20 Mind-Blowing Facts About Life on the International Space Station
Reader’s Digest caught up with three astronauts to chat about what it’s like to live in orbit. Here’s what they had to say.
The sun rises and sets all day long
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station witness way more sunrises and sunsets than those of us on Earth: 16 of each per day. That’s because the station travels at about 17,500 miles per hour, completing a full orbit of Earth every 90 minutes.
Signs of life on Earth are most visible at night
The most prominent signs of human life during the day are airplane contrails, wakes created by boats, and the textured grey of big cities, says NASA astronaut Terry Virts. But nighttime, he says, is when you really see human activity. “It’s more a vision of wealth than it is of populations,” he says. “Europe shines like a light bulb … whereas Africa is bright around cities like Cairo and Johannesburg, but is otherwise just a few dots of light.” Check out these 15 science and space mysteries that nobody has figured out yet.
The aurora borealis is stunning from above
“If there was one moment that I framed in my brain as something I never wanted to forget, it was watching the aurora,” says NASA astronaut Kjell N. Lindgren. “It’s not always spectacular, but there are times where you are absolutely floating over a sea of aurora and it’s just undulating rapidly. Your brain can’t comprehend it.”
Up and down have no absolute meaning
While astronauts aboard the station typically keep their heads toward the overhead and their feet toward the deck, there is no true up or down in space. Labels and light fixtures (which run along the overhead) suggest a certain vertical orientation, but astronauts can switch things up as they want or need to. “Some days I’d [orient myself] with my head toward the deck,” says NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. “Just to do things differently.”
Certain foods are MUCH harder to eat in space
In a microgravity environment, where spoons don’t so much hold food as transport it, certain snacks are easier to manage than others. “Rehydrated corn was especially difficult to eat, but it was one of the few vegetable-like foods we had on board that I liked,” says Lindgren. “If you move the spoon too quickly or if someone bumps into you, the corn goes flying everywhere.” That’s why these 7 foods are banned from space.
If you lose something, it could be gone for a while
It’s not uncommon for things to go missing aboard the space station (largely because anything that’s not secure will float away). Virts says that early in one mission, he and his crewmates lost a wrench. Months after it vanished, it reappeared. “For whatever reason, it just floated out from wherever it had been,” he says. “When the station finally comes back to Earth—hopefully decades from now—there will be a lot of lost tools, lights, wedding rings, and who knows what else, re-emerging.” Read about the 10 bizarre things that astronauts have left on the moon.
You can see pollution from space
The effect people have on Earth—for good and for ill—is clear. “While I was [aboard the space station], there was a part of Asia where we would always see pollution,” says Lindgren. “And then they had a clean air day where they limited the number of automobiles that could drive into town and those sorts of things. Within days we were able to see a city that we had previously not been able to see.”
Got something in your eye? That’s fairly common
One of the most common physical complaints in space is eye irritation. “Dust doesn’t fall to the ground like it does on Earth” says Lindgren. “It just floats around until our filters filter it out.” Other common ailments include symptoms of allergies and an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the head. Lindgren says this is because of a net shift of blood to the chest and head due to the lack of gravity. “Your head feels full and looks puffy,” he says. Check out these 15 things you had no idea were created by NASA.
Astronauts see the same number of stars as people on Earth
The best view aboard the station is from the seven-window cupola dome. On moonless nights, the planets, stars, aurora borealis, and a spinning Milky Way galaxy are visible. “The view of the stars from space is similar to the experience you’d have if you went to Colorado, climbed a mountain, and didn’t have any lights,” says Virts. “It’s the same number of stars, except we don’t have [to view them through] the atmosphere, which helps.”
It’s easy—but uncommon—to play microgravity pranks
Lindgren says that while he never witnessed a space prank firsthand (though there was this gorilla-suit incident), there are a few good ones. “I’ve heard of people falling asleep in the middle of the day in one module, and somebody will come by and move them into a different module,” he says. “So they’ll wake up a bit disoriented.” Lindgren says that because astronauts don’t have to hold themselves up to sit or stand, it’s especially easy for them to accidentally fall asleep.