Science - Space
By: - at May 25, 2015

15 Ways Astronauts Live Differently on the ISS Than on Earth

Astronauts train their entire life for the opportunity to ride a shuttle into space. Many only get to travel on the shuttle for a little while, and then it is right back to Earth after a few days or weeks in space. Those who are fortunate enough to spend time on the International Space Station (ISS) have the opportunity to remain in space for a period of years. There are some who have spent up to 10 years on the ISS. While the crew aboard the ISS is constantly changing, there is not that much room up there, so very few people will ever get the opportunity to actually see what it is like to live in space aboard the ISS. The astronauts who live aboard the ISS say that life is very different up there, but just how different can it be? Here are 15 ways life aboard the ISS is different from life on Earth.

International Space Station
International Space Station
By Leebrandoncremer via Wikimedia Commons

15)  Seeing the Earth from Space
One of the first things that strikes many astronauts as they enter the ISS is the ability to see the Earth through the windows. This is something that is not easy to get used to because it is a constant reminder of where the astronaut is and how far away from home that is. It is kind of distracting to always be able to look out the window and see the oceans and continents taking shape just over the horizon. Astronauts say that they get used to the sight of the Earth after a little while, but there are still times when the astronauts will be amazed by a particular view and will need to take pictures to remember the moment forever.

Sunrise at Zvezda

Keep in mind that while seeing the Earth, astronauts have to get used to the fact that they need to have heavy duty sunglasses on one minute while seeing only half of the earth bathed in light the next. This swift change in the way that they see the Earth is something that is also not easy to get used to. It is one of the things that make it difficult for the astronauts to have a good internal sense of what time it is. Talk about having a case of jet lag!

international space station

14)  Cleaning Up Is Much More Important
If you ever thought that keeping a clean home was important, try living aboard a space station that requires complete sanitation for a number of different reasons. For one thing, you do not want to worry about a crumb getting into the circuit boards of one of the computers and causing a failure of any kind. For this reason, the astronauts are constantly cleaning the space station with vacuums and other cleaning devices. Attention to detail is a must at all times, and astronauts take their cleaning duties very seriously while aboard the ISS.

Inspecting Microgravity Science Glove box
 Microgravity Science Glovebox

The other reason why it is important to clean up all the time is because if some food happens to get stuck somewhere where it cannot be cleaned readily, it can go bad and cause the entire ISS to smell terrible. This is something that has happened aboard the ISS in the past and is likely to happen again. To avoid this, the crew takes precautions to make sure that all food goes right from the container into the mouth of the astronaut who is eating.

Storing Samples
Storing Samples, International space station

13)  Getting Used to Being Weightless
The absence of gravity may seem like it is a lot of fun, but eventually, the thrill wears off and it is just something that has to be coped with. Some older astronauts get excited about the lack of wrinkles on their skin and take pictures of their new youthful face thanks to the most expensive facelift available to man. On the other hand, the body itself does not know quite what to make of this new environment. Astronauts have reported feeling sick to their stomach, suffering a queasy feeling akin to motion sickness. This is due in part to the lack of gravity as well as to the fact that weightlessness can cause a feeling of vertigo because you no longer have a bearing on what is up, down, left or right.

Japan's Kounotori 4 Docking with ISS
Japan's Kounotori 4  ISS

In order to get used to a lack of gravity, astronauts go through extensive weightless training through the use of airplanes. Astronauts inside of the airplane get the feeling of weightlessness as the airplane drops from the sky. This is not an entirely accurate sensation as there is still a feeling of being drawn in one direction. In space, this feeling is gone, and you are allowed to simply float about. It can be disconcerting at times.

Original Jules Verne Manuscripts Inside the Jules Verne ATV
Jules Verne ATV

12)  Walking in Space
When an astronaut is aboard the ISS, it means the possibility of going on a spacewalk. This is an experience unlike any other in the history of mankind. It is the one time in which a human being can be outside of any craft, see the earth and have nothing, other than the bubble of the faceplate, between them and the miles to the ground (or ocean). Because the majority of the arms used for spacewalks clip to the feet of the astronauts, it can create the feeling that the astronaut is truly all out there alone in space with nothing to protect them.

Piers Sellers Spacewalk
ISS International Space Station

On very rare occasions, astronauts are allowed to go outside the ISS with nothing more than a tether attaching them to the ISS. This is a little more dangerous than being attached to the arms, which is why it is not a normally allowed trip. Astronauts who go on these kinds of spacewalks are extremely experienced and understand how to keep themselves firmly planted to the ISS. Otherwise, there is the possibility that they could simply float away in to space or fall towards the Earth.

space walk

11)  Adjusting to the Lack of Smell
Once astronauts get over the feeling of being weightless and seeing the Earth outside of the windows, they are hit with the complete lack of smell on the ISS. On Earth, people are constantly surrounded by smells, either the smells of their fellow co-workers, the smell of the home, office, flowers, food cooking and more. These are absent on the ISS because of the intense air scrubbers that are constantly working to recycle the air that is on board the ISS and to provide the astronauts with enough air to keep breathing while they are up there. The tradeoff is that all of the smells are washed out of the air as well.

