British astronaut in space answers Twitter questions

A British astronaut working on the International Space Station has answered questions fielded via Twitter, while in space.

British astronaut Nicholas Patrick was preparing for his second venture into the void to help put some of the finishing touches to the 12-year, $100 billion construction of the International Space Station.

In the ultimate home improvement project, the 45-year-old was set to make the second of three spacewalks to complete the hook-up of a new $382 million annex to the orbiting laboratory, complete with an observation deck that will provide astronauts with an unprecedented 360-degree view of the universe. In a 20 minute live link-up with mission control in Houston, in which he answered questions posed by Twitter users from around the world, Dr Patrick told of the “spectacular” experience of drifting above his home planet and watching through the visor of his space helmet as the sun and the moon rose in front of him during his first spacewalk on Friday.

“It’s really hard to describe but I’ll try,” he said in response to a Twitter question read over to him by fellow astronaut Mike Massimino, the voice of mission control in Houston, Texas. “We went out of the hatch in the dark so I couldn’t see anything at first except the underside of the space station and Endeavour, which were in floodlights – and that was beautiful enough.

“We got working. Our first sunrise was coming up and I looked towards the horizon and there was this beautiful blue glow coming towards us,” he said. “The glow spreads across the horizon and towards you and then turns orange and red and the sun picks up the space station as bathed in a brilliant light.

“It all happens extremely quickly and it happens 16 times a day, and it’s a really stunning site from where we are up here, but especially from the inside of a spacesuit.” Dr Patrick – who was born in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire and now lives in Houston with his Peruvian wife Rossana and children William, seven, Cecilia, six, and Cameron, three – chronicled the final weeks of preparation for his mission via postings on Twitter prior to his launch aboard the space shuttle Endeavour from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday.

During his 13-day mission, which ends on Friday, he will submit occasional Tweets from space as Astro-Nicholas, but apologised yesterday that a packed schedule in orbit has kept him from doing all he would like. Mr Massimino, who Tweets under the name of Astro-Mike, separately invited space fans to submit questions for him to relay to Dr Patrick and his Endeavour crewmate Bob Behnken.

“This was a major competition – we got, like, thousands of questions,” said Mr Massimino. Questions included “What does space smell like?” – to which Dr Patrick replied: “The smell is to metal what the smell of toast is to bread” – and whether he had experienced any “funny moments.” “The funny things are when things that you think you had just ten seconds ago have gone,” said Dr Patrick, speaking from inside the International Space Station, where the near zero-gravity conditions means that people and objects float weightless.

“There’s one thing I lost and I still haven’t found it five days later,” he grinned. “It’s amusing to watch things and people flying around.” His second spacewalk on Saturday night, alongside American colleague Bob Behnken, is expected to last around six hours. Dr Patrick’s role will be as a space plumber, attaching liquid ammonia cooling hoses to the outside of the new Tranquility module, the final major component of the space station that the pair slotted on to the space station during their first spacewalk last week.

Cocooned inside a $20 million spacesuit that protects him from the vacuum of space, he will see the Earth spread out below him like a map as he orbits the planet once every 90 minutes. The sensation is said by astronauts to be similar to falling from a skyscraper but never hitting the ground.

“One of the things I was struck by when I was doing my (first) spacewalk is you can’t really be comfortable hanging from the space station 200 miles above the planet going about 18,000 miles an hour unless you are really confident about the physics, that you will keep going around the planet and not fall,” said Dr Patrick. In a final sign-off to his wife and children, he added: “I’d like to thank my family too for putting up with my, what shall we call it, ‘business travel.'”

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