What It's Really Like To Live On The Space Station

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in space? Well, as you're reading this, there are people living in space, 250 miles above Earth, orbiting our planet once every 92 minutes. In fact, since November 2, 2000, astronauts from different countries around the world have been living and working together aboard the giant floating laboratory known as the International Space Station (ISS). The United States, Canada, Russia, Europe, and Japan began constructing the ISS by sending different pieces into space, which were then put together by astronauts. According to CNN, it took "42 assembly flights, 37 US space shuttles and five Russian rockets" to finally complete the construction of the ISS.

NASA says the space station is the size of a football field, spanning both end zones. The inside is as big as a five-bedroom house and has enough room for a gymnasium, as well as science labs. Each part is known as a module, and they connect to form the entirety of the ISS. Solar arrays are also placed on the outside of the space station which collect energy from the sun to help give it power. Crew members on board this behemoth vessel will spend approximately six months at a time doing research and conducting experiments in the name of science. It's not easy living in space, and astronauts on the ISS deal with a lot of challenges when trying to live the way we're used to on Earth. Here's what it's like to really live on the space station.

The ISS gets resupplied every few months

When we start running out of food at home, or need to pick up everyday supplies, we place an order on an app or head to the store and buy what we need. If we need to get rid of our trash or recyclables, we place them outside and wait for them to be picked up the next day. We don't usually think much about these simple tasks here on Earth, but when you're living in space, it can take a lot more time and require a lot more steps. According to NASA, when astronauts living on board the ISS need new supplies such as food, water, air, spare parts, or equipment for experiments, they need to place an order with Mission Control. It can sometimes take a few months just to receive their supplies and have their trash removed.

Different space agencies around the world will dispatch visiting vehicles carrying dry and wet cargo up to the space station in very precise and coordinated ways — dry cargo is known as hardware and food and wet cargo is water, nitrogen, and oxygen. Spaceships will dock to each nation's segment of the station and carry tons of cargo to and from the ISS. Even commercial companies such as SpaceX and Northrop Grumman (Orbital ATK) will make trips to and from the space station.

What it's like for astronauts to have time off at the space station

Astronauts on the ISS spend 6 months on their missions and it's important that they get time off to prevent burnout, recuperate, and have some semblance of life on Earth. According to NASA, crew members get weekends off and can celebrate holidays; some crews even celebrate both Eastern and Western Christmases together. During holidays, crew members will sometimes send gifts to their counterparts at Mission Control via friends and family on Earth. Mission Control will also send special messages to the crew members which helps keep morale high.

On the weekends, astronauts partake in many of the activities we here on Earth enjoy doing. They're able to watch TV, see movies, surf the internet, tweet, play musical instruments, and enjoy many more hobbies. Sometimes astronauts will have to do routine maintenance during their time off, but it's usually limited to an hour. Crew members can also make phone calls using their laptops to speak with family and friends on Earth.

Astronauts will sometimes go on spacewalks outside the space station

Astronauts will sometimes leave the space station for a spacewalk, also known as extravehicular activity, or EVA. These walks can last five to eight hours, and on them, astronauts will conduct science experiments or repair the station. NASA partner, Texas State University says that the ISS has three types of spacewalks: "Scheduled spacewalks are part of the mission. Unscheduled spacewalks come up as needed, not as part of the mission, but as a necessity for repairs. Contingency spacewalks are unscheduled, but they're more urgent, usually as a dire need to protect the crew's safety."

Astronauts put on their spacesuits and pressurize for several hours to eliminate nitrogen from their bodies to prevent the bends, which is something scuba divers suffer from when resurfacing too quickly. NASA treats spacesuits as vehicles, called extravehicular mobility units, or EMUs. Next, they go into an airlock to get outside the ISS. Each astronaut is connected to a cable so they don't float away; if they become untethered from their cable, they have a backpack with thrusters which will bring them back to the ISS. When they finish a spacewalk, they go back inside the ISS and depressurize.