Exterior of Cupola

The only times that the astronauts might actually smell something are when it is not usually a pleasant experience. One such instance was when the bathroom was malfunctioning on board the ISS. The entire space station smelled of sewage until such a time as it could be fixed. Another time when the astronauts faced a smell that was less than pleasant was when someone’s lunch got stuck behind a computer panel. As it started to rot, the smell grew worse and worse. Eventually, the food was removed and the smell dissipated.

Destiny Interior
Destiny International Space Station

10)  Moving Around the ISS
If you can think about getting up to go down the hall of your home, it seems like a very simple and effortless process. It is not quite so simple for the astronauts aboard the ISS. Thanks to the lack of gravity, it can mean that every movement has to be calculated ahead of time. You cannot make any sudden movements without first trying to map out where the movement is going to send your body. It is always easy to tell when there is a new astronaut on board, because they will continuously bump into things while they are trying to get around inside the space station.

 Location of Windows on ISS
Windows  ISS
By Leebrandoncremer via Wikimedia Commons

As astronauts get used to being in zero gravity, they are able to move about the space station with relative ease. When moving from one side of the space station to another, a good push will get you there with ease. A little nudge here with a finger or a bump of the toe is enough to correct a course if an air flow changes your trajectory. The main thing that all astronauts have to remember is to move slowly to avoid the possibility of crashing into another astronaut who is trying to move quickly as well.

Airlock on Kibo
Airlock on Kibo space station ISS

9)  Keeping Everything in Its Place
On Earth, when you want to put something in a place, you just set it there and it will be there when you get back. On the ISS, you can set something down, but since there is no gravity to keep it in place, there is no guarantee that it will be there when you return. Air flows throughout the ISS and can move anything that is not secured in place. As a way of making sure that everything can be kept in its place, NASA has outfitted just about everything with Velcro. This highly versatile material allows astronauts to simply place the item in a designated location and it will stick to the Velcro.

Velcro ISS

The only exception to this is in regards to astronauts themselves when they are working at a computer terminal. There is no need for chairs since the body does not seek comfort from the crushing sensation of gravity. Instead, astronauts have been known to hook a toe under the computer terminal to stay in one place while working. By anchoring using the foot, it is possible to type away at the keyboard without worrying about floating off in the opposite direction.

Having a Meal Inside Unity
Unity international space station ISS

8)  Spending Time with Family
On Earth, whenever astronauts want to spend time with their family, they can simply pick up the phone or drive down the street. With the trip time between the Earth and the ISS taking about two days, it is not quite that easy to spend time with your family. This is why astronauts are able to schedule times in which they can talk with their family through videos. Many of the astronauts write email messages to their friends and family and make videos that are sent to the Earth so they can be watched by their family members. It is rare that the astronauts get to talk directly with their family.

cosmonaut ISS

Pictures and prerecorded videos constitute the bulk of the communication between family members and astronauts. This allows the astronauts to look back at the pictures and videos whenever they feel a little bit homesick. Writing letters is not exactly a possibility, since pencils are scarce and astronauts would rather not use pens. Most of the work and letters that is done on the space station is done on a computer to make things easier.

7)  Using the Restroom
Perhaps one of the most often asked questions for astronauts is how they are able to go to the bathroom without any gravity. It is a much different experience than when going to the restroom on Earth. There is not a traditional toilet as there is no real way to sit down on the toilet and the presence of all that water would be a disaster on the ISS. Instead, astronauts have to make do with the use air flow in order to get the urine and feces to go where it is supposed to go. Many envision a vacuum when thinking about this act, but this is not entirely the case. After all, the vacuum would have to be different for each person who needed to use it and there are safety concerns to think about.

Zvezda Toliet
Zvezda Toliet ISS

Instead, the astronauts have to be very mindful of what they are doing and how they are doing it whenever they need to use the restroom. The flow of air is gentle enough not to cause any safety concerns for the astronauts, but forceful enough to keep the waste from going everywhere within the ISS. Astronauts are afforded privacy while going to the bathroom, but it is quite a different experience than what anyone is used to when on Earth.

international space station ISS

6)  Enjoying Rest and Relaxation
While aboard the ISS, astronauts are not expected to work the entire time. In fact, the resting periods are a very important part of the normal duties of the astronauts. This is why there are several activities that are on board to keep astronauts busy whenever they have down time. A lot of the games that are on board are problem solving games, because if keeps the mind active and can keep attention off of less important ideas, or more importantly, can help to keep the astronauts from getting sick.

relaxation ISS

In addition to all of the physical games that available on board, astronauts spend a lot of time writing emails and even watching movies. The use of a computer is a pretty normal sight for each of the astronauts and can help to keep them busy when there is nothing else to do. There have not been any reports of ‘gamers’ on board the ISS as of yet, but if there were, they would have a lot of fun playing their games while on board. The only thing that astronauts do not have access to is a direct connection to the Internet on a constant basis.

international space station

5)  Exercising the Body
The body is used to gravity, and living aboard the ISS can play havoc on the body. This includes the possibility of the deterioration of bones and muscle tissue. It is because of this that the astronauts need to exercise regularly. As you might imagine, exercising is not as easy as when on the Earth. It is not possible to just go for a run or swim some laps in the pool. Lifting weights is also not possible when on the ISS. To make sure that the body is in shape, astronauts are required to exercise using a treadmill as well as a stationary bike.

