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Working in a Weightless Wonderland

    By Catherine E. Ragin

    It seems everyone is into “extremes” these days, be it extreme sports or even makeovers. But for the elite astronaut corps, who rocket into space for science and discovery, their work and home environment is unlike any other.

    “Working closely with someone is a big jump from an acquaintance. Living with someone is a big jump from working with them. And living and working together with only two other people for several months is yet another big jump,” Expedition 4 Flight Engineer Dan Bursch said. “If you have a bad day, you can’t just go for a walk.”

    For shuttle and station missions, and especially future missions deeper into the cosmos, psychological support is paramount to mission success.

    “The longer you are away from your support system, the harder it is,” said Dr. Edna Fiedler, liaison for Human Systems Integration and Behavioral Health and Performance at NASA's Johnson Space Center. “On the operational side, [we] have set up a very good program of communication with the ground and significant others, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard.”

    “It’s important to keep [the astronauts] based, because they’re still ‘Earth creatures,’” said Walter Sipes, Johnson's chief of Operational Psychology.

    To help create a homey space environment, “there’s a whole buffet of things we send them: e-books, photos of the family, care packages that the family can put goodies in and decorations for the holidays,” Sipes said. “It’s all about maintaining life as normal as possible.”

    Following are the variety of ways NASA has endeavored to make space an extreme but comfy “home away from home.”


    Food becomes a priority when it is one of the few connections an astronaut has to home. Although the Space Food Systems Laboratory at Johnson faces many challenges, such as keeping food choices varied, tasty and fresh for the astronauts, they are learning more after each long-duration flight. It is all about keeping the astronauts happy with their menus, because although food seems so basic to the ordinary person, it is much more important when you do not have ready access to a grocery store.

    What's on the menu? - Space shuttle Discovery (STS-121, July, 2006) commander Seven W. Lindsay holds a tortilla, an astronaut favorite, on the mid-deck of the space shuttle Discovery.“Taste is one of the first senses with which we explore the world,” said Emmy Vest, former Food Services director and executive chef at Johnson. “There are a lot of chemical reasons for food being a comfort mechanism. However, our primitive brain is hardwired to equate food with home and safety. When we’re hungry, we’re all 2 years old.”

    The food lab has meal planning down to an art form. Items sent up for each mission are determined ahead of time. Menus are used as a planning tool for the astronauts.

    “We do provide a copy of the menu to them. We put it in a container with the food, but they don’t necessarily eat it in the order that we’ve planned it,” said Vicky Kloeris, Johnson manager of Space Food Systems.

    Food choice is extremely important, and the longer the mission, the more significant those choices become. Meals are stowed pantry-style, allowing crew members to eat food items in any order they wish. If crew members want to have chicken three nights in a row, they can do that.

    The Space Food Systems Laboratory tries to vary the menus by allowing the crew to take bonus containers into space, in which they can request special, off-the-menu food items. These items usually include commercially available candy bars, cookies or crackers – anything with a long shelf life.

    With food choices like tortillas (an astronaut favorite because they do not give off crumbs), salsa, spray-dried orange juice, cobbler, bread pudding and even vegetarian tofu, astronauts still get a variety of items in their diet. The only difference is that, unlike ground-based food and drinks, their meals are packed in retort pouch technology, which was initially developed by the military for the Meals, Ready-to-Eat program.


    Although the space station serves as a science laboratory, it also has given crews something more important – a home away from home. With more room than a conventional three-bedroom house, the space station affords many of the comforts one finds on Earth.

    In the space station, crew members have a little more space than on the shuttle, even though most of it is taken up by experiments. The Zvezda service module is the primary living quarters for the astronauts and houses the galley, refrigerator and freezer, exercise equipment, sleeping cabin, toilet, washbasin and kitchen table.

    The space shuttle has three decks: the flight deck, the mid-deck and a life support and housekeeping deck. The mid-deck is where the crew eats, sleeps, bathes and plays. The area has a toilet, a washbasin, a galley with an oven, lockers, bunk beds and an airlock that leads to the cargo bay.

    Lockers house the astronauts’ personal belongings, including personal hygiene items, clothing, books, CDs and anything else they brought for the trip.


    Marathon woman - Expedition 14 flight engineer Sunita L. Williams circled the Earth almost three times as she participated in the 2007 Boston Marathon (April 16) in real time. Williams ran on a treadmill at a rate of 6 miles per hour while flying more than 5 miles each second. Williams’ race time was four hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds. Astronauts are required to exercise two hours per day, using the treadmill or stationary bicycle, to avoid the bone and muscle deterioration that occurs in zero gravity. Without this exercise, astronauts would be unable to walk or stand when they return to Earth after months of floating in space.

