I flew into orbit as a patriot of my country, and I came back as a citizen of the world – astronaut
Scientific discoveries and technological advances are moving us closer to the stars. But what does the future of space travel hold for us? We talked to Russian cosmonaut and biochemist Sergey Ryazansky.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Hi Sergey, so good to have you as our guest today. Let me start with this: when I was a kid I enjoyed reading this amazing sci-fi where everything was built on a promise that me and my generation growing up would be flying up to Mars and to the Moon, and there will be interstellar travels. But then I grew up and it turned out that my future is here on my smartphone. Research on artificial intelligence, genome editing - everything here on Earth and nothing there closer to the stars. What happened? Why didn’t these amazing classy sci-fi predictions come true?
Sergey Ryazansky: A smartphone is much cheaper than a space flight. While anyone on Earth can have a smartphone, only a few chosen ones get to go to space. So perhaps it is more important to first improve our living standards on Earth and then go beyond it. Anyway, we are moving towards that future. Soon we’ll get back to the Moon and then make it to Mars.
SS: But you’re saying that it’s expensive. So my next question is … When we have rovers that are able to collect pretty much useful information that we would need from outer space on Earth, why do we need to send humans into space? I’m not talking about space tourism, but paying money to actually send people there?
SR: An automated station can only provide answers to the questions it’s been programmed to answer. Whereas a human on the ISS will be able to discover new things, make adjustments to an experiment, or update a program. Moreover, the technology required for their survival in outer space will follow them back home, and then can be used here on Earth to help ordinary people in their daily lives.
SS: You’re a scientist first and foremost, and you are the first scientist to actually be the caption of the crew which is amazing. And you’re saying that astronauts and cosmonauts should actually be intellectually equipped and ready for all different kinds of situations. It’s better if they are scientists. So you know how in sports kids start to prepare from a very young age to become professional sportsmen. Do you think something similar should be done with astronauts? I mean, should there be like a special preparation in all fields for a person who’s supposed to go up in space?
SR: Any astronaut, regardless of their basic education, becomes a one-man army, so to speak, by the end of their training. They become all-round experts who can basically do just about anything. I guess it would be difficult to prepare people for this kind of work in advance. However, I think we should invite professionals with a certain level of education, preferably with a PhD, which is a sign that this person is capable of analysing and processing data, and then to train them to become all-round experts.
SS: I was thinking to myself, what will happen if, once you’re in space, you have a health issue, for instance, your appendicitis opens up, - will the crew be able to perform an appendectomy on you? Is it something you’re trained for before you go?
SR: We are fully prepared for any contingency or emergency.
SS: For that too?
SR: We are fully prepared for anything, although I am not saying that we’ll be able to resolve any situation. Many of those emergencies require experience. I have to admit I had to provide first aid to some of my colleagues more than once on my missions, and it was hard. It’s one thing when you’re trying it on a plastic dummy, and it’s totally different when you’re dealing with a human in pain and who could actually die. But we do have decent medical care. Moreover, the ISS stays in touch with ground control 99 percent of the time.
SS: Has it happened to you that you physically had to save someone up in space? Can you tell me an example? Is it classified? Wow, I’m really impressed. I know that Zero-G causes muscle atrophy, it’s also bad for your bones if you’re up there for too long. and makes bones fragile. What other negative effects can astronauts suffer from if you’re in open space too much?
SR: First of all, it’s obviously the muscle atrophy, and redistribution of body fluids, which may impact on your metabolism and your eyesight, for instance. Also, we suffer from heavy calcium losses, which can be replenished, but it does get quite significant on long flights. Generally, when our body stops using any of its systems they start deteriorating almost instantly, which is amazing in terms of how our physiology works. As soon as you stop reading books you start losing your neural connections. When you don’t work out your muscles get weak; and it’s the same for all body functions.
SS: Are there any positive effects of the Zero-G state on health, on human body?
SR: We haven’t noticed any.
SS: ‘Cause I was thinking, we here, people on Earth, are so caught up in our routine that’s very tense and it’s very hard to get a good massage and relax. So if I’m floating up in the air it’s like the best way to relax your muscles, no?
SR: I guess that’s true, although it really hurts at first.
SR: When you get to zero gravity your spine begins to stretch, and so do the ligaments that have been holding your spine upright. And so you spend your first several days in quite a lot of pain because you actually grow several centimetres taller.
SS: I’ve also heard that cancer cells grow much slower when you’re in outer space. Can that help cure cancer or find a way to cure cancer here on Earth?
SR: It’s a difficult question. Not all of our body cells respond this way. Some cells actually start reproducing at a higher rate. Also, exposure to space radiation can lead to stronger mutation. We’re still researching these factors, and the ISS is particularly valuable as a major research facility that keeps running large numbers of scientific experiments concurrently.
SS: Space tourism is a huge topic now. More people are going to be going out there, we’ve seen examples. Do you see in future people going into space not only for touristic reasons but for treatment as well? Could that be possible? Could something that we can’t cure here on Earth be cured there, and then we’ll come back healthy?
SR: It is quite possible. I can’t rule out that possibility since zero gravity provides a unique environment indeed. But for some time it will still be a site for research and some dedicated projects. It’s hard to imagine an outburst of medical tourism due to the massive vibration and G-load of the launch. But then again, why not. I am sure that we will soon see space tourism rapidly develop.
SS: I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. A year ago, Russians took a 3D printer to ISS to actually print organs, produce human tissue from living cells and biomaterials. NASA is exploring this opportunity as well. I don’t really know why they’re doing it there because when we 3-d print organs here on Earth they can’t really work with our bodies. Is it any different when you 3-d print them there?
SR: Your information is wrong.
SS: OK, correct me.
SR: The problem is not that 3D- bioprinted organs are rejected, there is simply no way to produce them. When you try to grow cells on some substrate, all you get is some malformed layers of cells instead of healthy tissue. There is no way you can get a properly structured human organ with all of its cell layers in the right place. It can be attempted in zero gravity, though. This is why this line of research is drawing a lot of attention right now.
SS: Do you have anything feasible in terms of experiments in outer space already? Or is it just really the beginner stages?
SR: We are only making our first steps. We’ve made a few attempts so far but we haven’t had any real breakthroughs. Right now, we are laying down the foundation. Without a doubt, it’s a very promising technology.
SS: Space exploration still seems fictional in so many ways - it’s even hard to imagine that anything used there could be applicable in real life here. But nonetheless, what technologies developed in space now can be useful here on Earth today?
SR: There are many amazing technologies that have already become part of our life, and we use them every day now. For example, hook and loop straps on sneakers, Teflon, and mobile networks. As for things that are being developed today, it’s hard to say whether they will become that widespread or not. There are enough very interesting research projects on new materials, new plastics and metals, when you can fuse together very light and very heavy metals. Then, new drugs are being researched too, such as growing large proteins, which can be done only in zero gravity. It’s impossible to do that on Earth. Research is also conducted into building artificial crystals, which may be very useful for the laser equipment industry. Zero gravity offers so many opportunities for research that there is no way to know what new technologies and things it may give us. I am sure we will see many new things coming into use.
SS: Sergey, I want to ask you a bit more about the effects that space would have on human bodies? For instance, does the ageing process goes slower or faster? For instance, professional ice skaters, my friends, definitely age much slower than we do.They don’t have a wrinkle, ‘cause they live basically in the fridge? What about in space?
SR: I am not sure it’s like that. I think all biological processes take place in the very same way. All cosmonauts do look younger than their age but the reason for that is probably their lifestyle, regular training and medical check-ups. At least, when you are on active duty, you are being monitored all the time and it is up to you to keep your health under control. A regular person doesn’t do that so often, unfortunately, unless something happens. Aging is a complex process. I don’t think you can say with any degree of certainty that zero gravity is producing some certain effect. It is true that experiments have been conducted to analyse that, both on animals and humans. So far, the changes that have been reported lie within the statistical confidence interval. No definite patterns have been found yet. Let’s wait and see, this is only the dawn of the space era. Aging is a long process and it’s hard to analyse it step-by-step.
SS: What about the whole sleeping process? We, conscious humans understand today the importance of sleep. I mean if you sleep at night and you sleep well, that’s half of your health. I was talking to your fellow colleague Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke and he was like, “the best sleep I ever had it was when I was up there, it was like the deepest sleep.” For me, it’s unimaginable, I want my pillow and my blanket. What about you? Did you sleep well?
SR: I also love my pillow and my blanket. At first, it was uncomfortable to sleep in space, but now I’d say it’s about the same, except when you’re in space you dream about Earth, and on Earth you dream about space. Our brain shows us all the things that we miss. In space, you sleep in a kind of suspended state. You basically float in your sleeping bag, and you have to remember to secure it so as not to wake up in a different corner of the ISS.
SS: But isn’t it great for your back, like, everything’s resting fine when you’re floating in the air?
SR: Zero-G feels absolutely incredible. It’s really great. But the thing is...
SS: What does it feel like?
SR: It’s probably everyone’s dream to soar like a bird. That’s exactly how you feel. But the thing is, you know you’ll have to come back to the world of gravity. So you train hard every day. An astronaut exercises at least two hours every day. It’s a must to keep your body in good shape to deal with gravity and recovery.
SS: When you’re up there you’re doing two hours of sports?
SR: Yes. And when you go back, recovering after zero-G is very hard.
SS: Is it true thatpeople don’t snore when they sleep up there?
SR: It is.
SS: How come?
SR: Because it prevents our throat from making those sounds. Zero-G means no obstructions, so everything is great.
SS: You’re super-popular on Instagram, and you post the most beautiful images of Earth from above. And I guess it’s your hobby and you have followers, but then you told me that you’re being commissioned by ecologists and even sociologists to make pictures. I understand how you would make pictures for scientific reasons, environmentalists and meteorologists may need it. But what do sociologists need them for?
SR: Well, scientists are completely unpredictable people. One interesting project, for example, aimed to determine population density and levels of prosperity based on illumination intensity. Towns, roads, small villages – we can see it all from space, so we use advanced photography equipment capable of capturing images at the huge speed that the ISS is moving at, with short exposure and high ISO sensitivity. And we get really good, interesting data.
