Living In Space

meals, sleeping, EVA, health & exercise problems

Eating in space

Problem: In microgravity, food crumble will float around and drink might spill. Today, astronauts onboard the International Space Station eat on roughly an eight-day meal rotation.

Solution: Most of their meals are just-add-water, or come ready to eat in pouches like military MREs: beef tips, ravioli, chicken teriyaki. There are also packaged foods an ordinary person could buy from a store, like almonds or wrapped brownies. Hot and cold beverages come in bags with straws, similar to a Capri Sun. Food packets attach to the galley table with velcro patches so they don't fly away.

Astronauts choose their daily menus long before they fly into space. There are three meals per day, plus snacks that can be eaten at any time. Condiments such as ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise are also provided. Salt and pepper are available too, but only in a liquid form.

Space food may be canned or wrapped in aluminium foil. It may be freeze-dried, low moisture, pre-cooked or dehydrated (with its water removed). If food is dehydrated, it cannot be eaten until the astronauts add hot water to it. Ovens are provided to warm foods to the proper temperature. Many drinks are also in a dehydrated form. Some recycled water is produced on the Station, but extra supplies have to be sent up on resupply missions. Drinks range from coffee, tea and orange juice to fruit punches and lemonade.

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Sleeping in space

Problem: On top of excessive light, strange noises are a big part of the ISS. Because fans, air filters and other noisy equipment provide life support to the astronauts, the ISS is often filled with constant whirring noises.

Astronauts sometimes sleep with earplugs to dampen the sound, but after a while many report they simply get used to it.

Combine the light and the noise with the unnatural feeling of floating, motion sickness, aches and pains, poor ventilation and temperature control, as well as a new sunrise every 90 minutes (the amount of time it takes the space station to circumnavigate the Earth) insomnia and sleep deprivation are a common and serious problem for humans in space; NASA reports that sleeping pills are the second most common drug astronauts take (painkillers are the most common).

Solution: To help combat astronaut insomnia NASA also budgets at least 8 hours of sleep every day, promotes relaxation techniques, and provides sleep hygiene education but despite it all astronauts average between 30 to 60 minutes less sleep each night than they got at home on Earth. NASA has also invested $11.4 million to update the fluorescent lights in the ISS's U.S. Orbital Segment with bulbs designed to exploit that our bodily clocks are wound by exposure to light.

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Health & Exercise

Bone and Muscle Wasting

Problem: When your bones and muscles aren’t doing the hard work of fighting gravity, they deteriorate fast. Loss of bone density, muscular atrophy and cardiovascular deconditioning are issues we’ve known about since the early days of spaceflight. “The atrophy of muscles in space can affect not only the performance of astronauts during missions, but it can lead to severe muscle injuries upon return to Earth,” NASA writes. “Astronauts landing on Mars may be susceptible to muscle injury once they step onto the planet.”
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Solution: Thankfully, there’s a pretty straightforward solution here: lots and lots of exercise. According to Mark Shelhamer, Chief Scientist at NASA’s Human Research Program, astronauts on the International Space Station work out for about two hours a day. Exercise options are limited. There’s a treadmill, which astronauts strap themselves onto using bungee cords, and an “advanced resistive exercise device”— basically, a fancy weight machine.
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Losing Your Mind

Problem: Rocketing across interplanetary space in a metal can sounds thrilling, but in reality, most of your waking hours are spent meticulously labeling test tubes or checking system logs. This is really boring stuff. Boring, repetitive tasks lead to apathy, distraction and careless mistakes. Oh, and speaking of repetition, you better not mind interacting with the same three smelly people every waking hour.

“Astronauts are highly motivated, trained, special people, no question,” Shelhamer said. “But it’s just human nature that they’re going to go through a phase of not being motivated, of having problems with their crew mates. This is the kind of thing you want to recognize, but you also want to design the mission in a way that allows for it.”

But there’s a rub: astronauts, like most people who put their lives on the line every single day, don’t tend to complain very much. Determining how to recognize signs of psychological strain in a group of highly capable overachievers is no easy task.

That’s why NASA has spent the last several years sealing people in a dome on the barren, northern slope of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Psychologically, at least, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is our dry run for living on Mars.

“Essentially, what we’re doing is trying to figure out: even if the astronauts want to kill each other, how do you keep them doing their job?” HI-SEAS director Kim Binsted told Gizmodo.

Solution: In late August, six astronauts sealed themselves inside a 36 x 20 foot dome for a year, in the longest iteration of a three-part series of living experiments aimed at tracking human psychology and performance in confinement. (Two earlier HI-SEAS experiments ran for 4 and 8 months, respectively.) For the rest of the year, these astronauts will eat shrink-wrapped meals and do EVAs in spacesuits to collect geologic samples. Hopefully, they’ll retain their sanity.

All the while, “Mission Control” will be tracking individuals’ psychological states and group dynamics, using a battery of questionnaires, cognitive tests, and computer games.

“The crews have [so far] done really well,” Binsted said. “There have been conflicts, but I think a big picture lesson is that conflicts are inevitable. What we need to do is make sure that the crew as a whole is resilient, so that they can recover and maintain performance.”

We’ll check back in on this one later in the year. The infuriatingly upbeat Mark Watney never did run outside naked and screaming in a momentary lapse of sanity. But there’s no telling what’ll happen to actual humans when they hit the nine month mark and realize they’ve got to suffer ninety more days breathing each others’ BO.

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Problem: The void of space is commonly referred to as a vacuum, which means there's a near or total lack of gas molecules. The gravitational attraction of the planets and stars pulls most gas toward them, leaving the areas in between practically empty.

In space, however, there's a complete lack of molecules, which means there's also a complete lack of pressure. This is one of the major reasons it's dangerous for astronauts to go into space without a proper space suit. If you were to exit a spacecraft just wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the air inside your lungs would quickly rush out of your body because of the lack of air pressure. Gases in body fluids would expand, pushing your insides around in grisly ways, and your skin would inflate like a balloon.

There are several other hazards that come with venturing out into space unprotected. Temperatures outside of a spacecraft fluctuate wildly depending on where you are. Sunlit objects above the Earth's atmosphere can reach more than 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius), while shaded ones can reach the opposite extreme -- lower than negative 212 degrees F (100 degrees C). On top of this, the radiation from the sun, ultraviolet radiation and tiny meteoroids speeding through space pose potential dangers. Fortunately, a space suit keeps astronauts alive in the vacuum of space while providing enough mobility to move around and accomplish tasks.

Solution: Extravehicular activity (EVA) is any activity done by an astronaut outside a spacecraft beyond the Earth's appreciable atmosphere. The term most commonly applies to a spacewalk made outside a craft orbiting Earth (such as the International Space Station), but also has applied to lunar surface exploration (commonly known as moonwalks).

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The First Spacewalks

The first human in history to conduct a spacewalk was Aleksei Leonov of Russia, during the Voskhod II program. After launching into orbit on March 18, 1965, Leonov exited the spacecraft and took part in extravehicular activity for about 12 minutes. The historic event almost ended in disaster, though, when his space suit inflated while he was outside and prevented him from re-entering the airlock. Opening a valve and risking decompression sickness -- or "the bends," the illness divers experience after surfacing too quickly -- Leonov released as much air from the suit as possible and made his way back inside.

The first American to spacewalk was Edward White during the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965. White tested a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit, a small jet held by astronauts to propel them around during spacewalks.