The Shuttle Offers Uncommon Views, But Some Everyday Activities Can Be Tough

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Piers Sellers says it feels like someone detonated a bomb behind his back.

"The launch is very violent," Sellers said. "In eight-and-a-half minutes you [go from] lying on your back in Florida to flying around the world [at] five miles per second."

In July, Sellers was one of six astronauts on the shuttle Discovery crew. It was his second trip into space, where he has spent more than 500 hours. He says that the feeling of being in space is "extraordinary" -- even if it is hard to sleep and go to the bathroom up there.

The Earth looks "beautiful," Sellers, 51, said of the view. "It is blue and almost glowing it is so bright. The sun is bright white, and it moves fast."

The spaceship moves so quickly (17,500 miles per hour) that it orbits Earth every 90 minutes. But even with 16 sunsets every 24 hours, the astronauts don't get much sleep. While in space, astronauts work 18 to 19 hours a day and then catch a nap and start over.

Sellers says he has a tough time getting shut-eye. Astronauts are tied in sleeping bags to keep them from floating. Sellers says it is like trying to sleep in bathwater.

Going to the bathroom can be tough, too. There is only one bathroom on a spaceship, and it uses a big suction fan to gather everything. The suction fan can't be too strong; otherwise it could hurt, so sometimes it isn't strong enough to catch everything.

"You don't have gravity to help you," Sellers said. "You've just got to be careful, because if you aren't you have to clean it up."

As a kid in England, Sellers was fascinated by anything that could fly. He watched the British National Space Centre (England's equivalent of the U.S. space agency NASA) launch rockets on television, and he built models. At 15, Sellers started flying gliders. He moved to planes with engines two years later.

"I thought, 'Wow, that is great!' " Sellers said. "I wanted to be close to it, to the whole space-exploration business; it was exciting."

Sellers's other interest is science, especially the environment. In high school he took as many science classes as possible, including biology, chemistry and physics. In college he majored in ecology (how living things interact with their environment) and then earned a graduate degree in the study of how living things influence the weather.

Before he went into space, Sellers flew all over the world to study global climate. In 1982 he moved to Greenbelt to continue studying Earth at Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1996, at the age of 41, he was accepted into astronaut training.

NASA selects people including scientists, pilots and doctors to spend two years as astronaut candidates. At the end of that training, NASA decides who will become astronauts. A decision on which astronauts will go into space is made later.

"Stay in school and do something that really interests you," Sellers advises. "If you want to be an astronaut you have to be something else first."

-- Amy Orndorff

© 2006 The Washington Post Company