SS: You’ve been saying that the ISS has outlived itself, and we should re-focus on our efforts to get us to Mars. But it would take hypothetically 7-8 months to get to Mars, right? And that’s just to take there, not taking into account the return leg and the time staying there. So given the levels of radiation there, would it be possible to get to Mars and back without irreversible consequences?
SR: In all likelihood, yes. Of course, we need to do more research, but the total amount of radiation an astronaut gets these days exceeds what a Mars mission crew would get. Moreover, if we speak of Mir, the old Soviet space station, crews were exposed to even higher levels of radiation, and they spent up to 1.5 years on board. The missions were longer, the orbit was lower, the radiation higher, and astronauts used to complete more missions like this. So I don’t think it would have some terrible impact on a person’s health, though the cumulative effect might mean that further missions would not be advisable.
SS: I want to ask you about the embryo research that showed that radiation takes a heavy toll on the foetus, causing irreversible mutations and stillbirth. This programme was shut, is any research of this kind being done now? Because when we’re talking about flying to Mars I feel like this is very relevant for us to continue research in this field as well?
SR: Unfortunately, no research like that is conducted at the moment. Why? The research performed on biosatellites back in the Soviet times proved space radiation is the main factor that influences the development of a foetus. If space radiation affects a cell in my body, the cell can die, but the body will be okay. But if it happens to a developing embryo, it will lead to mutation. It could result in a stillbirth or some anomalies. So we know it’s not space or zero-G that impacts development, but space radiation. Until we learn to shield us from it properly, there is no point in further experiments.
SS: But do you agree that once we go to other planets our ability to reproduce in space will be of utter importance?
SR: Of course it will, and if we decide to build some long-term stations on other planets, we need to study this issue and plan it beforehand. Since there are some very serious risks that have been proven scientifically, we are not running any experiments currently – either on the ISS, or on biosatellites. But the very least we can do is consider all options, and surely, if we are to think of building manned stations in space, we need to pick locations very carefully making sure they’re protected from space radiation.
SS: The ISS doe decades has been this platform for co-operation where you guys come together and put all the differences that your countries have on Earth aside. Do you think, when we’re talking about re-focusing on flying to Mars astronauts and space community will come together in achieving that, or is it going to be like, who’s going to get there first?
SR: I’m a huge fan of the idea and I really hope that a manned mission to Mars will be a joint effort signifying humanity’s success rather than the success of a single nation. At least, I think that would be the right way to do it. The ISS is living proof that we can be successful as a team; that we can work together peacefully and productively, with no borders and no politics between us. So, we have one example. Clearly, a manned mission to Mars will involve enormous costs and resources; and I cannot imagine one nation, no matter how rich it could be, completing this project alone. We need to start working on it jointly, and it may well be that this mission will have a positive, reconciliatory effect on whatever differences we have between us on Earth.
SS: Voyager-2 has given the first signal in 40 years from the interstellar space for the first time since it was launched. So we talk often with the astronauts about going back to the Moon and going to Mars. And you’re not the only one, a lot of your colleagues are dreaming to realise this project, to go on Mars and going back to the Moon. But there are few projects aimed at deep space. Why do we give so little attention to interstellar flights?
SR: It’s just a little too far. It’s natural that humanity is more interested to know what is out there close enough to our planet, something we or future generations can use to our advantage. It sounds totally cool, but it’s extremely time-consuming. To run an experiment that takes 40 years to complete – well, as a scientist I can imagine that, but as a person I won’t find this task very rewarding. It’s possible that once we manage to produce new engines capable of producing much higher speeds, it will make more sense. We’ll be able to just send dozens of spacecraft on scouting missions in different directions to see what’s out there, or who’s out there, and how we can use it for our own good.
SS: You’ve said something that really marked me. You said, “you fly into orbit as a patriot of your country, and come back as a citizen of the world”. What happens to you up there that you come back as a citizen of the world? You’re obviously love your country, you’re a patriot, but that’s secondary because, first of all, you’re a citizen of the world, right?
SR: I can’t take credit for these words, I heard them from an older Soviet cosmonaut, and to be honest, I was very surprised to hear it at the time. But when the time came for me to go on a space mission and see it all for myself, I saw what he meant. On a space flight, you literally leave all your problems behind; you fly high and above everyone and everything. And there, you see any and all borderlines on Earth disappear. You see that our planet is not the way they teach us in schools, with different countries marked in different colours, separated from one another. You see that planet Earth is just another, although bigger international space station that is on a mission in the vast space, just like the ISS, and that it’s also just a tiny speck of dust in this infinite Universe. We need to learn not to divide this tiny speck of dust with borders, to live in peace and to work on all our issues jointly – and to keep exploring outer space, of course.
SS: Sergey, thank you so much for this wonderful interview, for all the insights. I can’t wait for all of your projects and dreams to come true. And I hope we'll be speaking soon about something that came true, for instance, a flight to Mars in the very near future. Good luck with everything.
SR: Thank you.