'How to Live in Space': A Q&A with Author Colin Stuart

"How to Live in Space: Everything You Need to Know for the Not-So-Distant Future" by Colin Stuart (Smithsonian Books, 2018)
"How to Live in Space: Everything You Need to Know for the Not-So-Distant Future" by Colin Stuart (Smithsonian Books, 2018) (Image credit: Smithsonian Books)

With the space-tourism industry getting ready to take flight, aspiring space adventurers will soon be able to purchase tickets to low Earth orbit and beyond. But before you dish out thousands of dollars for a chance to blast off into space, there are a few things you should know.

A new book titled "How to Live in Space: Everything You Need to Know for the Not-So-Distant Future" (Smithsonian Books, 2018) offers a handy guide for anyone interested in leaving planet Earth — for a quick high-altitude balloon flight, a mission to the moon or even a one-way trip to Mars.

Virgin Galactic has already sold hundreds of tickets for future suborbital flights aboard SpaceShipTwo, and the company's competitor Blue Origin plans to start selling tickets next year for flights on the New Shepard suborbital rocket. Prospective space tourists can expect to spend around $250,000 for a ticket on either of those trips. For a longer stay in Earth's orbit, look to a company called Orion Span, which plans to launch a "luxury space hotel," where a 12-day stay will cost $9.5 million per person. [14 Awesome Space Tourism Travel Posters from NASA (Gallery)]

Space tourism isn't cheap, and spaceflight can be unpleasant. So, before you splurge on an out-of-this-world vacation, you should know what you're getting into. Space.com spoke with Colin Stuart, a space and astronomy writer and author of "How to Live in Space," to get the lowdown on what novice spacefarers of the future can expect.

Space.com: Spaceflight is typically an activity that's reserved for well-trained astronauts, but your book is geared toward civilians and space tourists. Why did you decide that this audience needed a handbook for living in space?

Colin Stuart: It kind of feels like we're at a new dawn in a way, in a transition moment where space is opening up not just to the highly trained or the lucky few, but hopefully for everyone. The book is sort of a handbook for the everyday person who goes to space in the future, and it tells you what you need to know to get by. It explains things like eating, sleeping, drinking, going to the toilet in space — you know, the classic stuff. But it also delves into some of the more unusual things that maybe you haven't thought about before, like space law. For example, if you punch someone in space, do you get prosecuted? Who prosecutes you? That's the book in a nutshell.

Space.com: What kind of surprises will space tourists encounter?

Stuart: Some of the mundane things might be the most surprising. For example, you would expect that there would be some sort of washing machine for clothes in space, but there isn't. So, people at the International Space Station end up wearing their clothes for ages. And then, when they when they finally get so dirty that people can't wear them, the clothes end up going in a capsule and burning up in the atmosphere. If you see a shooting star, it's probably a piece of normal space stuff, but there's a chance it's an astronauts' dirty socks.

The other thing is how efficient astronauts are at recycling everything, because it costs so much money to get things into space. You have to be really prudent about what's there. So, the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra that we have on Earth is so critical in space as well. You've got to suck every last drop of usefulness out of things, including water. So, for example, they recycle a lot of their water on the space station, including human urine. About 93 percent of all the water gets recycled.

Space.com: What are some of the most important things people should know about spaceflight before they make the decision to go to space?

Stuart: If we're talking about longer-duration missions rather than hopping on a suborbital flight and coming right back down again, one of the things we have got to be really prepared for is the psychological effect of being so far removed from your everyday environment. Now, it's kind of OK if you're orbiting around the Earth. You can get homesick, but at least the Earth is right there out the window — big, bold, bright. You can phone someone back home. The space station has a telephone.

But if you start to then go farther away, your universe gets smaller, and the communication delay gets longer. We just don't know what that's going to do to people if they end up going to Mars, for example, in the future. No human being has ever had that level of isolation. If you're going to be halfway to Mars, you won't see Earth as more than a blue dot in the distance nor Mars as a red dot in the distance. A message home would take a good 10 minutes. A reply will take 10 minutes.

No human being has ever been that isolated, and we've done things that try and guess and simulate that kind of isolation on Earth in different experiments. But I'd say the biggest hurdle we have for sort of colonizing space is not only technological. We have a pretty good history of solving technological problems but not necessarily psychological ones. So, when we try it, when we send the first people to make that trip, you've got to be prepared for it to do unusual things to the human psyche.


Space.com: What about those shorter tourist missions, where you just kind of go up and come back down?

Stuart: I think you'd pretty well looked after. The plans for things like Virgin Galactic are that you would spend a couple of days on a training mission for the mission first. So, you'd be schooled in all of the things, and you would go through all of the medical checks that you have to go through, so you wouldn't really have to worry there.