Exercising in Space
Exercising in Space

Weight lifting can be simulated using a resistance machine, but it is not quite the same as when on Earth. Every astronaut is required to go through a daily exercise routine in order to make sure that they stay healthy for when they return to Earth. This is especially important for the astronauts that will remain on ISS for an extended period of time.

Running on Treadmill Aboard ISS
Running on Treadmill Aboard ISS

4)  Keeping the Body Clean
As you might expect, there is no running water on the ISS. This creates a situation in which it is not as easy to keep yourself clean. There is no way to hop in the shower and get all sparkling clean every morning. This is not to say that the astronauts go without cleaning themselves every day. The difference is that instead of taking a shower, astronauts use sanitary towels that are pre-moistened to clean themselves. It is the equivalent on Earth of getting a sponge bath when you are in the hospital and cannot be moved to the shower to get clean.

washing hair

In order to clean the hair, astronauts use a shampoo that is designed to stay in the hair without being washed out. To clean the hair, astronauts use the shampoo just like they would any other kind of shampoo, only there is no lather and there is no rinse. If desired, astronauts can use a towel to remove some of the shampoo from their hair. Brushing teeth is still done with toothpaste and a toothbrush, only the toothpaste is not applied to the toothbrush, it is squirted into the mouth. The paste is designed so it can be swallowed. If the astronaut does not want to swallow their toothpaste, they have the option of spitting it into one of the cleaning towels and disposing of it.

space wash

3)  Eating on the ISS
Every astronaut has to eat while they aboard the ISS, but they cannot eat the same kinds of foods that they eat while on the Earth. There is no way to cook up a steak or steam some broccoli. In fact, using water or open flames of any kind can play havoc on the ISS. For this reason, all of the foods that are eaten are ready to eat. A microwave can be used to heat some foods up, but that is the closest the astronauts will come to a hot meal.

Eating on ISS

Dessert is available for those who want it in the form of candy and dehydrated fruits. To date, none of the astronauts have gone hungry while they are on the ISS, but not all are happy with the meal choices they are given, because they have to leave the flavors that they are used to back home. Any uneaten food must be packaged up and put away to be consumed later. There is no room for being wasteful on the ISS, and astronauts are responsible for eating any food that they open while they are on board.

cooking on ISS

2)  Sleeping on Schedule
Sleep is a very important part of life. It is what helps humans to refresh their brains and recover from the tension of the day. The difficulty in sleeping on the ISS is again that there is no gravity. This means that the astronauts cannot simply slip into bed and lay their head on their pillow to go to sleep. Instead, astronauts slip into a sleep sack and are zipped in to keep them as secure as possible. While sleeping, it is also common for astronauts to done protection for their eyes to keep them in a dark environment while they are sleeping. Only one astronaut so far has been known to simply sleep wherever he ended his day. One of the longer inhabitants of the ISS would just fall asleep and float about the space station depending on where the air currents would take him.

space sleeping bag

One of the hardest parts about sleeping in zero gravity is that the human mind is conditioned to wake up when it is told that the body is falling. This is something that astronauts have to get used to as they will fall into a deep sleep only to be woken up with the feeling that they are falling. Some on board have witnessed astronauts sleeping soundly only to be suddenly jostled awake with arms flailing.

sleeping in space

1)  Scheduling a Work Day
The hardest thing for astronauts to get used to while they aboard the ISS is the ability to create a normal work day. Since the passage of time is continuous based on where the astronauts took off from, a schedule can be kept, but it is difficult for the astronauts to get used to it. The changing of light throughout the day makes it impossible for the body to have its own regulated sleep schedule. Some astronauts have found it useful to control the light within their work stations as a way to make sure that they are working on a regular basis.

inside iss

When woken up in the morning, NASA pumps in music to the space station that is chosen based on then choices of the families of the astronauts aboard, as well as by the astronauts themselves. Throughout the rest of the day, the schedule is firmly kept and depends on what time it is within the ISS, not what the sun dictates the time of day is. It may be pitch dark outside of the ISS when it is the middle of the day for the astronauts inside. Even those who have been on board for years say this is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

waking up on ISS

Final Words
As you can see life does go on while on board the ISS, but it is not the same as it is when living on Earth. Simple chores can become a lot more difficult, but not impossible. All of the training that the astronauts go through helps in the long run to prepare them for what they will face, but there is nothing like actually being there to truly get the feeling of what it is like to be aboard the ISS. While many of us will never get the chance to set foot aboard the ISS, it is still fun to try to imagine what a day in the life must be like for these individuals.





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