Educator Features

A Hot Shower and a Hug
Astronaut Eileen Collins enjoys a hug from her daughter
Explorers and pioneers have always made sacrifices for their projects. Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clarke and Admiral Byrd all traveled in harsh conditions with very few comforts of home.

Image to left: Space Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins enjoys a hug from her daughter. Credit: NASA

Their food was limited, their sleeping conditions were inhospitable and they traveled with the understanding that unknown dangers could put their lives at risk -- yet they fulfilled their missions willingly. What could motivate someone to face such hazards? Maybe it was the thrill of adventure; maybe it was the obligation to improve the culture; maybe we'll never know. There are pioneers busily exploring new frontiers today. The astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) face similar hardships and sacrifices, yet they take on the challenges willingly. How much do astronauts have to do without in order to make their missions successful?

The Behavioral Health and Performance Group (BHPG) at NASA Johnson Space Center works with astronauts and their families to help them prepare for the adjustments of long-duration flights. They share lessons learned through years of space travel, submarine missions and arctic exploration. All of these projects involve extended periods of time away from family in an isolated, unfamiliar environment.

An astronaut playing the keyboard while on the International Space Station, with other astronauts listening
Image to right: On the ISS, astronaut Carl Walz plays the keyboard as his crewmates listen. Credit: NASA

"It's important to identify hobbies and interests, and to encourage those pursuits while astronauts are on missions," said Stephen Vander Ark, supervisor of the Behavioral Health and Performance Group. "Just about everyone enjoys watching movies, reading and listening to music, but everyone has personal preferences as well. Musicians can often take their instruments up in space, though a drum set wouldn't make the trip like a trumpet could. Actually, though, there isn't a lot of free time to pursue hobbies. Astronauts are rarely bored, and we rarely get complaints. They know it involves personal sacrifice to travel in space, and that's just part of the deal."

Communications between space and Earth have improved greatly in the years since Apollo, Mir and even the early months of the ISS. Back then, astronauts couldn't contact their families easily. Now, though, they have access to an Internet Protocol telephone. To use this, they can dial a number on a laptop computer, and with the help of an antenna and satellite system, they can speak directly with their families. They can also send messages by e-mail. "Family communication is important for psychological support when anyone is away from home for an extended period of time. The early pioneers had to endure much more in that respect," Vander Ark said. "They had to go for months and years without a word from home."

"An interesting book to read is Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, written by Stephen E. Ambrose," said Vander Ark. "It's a book about the river exploration of the Lewis and Clarke expedition. As the book progresses, however, the reader learns how similar these expeditions were to the expeditions of today. Funding, budget worries, construction schedules and leaving the family behind were just as serious concerns then as they are today."

Food floats freely in a microgravity environment
Image to left: Preparing a meal in space is a juggling act. Credit: NASA

Another common experience shared between modern-day explorers and those who pioneered centuries ago is the challenge of eating well. Sailors in the era of Columbus faced diseases such as scurvy and rickets because of poor nutrition while traveling. Astronauts have the benefit of research and modern storage methods, yet still face the prospect of limited menu choices.

Fresh food is in short supply because of preservation issues, Vander Ark said. The stock of fruit and vegetables loaded on the Shuttle at launch time is used quickly, and the crew of the ISS must wait for resupply vehicles to bring more. ISS crews sometimes receive treats packed from home in their crew care packages, which include special items selected by family members that are launched on Russian Progress rockets, as well as Space Shuttles, and delivered to the ISS for a later surprise. The crew care package might contain goodies, snacks, candy, magazines or special videos.

An astronaut catches a soccer ball on the Space Shuttle
Image to right: Astronauts find lots of ways to have fun in a microgravity environment. Credit: NASA

Astronauts rarely feel deprived, though, Vander Ark said. They willingly accept flight assignments, and if they ever doubt the importance of what they do, all they have to do is go look out the window and their experience doesn't feel so bad. "It's a dangerous environment, and the astronauts are isolated," Vander Ark said. "It represents a constant stress to the entire family. It's definitely an enriching experience, and crew support astronauts -- the ones who stay on the ground and help the crew and family adjust -- and the BHPG work hard to make life a little bit easier during the mission, and help make the transition back to Earth as easy as possible. One of the most anticipated plans is the first meal back home. All have their favorites, but we often hear that pizza, ice cream and fizzy drinks are what astronauts miss most. But beyond food, what we hear most is that as soon as they get back on the ground, astronauts want a hot shower and hugs from their families."