“If we can build a space station on Mars, then we can move to farther planets and galaxies”

She has logged a total of 1,318 hours in space. She has been on five spaceflights in just a decade. She has been lucky enough to have lived her dream of being an astronaut. On Monday, everyone, including school children, listened spellbound as she narrated her experiences of living in space. Veteran American astronaut Marsha Ivins has surely made fans in the city who would like to explore the galaxy.

“From the time I was 10, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Ms. Ivins said, during a public lecture organised by the American Centre, Mumbai, at Nehru Planetarium here on Monday. When asked how she felt after being in space for the first time, she replied: “I was kind of excited, kind of scared. Nothing compares to that [being in space]. It was pretty cool.”

“I think travelling again to the Moon is the right thing to do,” she said, on a more serious note. Her eyes sparkled every time she spoke of the future, filled with endless possibilities. “If we can actually learn to live away from our planet then that will be interesting. If we can build a space station on Mars, then we can move to farther planets and galaxies,” she said.

She doesn't think that we will be able to find “recognisable forms of life” in our solar system. But she isn't deterred by the nay-sayers. “When people ask me, ‘why do you want to leave our planet and explore the galaxy?' I look at the picture of our galaxy taken by the Hubble telescope and say, ‘because we must'.”

She feels that taking pictures is a very interesting and important part of an astronaut's job. Another important job is conducting various experiments. “For example, we study protein crystal growth or the mechanics of combustion and flames,” she said, adding that experimenting in space without the presence of gravity and atmosphere has helped in a better understanding of things.

Ms. Ivins spent 55 days in space during her career with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), when she worked with the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center for more than 36 years. She was on-board five spaceflights — STS-32, STS-46, STS-62, STS-81 and STS-98 from 1990 to 2001.

“We are followed up on as an experiment throughout our lives, after we return from space. We take more radiation than those of you who are on Earth. But so far, no detrimental effect has been found on us,” she said, adding that very little physical training was required to be in space.

“The most essential thing is a degree in any technical field. Then we undergo medical exams,” she said, when asked what the criteria was for selection as an astronaut.

She spoke at length on how it felt to travel at 20,000 kilometres/ hour, to move around without the force of gravity acting on you, to see the sunset and the sunrise multiple times in a matter of 24 hours, to see the Earth from 400 km away. She told the children how they took a bath in the space shuttle, the way they made tea, coffee and food.

She said the crew ate packaged food for most part of the year. “The cargo vehicles, which come four times a year, bring fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Bathing with waterballs

Since there is no gravity, the water forms into balls. “So when you need a bath, you wash yourself with a waterball,” she said, showing pictures of an astronaut who moved a waterball on his face before applying soap.

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