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60 Days in Space

Astronaut Tim Kopra's summer on the space station

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The secret to living in space is good housekeeping and a sleeping bag that keeps you from floating away, says Astronaut Tim Kopra, of Austin, Texas. Kopra spent the summer on the International Space Station (ISS), part of the first-ever expanded crew of six people. In the past, the orbiting space lab was home to only two or three astronauts at a time.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour took Kopra to the space station in July. He returned September 11 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery after 60 days in space. Before leaving, he spoke at length to these Kid Reporters. He also sent emails during his stay about his life in zero gravity.

"This place is amazing," he said in an email. "I'm still trying to soak it all in."

Aside from having to do everything while floating around, life on a space station can be much like life on Earth, he said.

"A whole lot of living in space is pretty mundane," he said. "It's all about good housekeeping."

Clean Up Your Room!

Saturdays on the ISS are cleaning days. Kopra and crew vacuumed, wiped down surfaces, and cleaned the bathroom. Kopra once had to fix a broken toilet, which can be quite a problem in space.

Just like on Earth, home improvements are important. Kopra used his great gaming skills to inch-walk a robotic arm to various areas of the ISS and the payload bay of the Shuttle Endeavour for repair work. He helped attach Japan's Kibo laboratory complex and delivered spare station parts for future use.

All tools and equipment must be barcoded to keep track of where each one belongs. Each item used is scanned upon removal and then re-scanned as it is put back in its proper place.

"In zero G [zero gravity] everything floats off," Kopra said. "Velcro is the astronaut's best friend."

The astronauts also had to keep track of themselves. Kopra and his fellow space travelers slept in dark green sleeping bags designed to keep them stationary. Sleeping quarters are very small, with no room — or use — for regular beds. For one thing, you would float right off of a bed!

Working Outdoors

Attaching new modules to expand the space station means having to work outside, where the problem of zero gravity is combined with a lack of oxygen. While the Space Shuttle Endeavour was still docked with the ISS, Kopra and Astronaut David Wolf performed the first of five scheduled spacewalks, or Extravehicular Activity (EVA), as NASA terms it.

Kopra and Wolf were tethered to the space station for over five hours while they prepared the Kibo laboratory and another module for installation. The Kibo will serve as a “porch” for future experiments. They also deployed a cargo carrier attachment system that had failed to work on an earlier mission in March.

When not cleaning, building, or repairing his temporary home, Kopra had other jobs to do. He made educational videos and worked with bacteria and fungi samples as part of an ongoing experiment.

The new crew of six all worked — and socialized — together. Kopra speaks Russian and the Russian Cosmonauts speak English. One night they had a dinner party and all shared their stash of special foods.

On his days off Kopra visited with family and friends via the Internet and phone. On August 4, he became the first person to send a Twitter message from outer space.

"What a fun shuttle mission — especially w 13 people on board station," he "tweeted." When a space shuttle mission is docked to the ISS, the number of people on board can be as high as 12 or 13.

Exercise

One of the most important things on his to-do list was exercise. Because of zero gravity, astronauts lose muscle tone. Kopra exercised with weights on a space treadmill every day. He took a fitness test every 30 days to make sure he was staying healthy. Despite all that work, he had to be carried off the Discovery when it landed in California. His leg muscles were too weak to hold him up.

Kopra made a quick recovery, however, and is slated to return to space next year on one of the last scheduled missions before the space shuttles are retired.

Kopra told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps that he will miss the ISS, his new friends, and the amazing views of the Earth. (When asked once about a hurricane thought to be approaching Texas, he reported back from his unique viewpoint: "I don't see any hurricanes, but I do see lots of clouds covering Texas.")

As he prepared to return to his home planet and state, Kopra said he was most excited about reuniting with his family.

"I'm looking forward to helping my son study for Texas history this next year," he said.

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Scholastic Kids Press Corps

The Scholastic Kids Press Corps is a team of 32 student reporters who report "news for kids, by kids." Sports, politics, and entertainment are among the topics they cover.