepared.

It began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.”

Because of the dangerous nature of the mission, neither Armstrong, Aldrin or the third man on Apollo 11 – Michael Collins – could get life insurance. So instead they each signed a series of autographs that could be flogged by their families in the event of their death.

I daresay Tim Peake and co have been treated with slightly more dignity than that.

Spare a thought for Laika, sacrificed for our stars trek

While we’re talking space, a quick mention of Laika the mongrel, my favourite – and the most tragic – space traveller of all-time.

A stray plucked off the streets of Moscow, she was selected to become the first dog to orbit the earth.

To prepare her for the trip, Russian scientists put her in progressively smaller cages for 20 
days, placed her in centrifuges to simulate the acceleration of a rocket launch, and trained her to eat a high nutrition gel that would be her food 
in space.

The point of the whole exercise was to see if living creatures could survive space flight, thus paving the way for human travel.

It was, in truth, pretty vile and inhumane – whatever happened, Laika was being sent to her death because it was a one-way mission.

Though animal rights groups later called on the public to protest at Russian embassies, remarkably 
no-one really kicked up much of a fuss about it at the time.

However, even the scientists involved were a bit uncomfortable with it.

One, a kindly-sounding fella called Dr Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika home just before the 
launch to play with his children. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he wrote. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika was on Sputnik 2 when it launched in November 1957 and – much to the surprise of most involved – survived the take-off (when her heart rate went from 103 beats a minute to 240) and three orbits of the earth (during which time she was “agitated but eating her food”).

She died after six hours from overheating, though the Russians attempted to cover it up for years (until 2002 in fact), claiming she had been painlessly euthanised.

Justice, of sorts, was done in 2008 when a monument of Laika, stood atop a rocket, was built in Moscow.