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Astronauts’ well-kept secret: ‘Space has a smell’

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NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins punched a clock on the International Space Station (ISS) long enough for the Red Sox to win the World Series and the Seahawks to win the Superbowl. He returned to Earth on March 10 — and, yesterday, answered questions during an “Ask Me Anything” session on the Web site

Here are the highlights:

Space stinks: “Space has a smell,” Hopkins wrote. “And I don’t mean inside the space station. When a visiting vehicle docks with the space station, there is ‘space’ between the two vehicles. Once the pressure is equalized and the hatch is opened, you have this metallic ionization-type smell. It’s quite unique and very distinct.”

Astronauts get stressed — before they leave the ground: Hopkins wasn’t worried about a Challenger-like disaster but feared he wouldn’t be able to fly at all. “You spend 2 and a half years building up to this point,” Hopkins wrote. “There’s  always a chance you might not get to go. You might get injured, you might get sick, you may not do well on a phase of the training and be replaced. So when we finally launch, it’s a sense of relief to finally be going.”

Space food isn’t horrible: Those with a dim view of NASA fare should banish memories of Dippin Dots. “Beef enchiladas,” Hopkins wrote when asked about his favorite in-flight cuisine. “I was also a fan of apricot cobbler.”

Pumping iron in zero gravity is tough — if you’re a wimp: “The weights you use for things like squats actually goes up, since you aren’t lifting your body weight,” Hopkins wrote. “So you have to add that to your lifts in space.” Hopkins, however, didn’t have a problem keeping up: “Interestingly, in testing before and after spending time in space, I squat roughly the same.”

Astronauts sweat: “The sweat actually sticks to you,” Hopkins wrote. “It pools on your arms and head. It can pool and get in your eyes, too. If you are running, it does fling off onto the walls and stuff, and then you are cleaning the walls around you. So you have to towel off often to keep it under control. The interesting part is that the sweat does go into the condensate system that gets recycled. Eventually after the towels dry off and the water is recycled, it becomes drinking water.”

The Cold War is over: “I’m still not comfortable with the Russian language, but my Russian skills are strong enough that I could safely launch, land and communicate with my Russian colleagues,” Hopkins wrote. “I spent about 35 weeks training in Russia. That training is integrated with the US, Japanese, and European training which is integrated into a single plan that gets you to launch day and life on the ISS.”

His mission isn’t over: “Right now, I’m in my post-flight phase,” Hopkins wrote. “It lasts 6 months. During that time, we go through rehabilitation, medical exams, and debriefs. And then we spend some time sharing the story and experience of being in space. In September, I will start working a job that supports the astronauts on the space station or those in training. I may also support the new vehicles that will launch from US soil starting in 2017.”

Astronauts read in space: “I was able to read while on the station,” Hopkins wrote. “I read the Horatio Hornblower series and the Divergent series. I also read Inferno by Dan Brown.”

For more, check out Hopkins in action: