The Bizarrely Ordinary Lives of Astronauts: A Day Inside the International Space Station

Largely forgotten by the American public, astronauts have been orbiting Earth for 15 years. Here's how they spend their days.

may 2015 space colonyCourtesy NASA

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. If you want to see the Northern Lights, these are the best places to see them. 

“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.

may 2015 space colonyCourtey NASAStill, astronauts never tire of watching Earth spin below—one wrote of stopping at a window and being so captivated that he watched an entire orbit. “I have been looking at Earth from the point of view of a visiting extraterrestrial,” wrote another. “Where would I put down, and how would I go about making contact?”

The diary entries make it very clear that six months is a long time to be in space—a long time to go without family and friends, without fresh food, without feeling sunshine or rain or the pleasures of gravity; a long time to be tethered to the tasks of maintaining body and station, on a ship with no bathing or laundry facilities.

On the station, NASA and the astronauts themselves have had to be more attentive to morale. The space station has a telephone—astronauts can call anyone they want, whenever it’s convenient—and their families get specially programmed iPads for private videoconferences. The astronauts have private conversations with NASA psychologists once every two weeks.

The space station is stocked with movies and books. But Ed Lu, one of the earliest crew members, decided that he wasn’t going to spend his free time doing something so earthly as reading a paperback. The singular experience of space is the flying—not flying the spaceship you’re in, but flying, yourself, inside it. That’s what really makes you an astronaut—the almost unbelievable liberation from gravity.

I don’t know if I’m ever coming back here, Lu remembers thinking. “I wanted to do things I could never do at home. I decided to learn to fly better, to learn acrobatics,” he says. “I would pick a module and say to myself, Every time I go through this module, I’m going to fly through without touching the sides. I would pick a compartment and say, Every time I go through this compartment, I’m going to do a double flip.”

“What’s it like to live in zero G?” asks Sandra Magnus, who took three spaceflights. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says, laughing. “The thing is, in space, Newton’s laws rule your life. If you’re doing something as simple as typing on a laptop, you’re exerting force on the keyboard, and you end up getting pushed away and floating off. You have to hold yourself down with your feet.”

Gravity is an indispensable organizing tool, she says, one you don’t appreciate until you have to live without it. Magnus liked to cook for her colleagues on the station, finding new dishes to make with the food NASA supplied, especially with the delivery of, say, a fresh onion. “It takes hours,” she says. “Why hours? Think about one thing: when you cook, how often you throw things in a trash can. How can you do that? Because gravity lets you throw things in the trash. Without gravity, you have to figure out what to do. I put the trash on a piece of duct tape, but even so, dealing with the trash takes forever.”

When you’re in zero G, all the fluids in your body are in zero G, too, so astronauts often feel stuffy-headed from fluid migrating to their sinuses; some end up literally puffy faced.

Zero G also causes bone-mass loss. Bones regenerate and grow partly in response to the work they have to do each day. Without weight to support in space, the bones make fresh cells at a slower rate; they thin and weaken. A postmenopausal woman on Earth might lose 1 percent of bone mass a year. An astronaut of either gender can lose 1 percent a month.

may 2015 space colonyCourtesy NASA

The antidote is almost relentless exercise. The astronauts have three exercise machines—the seatless bike, a treadmill, and a weight machine with a 600-pound capacity. (Due to zero gravity, astronaut Reid Wiseman is tethered to the treadmill in the photo, right). Astronauts are scheduled for two and a half hours of exercise a day, six days a week.

Sweating in the craft isn’t pleasant. “On the ground, when you’re riding the bike, the sweat drips off you,” says Hopkins. “Up there, the sweat sticks to you—you have pools of sweat on your arms, your head, around your eyes.” The astronauts use large wipes and dry towels to clean off. “The shower was one of those things that I missed.”

The focus on fitness is as much about keeping any individual astronaut healthy as it is about science and the future. NASA is worried about two things: recovery time once astronauts return home and, crucially, how to maintain strength and fitness for the two and a half years or more that it would take to make a round-trip to Mars. Figuring out how to get to Mars safely, in fact, underlies much of what happens on the station.

That’s because we don’t yet understand all the implications of long-duration spaceflight. “Five years ago,” says John Charles of NASA’s Human Research Program, “we had an astronaut all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, my eyesight has changed. I’m three months into this flight, and I can’t read the checklists anymore.’ ” It turns out that all that fluid shifting upward in zero G “pushes on the eyeball from behind and flattens it,” says Charles. “Many astronauts slowly get farsighted in orbit.”

Bone mass and aerobic fitness all return to normal, for the most part, back on Earth. But astronauts’ eyes do not.

may 2015 space colonyCourtesy NASA

Capt. Scott Kelly and Col. Tim Kopra are standing back-to-back on a steel platform in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, outfitted in NASA space suits. A crane slowly lowers the astronauts into a huge swimming pool. Kelly and Kopra will spend six hours underwater, doing a practice space walk, going through every step of replacing part of the space station’s robotic arm. It’s a maintenance task they will do in space in November.

They spend 30 minutes getting latched into the suits, each of which weighs 230 pounds empty. “See how each astronaut has three or four guys helping him?” says astronaut Kevin Ford. “On the station, it’s just one guy. The procedure to get into the space suits and out the hatch is a 400-step checklist. And you don’t want to skip too many of those steps.”

Spacewalking is the ultimate thrill ride. When you’re outside the station, sealed into your one-person spacecraft, you are literally an independent astronomical body, a tiny moon of Earth, orbiting at 17,500 miles an hour. When you look at Earth between your boots, that first step is more than one million feet down.

But spacewalking also exemplifies just how dangerous space is, how a single connector not properly mated can lead to catastrophe, or how a single O-ring can lead to destruction, as it did with the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. NASA grapples with risk by wringing all the surprise out of it. All the scripting, the rehearsal, the design considerations—life in space isn’t just stranger than folks realize; it’s harder.

The space walk is in some ways a microcosm of the whole space-station program: difficult, awe-inspiring, and strangely tautological. Astronauts walk in space to maintain and repair the space station so that future astronauts will have a base to fly to.

And they fly in space because of human ambition, because nothing tests our ability and character like stretching ourselves beyond what we can do now. We fly in space because space is the eighth continent. We fly in space as curious explorers now because one day we may need to fly in space, as miners or settlers.

These are long-horizon ideas—centuries long. Even so, what’s missing from them is a sense of how hard living, working, and traveling in space still is. We take for granted something that is anything but routine. The astronauts experience this every day.

One day on the station, Mike Fincke decided it would be fun to call one of his professors from MIT.

“So the department secretary answers the phone,” Fincke says. “She said, ‘Well, he’s busy right now.’ Pause. ‘But I guess because you’re calling from space, I’ll put you through.’ ”

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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