    But for some, exercise is more than a necessity – it is a passion and a way to keep the mind and body performing at peak levels. This is especially important when in space, where astronauts face many tedious and challenging tasks in their daily routine.

    Expedition 14 Flight Engineer Suni Williams took her training to a whole new level when she completed the Boston Marathon while orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station. Wearing bib number 14,000, sent electronically to NASA from the Boston Athletic Association, she circled the planet nearly three times during the 26.2-mile race, logging a completion time of 4:23:10.

    She was cheered on by her crewmates, who fed her orange slices during the race. Williams, an accomplished marathoner, said she hoped her unique run would serve as an inspiration.

    “I encourage kids to start making physical fitness part of their daily lives,” Williams said. “I think a big goal like a marathon will help get this message out there.”


    Beautiful noise - Expedition 7 (April-Oct. 2003) International Space Station science officer and flight engineer Edward T. Lu (at a keyboard delivered to the ISS by astronaut Carl Walz) shares a light moment with European Space Agency astronaut Pedro Duque (Spain) during an off-shift time in the space station’s Destiny laboratory.Music is an integral part of any journey, whether a road trip or a trip down memory lane. So it is only fitting that music accompanies the astronauts on the ultimate journey into space.

    “When we hear different pieces of music, it triggers memories and moods,” Sipes said. Sipes and his team keep the crew informed and entertained by electronically sending up newspapers, movies and favorite songs. Music may be just one tool in Sipes’ kit, but it is an important one. Unlike other forms of entertainment, music has no visual element, freeing the mind to picture what it will and go where it wants. An astronaut can enjoy an opera while checking out the spectacular view outside the spacecraft. And, as many earthbound exercisers know, music also can be a great motivator to get moving in the morning.

    “The place I listened the most was in the node on the resistive exercise device while I was working out,” said Expedition 11 Flight Engineer John Phillips.

    However, music has been enjoyed in space in many more forms. Expedition 12 had the honor of receiving a special live performance when part of a Paul McCartney concert was linked up to the station in November 2005.

    Many more astronaut-musicians have brought their personal instruments into Earth orbit. Expedition 4 Flight Engineer Carl Walz brought a keyboard with him, which has been enjoyed by several station crews. It even provided the wedding music for Expedition 7 Commander Yuri Malenchenko’s long-distance nuptials.

    That is just the tip of the iceberg. At one point, an Australian aboriginal wind instrument called a didgeridoo was aboard the station. Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician, brought her flute as a personal item on her STS-56 mission.

    And who can forget the wake-up songs? Shuttle crews are in space for shorter missions, so they have less free time in space. Their daily dose of music is in the form of wake-up songs. The songs, selected by the crew office, usually represent something of significance to the crew members.


    Living and working in space makes even the simplest of things require more effort and planning. Zero gravity and a sunrise every 90 minutes can disrupt an astronaut’s health, both physically and mentally. The crew must combat motion sickness, claustrophobia and homesickness every day. They also always must be alert to medical emergencies that could arise.

    While astronauts do not have to worry about germs as they do on Earth (the only germs aboard are the germs they take with them), that does not mean they will not get sick. Zero gravity causes bodily fluids to rise to one’s head, which feels like a constant head cold. Sleep also requires more coordination. Astronauts typically get eight hours of sleep per 16-hour mission day. Even in space, astronauts have dreams and snore. However, excitement, anxiety, motion sickness and noise can disrupt sleeping patterns, making it more difficult to get rest. Each astronaut gets a sleep mask and ear plugs to block noise and light. And, of course, they must be strapped into their bed. Floating around the interior of the craft would make it awfully hard to fall into a nice slumber.

    Hygiene is not forgotten, even in the most extreme conditions. Astronauts take sponge baths daily, using two washcloths – one for washing and one for rinsing. They also use rinseless shampoo to wash their hair. Water and soapsuds stick to skin in weightless environments, and excess water is suctioned into the wastewater tank. Toothpaste can be swallowed or suctioned out, as in the dentist’s office.


    Astronauts still have a need for time to decompress after a long day’s work, despite working in one of the most awe-inspiring “environments” known to man. Keeping a connection to those on the ground is vitally important to the health and happiness of our space workers.

