When humans move to space, we are the aliens, the extraterrestrials. And so, when living in space, the oddness never quite goes away. Consider something as elemental as sleep. When an astronaut is ready to sleep aboard the International Space Station (shown, left), he or she climbs into a sleeping bag tethered to a wall in a private cubicle the size of an airplane lavatory.
“On Earth,” says Col. Mike Hopkins, who returned in March 2014 from a six-month tour on the space station, “after a long day, when you first lie down on your bed, there’s an immediate sense of relaxation.” But in space, there is no gravity, and thus, no lying down. “You never have that feeling of taking weight off your feet—or that emotional relief.”
Sleep position presents its own challenges. The main question is whether you want your arms inside or outside the sleeping bag. If you leave your arms out, they float free in zero gravity, often drifting out from your body, giving a sleeping astronaut the look of a wacky ballet dancer. “I’m an inside guy,” Hopkins says. “I like to be cocooned up.”
Spaceflight has faded from American consciousness even as our performance in space has reached a new level of accomplishment. Every day, half a dozen men and women are living and working in orbit on the International Space Station—and have been since November 2000.
The station, a vast outpost big enough that it can be spotted tracing across the night sky when it passes overhead, is a joint operation: half American, half Russian. Navigation and operations are shared, and the role of station commander alternates between a cosmonaut and an astronaut. The Russians and Americans typically keep to their own modules during the workday. But the crews often gather for meals and hang out together after work.
As a facility, a spacecraft, and a habitation, the station has its own personality and quirks. On the station, the ordinary becomes peculiar. The exercise bike has no handlebars. It also has no seat. With no gravity, it’s just as easy to pedal furiously, feet strapped in, without either. You can watch a movie while you pedal by floating a laptop anywhere you want. But station residents have to be careful about staying in one place too long. Without gravity to help circulate air, the carbon dioxide you exhale has a tendency to form an invisible cloud around your head, resulting in a carbon-dioxide headache. And while the food is much better than it was 20 years ago, most of it’s still vacuum-packed or canned. The arrival of a few oranges on a cargo ship every couple of months is cause for jubilation.
“Hey, Houston, this is Station. Good morning. We’re ready for the morning DPC.”
That’s U.S. station commander Steven Swanson, hailing Mission Control from orbit one morning last July. Every day starts and ends with a daily planning conference, or DPC. Although the astronauts live and work in the space station, they don’t fly it or otherwise control it—Mission Control in Houston and Moscow do. And life on the station is managed via spreadsheet: Every minute of each astronaut’s workday is mapped out in blocks devoted to specific tasks. Astronauts typically start work by 7:30 a.m. and stop at 7:00 p.m. They are supposed to have the weekends off, but Saturday is devoted to cleaning the station—vital, but no more fun in orbit than housecleaning down here.
Highly educated, highly motivated astronauts end up doing one task after another, all day long, some of them fun and intellectually challenging (conducting research with ground-based scientists), some of them tedious (recording the serial numbers of the items in the trash before sending them to be burned up in the atmosphere). No one signs up to fly through space in order to empty the urine container or swap out air filters.
From 2003 to 2010, ten astronauts who served on the station each kept a diary as part of a study on people living in extreme environments. The anonymous diaries reveal men and women who are thrilled by life in space, though occasionally bored and sometimes seriously irritated.
“I had to laugh to myself at the procedures today,” wrote one station astronaut. “To replace a lightbulb, I had to have safety glasses and a vacuum cleaner handy. This was in case the bulb broke. However, the actual bulb is encased in a plastic enclosure, so even if it did break, the shards would be completely contained. Also, I had to take a photo of the installed bulb—before turning it on. Why? I have no idea! It’s just the way NASA does things.”
“It has been a pretty tedious week with tasks that were clearly allotted too little time on the schedule,” wrote another. “Talking to [a Mission Control staffer] today, I realized he just doesn’t understand how we work up here.”
That’s a pretty standard complaint, of course: Soldiers at the front line have one impression of how the war is going; military headquarters has another. All report getting along well. But from the astronauts’ perspective, it’s hard for the ground staff to understand life in space. As with anything else, the privileges and joys of working in space don’t neutralize ordinary office politics.