Astronauts on board the ISS have to worry about flying into space junk

According to NASA, the ISS has had impacts with space debris from previous missions. While traveling nearly 5 miles per second around the earth on six-month shifts, astronauts onboard the ISS must worry about space junk hitting them. In fact, "the ISS once had a hole in the edge of a radiator panel on the P6 truss segment and a shattered portion of a solar array that was caused by a piece of small debris." The worst event was "the collision between the active Iridium 33 communications satellite and the abandoned Kosmos 2251 military communications satellite which resulted in the complete destruction of both satellites" and caused "more than 1,000 new pieces of space debris."

Thankfully, the US Department of Defense watches their back by tracking and looking out for space debris. The ISS is also shielded by a metal outer bumper known as a Whipple Shield. When debris hit the bumper, it "vaporizes and dissipates the kinetic energy of the space junk, pitting the bumper but leaving the inner pressure shell intact."

This is how astronauts exercise while on the ISS

When we want to exercise on Earth, it's a pretty straight forward process: we hit the gym, go for a swim, or go for a jog or a walk. We don't have to worry about floating away from the surface even though we may feel a natural high from a good workout. When astronauts workout on the ISS, they take on a new set of worries while keeping fit in space. Crew members have to work out six days a week for two hours each day. Their exercise equipment is specially designed for use in space. According to the Verge, some of their equipment includes a bicycle, a treadmill, and a weightlifting machine called an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED).

There's a special reason why astronauts have to keep it moving in the space station: Their bones may lose mineral density and their muscles risk atrophying. "We try to minimize it as much as possible," said Bob Tweedy, the countermeasures systems instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center when speaking with the Verge. While on the treadmill, astronauts are strapped in with a harness and bungee chords which keeps them from floating away while working out. Since dumbbells lose their weight in space, "the ARED machine utilizes two canisters that create small vacuums that astronauts can pull against with a long bar." They can now do squats, bench presses, and most other exercises that wouldn't normally pose a challenge on Earth.

We all want to know: How do astronauts use the bathroom?

Astronauts have to use the bathroom and groom themselves just as we do on Earth. It's no easy task, but they are able to make it work. Astronauts on the ISS have a personal hygiene kit that contains items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, and shaving cream. When it comes to using the toilet, that's another story. According to NASA, "Because of microgravity, the space station toilet is more complex than what people use on Earth. The astronauts have to position themselves on the toilet seat using leg restraints." If that doesn't sound uncomfortable enough, the toilets also work like vacuum cleaners, sucking up air and waste into the commode. Don't worry, each astronaut has their own personal urinal funnel. That funnel is attached to a hose that flows into a wastewater tank.

According to MentalFloss, "there are only two bathrooms on the entire station. The urine of both the crewmembers and laboratory animals is filtered back into the station's drinking water supply, so at least the astronauts will never get thirsty."

How astronauts on the ISS catch their Z's

Astronauts need their sleep, just like the rest of us — even more so when you consider the work of managing a space station on a daily basis. Since astronauts live with microgravity, they can sleep in any orientation. Astronauts sleep for eight hours at a time and in sleeping bags located in small crew cabins. What makes sleeping hard is that crew members experience 16 sunrises and sunsets each day, CNN reports. Some crew members adjust and sleep well while others deal with excitement and motion sickness, NASA explains.

Space.com writes that crew members must also deal with environmental factors that affect sleep, like temperature, lighting, airflow, noise, carbon dioxide, and special restraints that keep them from floating around while they're sleeping. Astronauts can also take a melatonin supplement that helps them sleep. Melatonin is a naturally produced hormone in the human body and is also an over-the-counter sleep aid. When it comes to staying awake, astronauts can also take caffeinated products (just like us) to give themselves more energy.

Astronauts on the ISS spend a lot of their time doing experiments

According to CNN, NASA estimates that more than 2,500 experiments have been conducted on the ISS since its creation. NASA explains that astronauts spend their days working on science experiments and medical experiments to determine how their bodies adjust to living in microgravity while on the ISS. Crew members from each nation also collaborate on experiments that allow governments, universities, and companies all over the world to come together, stay up-to-date, and push the frontiers of science. "Whatever your scientific interest is, we're probably doing some related research on the space station," NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said during an interview with CNN.