    The most basic desire is maintaining relationships with family and friends, who can perk up a loved one in the unique position of orbiting the planet. Astronauts use a variety of tools to communicate with their peers at home. There are many chances for unscheduled communications that are up to the discretion of the crew member. Weekly communications are scheduled with family, either through videoconferencing or audio. These sessions last a minimum of 15 minutes and are completely private between the astronaut and those on the receiving end. E-mail is updated three times a day, so astronauts use that to keep in touch. Anytime the Ku-band antenna is online, they can call any phone number on the planet using the Internet Protocol phone. The catch is, the call is only one way — we could not dial up an astronaut ourselves.

    In Expedition 15, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson’s online journal expressed how important it was to be able to have his family with him in spirit while on the station. “There has not been a day that goes by where I did not think of you, prayed for you and smiled because of you. I so looked forward to our weekend video visits over the airwaves and our chats on the telephone. It meant so much to me to be able to see your faces as well as hear your voices. It brought me ‘home’ for just a while and helped carry me through the days.”

    Astronauts are very adaptive in their outer space homes, doing many of the same things on orbit they did while on firmer soil.

    Williams spoke of escaping to the Service Module on the station to seek some quiet time and enjoy her “chikoo” (tea).

    Station crews are privy to a movie library whose titles are rotated quite often. If the library does not have the exact movie an astronaut is hankering for, crew members have a crew personnel support drive (a computer hard drive for orbit) that is preloaded with personal and recreational software. This can include computer games, music files and more. Crew members also have personal Web page interfaces where special items of interest can be uplinked, such as TV shows and sporting events. This means football buffs need not even miss the Super Bowl just because they are in space!

    Many astronauts become avid photographers in space. While much of the picture-taking is part of job duties, some crew members continue the endeavor out of a sheer appreciation for the beauty of Earth.


    Holiday greetings - Expedition 12 crew members cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut William McArthur pose for a holiday photo in the Zvezda service module of the International Space Station. As eloquently stated in the song “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Robert Allen and Al Stillman, “ … no matter how far away you roam, if you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!”

    Sometimes it just is not possible to get home. One may, for instance, be in the middle of a shuttle mission or six-month expedition in the International Space Station. There is no “let’s take a break so I can go home and carve a turkey,” or hang decorations and open presents. However, astronauts have become very adept at making the best of what could be a melancholy holiday experience.

    “Communication, keeping the families connected – that’s our highest priority,” said Operational Psychology Group Lead Gabrielle Avina with Wyle Labs.

    Often, family videoconferences are beamed up to the spacecraft to brighten a crew member’s stay on orbit. In addition to virtual visits and electronic entertainment, the Operational Psychology Group gets to send up more tangible reminders of home to the crew: crew care packages.

    Care packages take on extra significance during the holidays, when they often contain festive, personalized Christmas stockings for each crew member. While the Nomex, fire-resistant stockings are certainly keepsakes, it just would not be right to send them into space empty. The team stuffs them with small treats and gifts, including items from the astronauts’ families.

    Astronauts and cosmonauts also deck the “halls” of the space station with a custom-designed, fire-resistant Nomex Christmas tree, which was delivered by STS-112 and is reused each year.

    The gifts may arrive through an airlock instead of a chimney, but the spirit remains the same. The same present-opening rules apply, too.

    “We put a note on them that says, ‘Don’t open till Christmas,’” Avina said. “Hopefully they won’t peek.”

    NO ‘I’ IN TEAM

    The most important aspect of working and living while cooped-up in a spacecraft would have to be teamwork. A happy crew is a productive crew.

    “You need competent people to work the equipment. But from a psychological point of view, you can have competent people, but they also have to work well as a team,” Sipes said.

    Stress between coworkers still exists in space. The only difference is that while Earthlings can take a deep breath and walk away from the problem, astronauts are stuck where they are. The lack of square footage forces crews to work out their differences and nuances at the first sign of tension.

    “I have come to accept that all of us will have, and have had, good days and bad days,” Bursch said. “Frank Culbertson told us some good advice. Some days you just need ‘to let go.’”

    Certainly good advice, whether you are hurtling through low Earth orbit or sitting in a cubicle.

    At NASA, our tight-knit space community is tied together with the common goal of exploring the cosmos and doing it successfully. We all own a piece of the exploration puzzle, even if we are not lifting off on the next space shuttle. However, each team member can take pride in knowing that if you are on Earth or not, the happiness of the giant NASA team is what makes us movers and shakers in the future of our universe.