The only thing that you need to be aware of is that weightlessness, even temporary weightlessness, can play havoc with the human body and the vestibular system in your ear that tells you which way is up. You can be violently ill, but there's not really a way to know for sure how ill you're going to be. Even if you do training on a parabolic flight, Vomit Comet-style, it's not a perfect one-to-one match between those people that cope well with the Vomit Comet and those who can go to space without getting sick.

Be prepared for it to still feel bad seeing your beautiful views of the window. If I went, I'm pretty sure that I'd be pretty ill, because I don't have a particularly good track record with motion sickness, that kind of thing. So, be prepared for it to not be all magical and wonderful. You might be stricken with some sickness there, and there's not a lot you can do to prepare yourself for that. 

Space.com: So, other than barf bags, what should people pack for a trip to space?

Stuart: A camera — I think that's a guarantee. Some sort of memento, too. Astronauts are famous for taking small, little tokens with them and bringing them back. And things that have flown to space can be quite nostalgic ... so maybe bring a wedding ring or some kind of nice memento.

I should say something about barf bags, while you mention it. I hadn't realized before I researched the book that they test astronaut barf bags on the Earth, which makes sense. But to do it, they don't use real human vomit. They make their own fake vomit using pureed cottage cheese mixed with tomato soup, apple juice, soy sauce and frozen vegetables. It's pretty grim. That's the closest analog they can find to genuine human sick, to make sure the bags don't leak. 

Space.com: With that said, is there a certain kind of food that people should eat (or avoid eating) before launching into space?

Stuart: You want to keep it pretty plain. You don't want to have anything that you don't really want to see on the way out. I'd cut down on the spice and eat something sort of slow burning, like porridge or carbohydrates or pasta or something to kind of give you enough energy and that you won't be too upset to see come out the other way.

Space.com: What would you recommend packing for a longer-duration trip or a one-way trip to Mars or somewhere interstellar?

Stuart: I think a lot of the things that you're going to need will be supplied for you. I think it comes down to psychology again. You want to take things with you that are going to keep your spirits up, that are going to remind you most of home and that, when times get tough, will be able to raise your spirits again.

Look at the Mars500 project, for example. The crewmembers talk about missing certain things, like the sound of water flowing or the sound of the wind. So, maybe take some type of playlist — not only of your favorite music, but also some of your favorite sounds from the Earth. It could be waves breaking on the shore. The Mar-500 participant Romain Charles said he really missed the sound of the wind blowing through the wheat fields at his uncle's farm when he was a kid, and he said he wished he had recorded it.

I think it depends on what kind of person you are, too. For some people, the sounds could have the opposite effect. It might remind you too much of the Earth, and maybe you would get sad that you weren't there.

Space.com: Do you think that spaceflight can ever really become like a luxury vacation experience? Or will it always be inherently uncomfortable and dangerous?

Stuart: You've always got the element of risk with spaceflight, and I think lately we've become a bit blasé about it, because space travel seems so routine to us. People are going to space all the time. The aborted Soyuz launch to the space station in October was the first Soyuz failure in a long time, and it reminds us, especially, that space travel is dangerous and there is always inherent risk in it.

It can take a while until it becomes luxurious, but I often say, in some ways, it's the same as traveling around the Earth. The first transatlantic journeys were made on sailing ships taking months at a time. Must have been a horrible experience — cramped, stinky, cold, rubbish food — and the chances of things going wrong on that mission across the Atlantic were ... very high. Whereas, now, transatlantic travel is routine and can be greatly luxurious. We're talking about a blue ocean there. Space is a black ocean, and I don't see too much difference between the two in that the more you do it, the safer things become and the more luxurious things become. So, by the end of this century, are we going to be sending people around the moon in a comfortable way on a fairly regular basis for leisure? I think it's a possibility.

Space.com: Would you go to space?

Stuart: The answer has always been yes for me as long as it's a very short mission. I'm not sure I'd be up for the trip to Mars and back. But suborbital, absolutely, and I still hold out hope that I'm going to get to do that. I'm in my early 30s, and in 30 years' time, I'm in my 60s — the cost of those trips could come down from the current $250,000. If it comes down at the same rate as air travel fares, then it will fall to tens of thousands of dollars. That's a lot of money, but it's the sort of money people spend on a car, on a holiday, so I still hold out hope of going into space. I would go around the moon for a week, absolutely. I mean, who could turn that down? But I don't think I would have the personality type suited for those long-duration missions.

This interview was edited for length. You can buy "How to Live in Space: Everything You Need to Know for the Not-So-Distant Future" at Amazon.com.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. Original article on Space.com.

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Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at FutureFlight.aero and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at Space.com. As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.