To give an idea as to how diverse some of the experiments are, according to MentalFloss, some crew members have done experiments with Hawaiian bobtail squid, tested out different footwear while exercising, analyzed ant farms, and worked with a humanoid robot named Robonaut. One of the important factors is how microgravity also affects the experiments being conducted. "Many things seem to act differently in microgravity. Fire burns differently. Without the pull of gravity, flames are more round. Crystals grow better. Without gravity, their shapes are more perfect. ... These experiments help NASA learn things that would be hard or perhaps impossible to learn on Earth."

Astronauts get to choose between a wide variety of foods

While living on the ISS, astronauts get to choose from many of the same categories of food people enjoy down here — the only difference is that some of these foods require adding water before eating. NASA writes that brownies and fruit can be eaten in their natural form while macaroni and cheese or spaghetti require adding water. If astronauts want to add some spice to their food, salt and pepper come in liquid form. The station doesn't have refrigerators, so space food must be stored in cans, dehydrated, or packaged. (Tempting, right?)

MentalFloss says, "Astronauts eat three square meals a day on the ISS, but when they sit down for a meal, they don't sit down at all. There are no chairs around the main eating area. Instead, the astronauts simply stabilize themselves and float. Diners have to be very slow and careful when bringing food to their mouths so it doesn't accidentally float across the station."

Astronauts experience weightlessness but not because of lack of gravity

Whenever we see astronauts in space, they're usually doing what many of us wish we could do: floating around and having fun. And as you might have imagined, while they're at the ISS, they experience weightlessness and float! However, the ISS is only about 200 to 250 miles above Earth where gravity is almost as strong as it is here on the ground (90 percent). Astronauts experience weightlessness because "the ISS, and they, are orbiting Earth in constant free fall," says Valerie Neal, curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The ISS is falling toward Earth and moving forward at about the same velocity. "Because the downward and forward forces are nearly equal, the astronauts are not pulled in any specific direction, so they float."

NASA explains it as "The spacecraft, its crew and any objects aboard are all falling toward but around Earth. Since they are all falling together, the crew and objects appear to float when compared with the spacecraft."

Astronauts on the ISS age slower than us

After former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year aboard the ISS, he ended up aging even slower than he would if he'd been on Earth. Scott Kelly, who's 6 minutes younger than his identical twin brother, Mark, became 5 milliseconds younger. According to Space.com, during a panel discussion at the ISS Research & Development 2016 conference in San Diego, both Scott and Mark spoke about a twins study they participated in to help astronauts eventually go to Mars in the late 2030s. Scientists studied the psychological and physiological effects of Scott during his time at the ISS and discovered his age difference.

"So, where[as] I used to be just 6 minutes older, now I am 6 minutes and 5 milliseconds older," Mark Kelly said. But there's always the risk of space radiation. "So if 10 years from now, I look like I'm 60 and he looks like he's 80, you'll know what happened." "Mark got Botoxed, is what happened," Scott Kelly joked.

Business Insider reported that astronauts on the ISS age just a tiny bit slower than people on earth due to time dilation effects. "Their velocity time dilation has a bigger effect than their gravitational time dilation, so astronauts end up aging slower than people on Earth."

Astronauts can grow taller while living aboard the ISS

If you've ever wanted to grow an inch or two taller, all you need to do is live aboard the ISS and it just might happen. According to CNBC, while spending a year onboard the ISS, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly grew two inches taller than his identical twin brother. Astronauts can grow taller in space due to microgravity. While on Earth, the disks of the spinal column are compressed, but in space, the compression is no longer present, so they expand. The person becomes taller because the spine lengthens. However, it's no shortcut to getting into the NBA; when they return to Earth, after a few months, they return to their normal height.

In 2013, Space.com reported that astronauts will begin using an ultrasound device "to scan each other's backs to see exactly what their spines look like after 30, 90 and 150 days in microgravity." Researchers are able to see the results in real-time as the astronauts scan the spines of their crew members.