The Space Station Astronaut Blog:

5 Things You Didn't Know About Life Working With the International Space Station

Last week, I was talking with a friend about the International Space Station, and how awesome it would be to know the ins and outs of working with any of the crew on Earth, or up on the station itself--or even just to know someone who knows about it. Well, while I don't know anyone (or even anyone who knows anyone) who works with the ISS crew, we do live in amazing times for being able to reach out and find people and information and answers. I got to thinking about it a lot and started poking around online to sate my curiosity. I found a few Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) hosted by Colonel Chris Hadfield from his mission a couple years ago to go spend a few months on the ISS. I also found another AMA hosted by Sam Scimemi, the Director of the ISS; he works on the ground with the coalition. And, of course, the International Space Station has its own website full of info on their projects and other neat tidbits. I made a list of five commonly asked questions and their answers from astronauts and other agents working with the International Space Station.


1. Requirements to become part of the crew:

So, what does it take to become an astronaut for the ISS? This was a common question in my research, and the answers  I found from people who worked with ISS varied in details. According to Chris Hadfield's Reddit AMA, "Astronaut selection requires 3 fundamental tenets: health, brains, and experience . . . Above all, a driving, fundamental desire to be an astronaut is required to successfully endure the life demands of the job." Here, with a video, are just some of the requirements that must be met to qualify to be sent to the ISS for astronaut work: 

Astronauts must pass the world's most scrutinizing physical and medical examinations. In screening for astronaut training, this includes the G-force tests that you've probably seen in movies. Sometimes it helps if aspiring astronauts have some previous background with g-force, such as Air Force background. On top of being able to withstand some hefty g-force, astronauts have to be in peak physical shape. This is important because long exposure to the weightlessness in space can cause muscular deterioration. They need to be physically fit before going to space, and they have to work out 2 hours a day in space to keep their muscles from forgetting how to function. To land a job as an astronaut, you need the right education under your belt. To even be considered, potential astronauts must have at least a bachelor's degree in physical science, mathematics, engineering, or biological science, but an advanced degree in any of these fields is preferred. They'll also need to have a certain degree of experience in a field where thinking on their feet and being able to make grounded decisions at a moment's notice does not make one balk in terror. It is also required that potential ISS astronauts speak both English and Russian, as these are the dominant languages spoken aboard the ISS. 

If one were interested in working with the ISS from the earth, the requirements become more specialized depending on what one would want to be doing with the crew. The (advanced) degrees and Russian/English bilingual abilities are still requirements, but there are many different niches for earth-bound work for the space station. 


2. What is there to do on the ISS? What is Downtime/ R&R like?

Once astronauts are aboard the ISS, they are there for an extended stay. It's never a one day affair. Astronauts could be there anywhere from 2 weeks to 15 years. There is some permanent crew who have been there for that long, indeed. And when you are living in a space station, well, it can't always be work work work. So what is there to do aside from work and projects? There is entertainment and free time for the astronauts to relax.  They work shifts, and have time off for more than just sleeping.  They have internet access for entertainment as well as out of necessity for communication and work. There is a guitar aboard the ISS which has been there since 2001. Col. Chris Hadfield played it and recorded some songs while he was there in 2013.  

In their downtime, the ISS astronauts can always sit at a window and look at Earth. They say the lights from cities at night are breathtaking. And that lightning storms and the northern and southern lights look amazing. I was unable to find any images or footage of how cool a lightning storm looks viewed from space, but the thumbnail and banner image of this blog is of the northern lights from space, and below is a picture of earth from the ISS, where you can see some storm clouds. 

Some other things I read in Col. Hadfield's AMAs about R&R time were that it's much different to shave in space than it is with gravity. They cannot rinse their razors up there because the water would float away and that would be messy, and they tend to go through disposable razors more quickly. They also need to use a small vacuum to catch the hair from shaving, otherwise it will escape into everything with no gravity to hold it down. Yuck! Hadfield was asked about sleeping in space, and his answer was that it's pretty comfortable and relaxing to sleep in a weightless environment, and the fact that they sleep vertically in a very very small room rather than horizontally on a bed is hardly noticeable because of the weightlessness. He also mentioned having made up an anti-gravity Velcro dart game using some things he'd found around the space station. 

And lastly, another question on many people's minds was about sex in space. When asked directly, many officials artfully dodge the question. The most official answers I could find about the topic implied heavily that there has thus far been no hanky-panky in space


3. What kinds of R&D and projects are they working on up there?

Plainly put, this stuff isn't widely covered by the media unless ISS is getting new crew members sent up from the world's various space programs. So, when they're not wistfully enjoying the majestic view of Earth or playing guitar like sci-fi rockstars, what are the ISS astronauts up to on the scientific frontier? 

The Cygnus shuttle that will launch supplies to the ISS, and arrive on December 6th.

The Cygnus shuttle that will launch supplies to the ISS, and arrive on December 6th.

In most recent news on the ISS's missions website, they are actually about to launch some supplies in a cargo ship up to the space station. This will take place today for me--it is actually happening as I write this! But this blog will not be posted until tomorrow morning, and the launch will have already taken place. It is (was) set to launch at 5:55 pm EST on Thursday, Dec. 3, and its ETA is going to be approximately 5:30 am on Sunday, Dec. 6! See? exciting news that isn't getting mass coverage. I was incredibly pleasantly surprised to find this today. There will be much prep for the people working on the ground to get the launch successfully situated, and the crew in space will have work to do to receive it. Much of the ISS crew's day to day work involves making sure they have everything they need for basic survival. Like receiving supplies successfully, and making sure all of the complicated machinery inside and out of the station is properly maintained for life support. And it is important that the crew can comfortably trust and rely on one another to be successful at this day-to-day maintenance. 

On top of the "mundane" (for the astronauts, maybe) work tasks involved in simply surviving comfortably in space, the ISS is and has been host to a myriad of research projects. The entire purpose of the ISS is to be able to conduct research aboard the station in the environment of space. Here is a link to 120 pages worth of links to research papers published from the results of experiments conducted both aboard and outside the walls of the ISS. I would love to be able to explain any of these to you in depth, but the only one I understood from the titles was one mentioning that the chewing muscles in lab rats are not afflicted with muscular deterioration with long term exposure to the weightlessness of space. Go take a look--it's all very interesting and official and ranges from medical to technological to space-safe material advancements to weather observations to horticultural research and on and on. Just looking at the titles is both intensely intimidating and completely reassuring that there are some highly intelligent people up there doing some absolutely amazing research and science in space!


4. What is it like returning to earth after an extended stay in space?

Well, we mentioned earlier that extended time in space can have some less than desirable effects on the muscles. Even with the astronauts doing their daily required workouts with special equipment, the absence of gravity still effects their muscles when they must return to gravity. It is said that it takes a day of recovery for every day that was spent in space. So if you were to spend 2 weeks on the ISS, you'd need 2 weeks to recover. If you were to spend 6 years on the ISS, you'd need 6 years to recover. It is also said that spending exceedingly long amounts of time in space is something that some astronauts' muscular systems will never recover from. This phenomenon is being researched and observed in the long term crew on the ISS, and is a big part of why the medical and biological research being conducted up there is important for advancement in long term space travel.

When asked in his AMA what it's physically like to return to Earth after an extended stay in space, Chris Hadfield said "It feels so ... unfair! Even your ARM is heavy.

He was also asked about what it's emotionally like to return to Earth after having seen it from the space station. His reply was touching: 

"being in space makes me feel like I need to take [better] care of the Earth. To be a good steward and advocate. To pick up trash when I see it, to notice the beauty that surrounds me, to recognize what's precious."

And I found a similar sentiment from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, quoted from People Magazine, April 8th, 1974:

"You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"

5. What are some concerns about missions to/from space?

For the most part, astronauts know what they are getting into when they go on any mission into space. They are highly trained, intelligent people and they know the risks involved. I'm sure some are scared of malfunctions resulting in deadly crashes or explosions, but crews are selected with much consideration, and astronauts have to trust that the people they work with know what they are doing and that everything is calculated and maintained accordingly. Perhaps some are scared of heights or flying, but I would be willing to bet that the view of earth is worth some pre-launch jitters. In his AMA, Chris mentions worrying about his family while he is gone--worrying that someone could get hurt or die and that he wouldn't be there to help. I feel like that is a deep and unshakable worry when you are so far from home. 

On the subject of worrying about malfunctions, Col. Hadfield says that preparedness does a lot in the face of fears. He says that with all of the training, practice, drills and preparedness, astronauts are "not extra brave, but extra prepared."

It looks like I managed to wrap up without using some of my links I gathered for this. And I have one fun-fact left over, if you want it for the road, haha. . . It's that space has a smell. Astronauts say that when they come in from space walks, the air lock smells like ozone or gunpowder, and that is what space smells like! If you're still thirsting for answers from astronauts, I have a second AMA hosted by Chris Hadfield here; this one he answered from orbit on the ISS! If you were more curious about how things work for the crew on the ground, I have a link for an AMA hosted by Sam Scimemi, the Director of the ISS here. And I saved a neat little widget for last: This little doodad right here, Spot the Station, can tell you when the ISS passes over your location! The ISS orbits earth 16 times a day, and is likely to pass over fairly frequently if you'd like to look up and wave at the astronauts on a whim.