This article was originally published on Supercluster, a website dedicated to telling humanity’s greatest outer space stories.
Wake up, work, relax, sleep, repeat.
For many on Earth, this is a typical dayâ€”a nine to five job, some downtime in the evening ready for the day ahead, and two days off at the weekend.
It might come as a surprise to learn that astronauts in space keep a very similar schedule. Just like us mere Earthlings, they work regular hours, with plenty of free time to unwind. They even get weekends offâ€”barring any cause for alarm on the International Space Statoin (ISS) that requires immediate attention, like dodging space debris.
â€œItâ€™s important to offer those opportunities for them to decompress,â€ says Alexandra Whitemire, the Deputy Element Scientist for the Human Factors and Behavioral Performance (HFBP) team at NASA. â€œTheyâ€™re living and working in the same tin can, so itâ€™s an important aspect of the mission.â€
While it might seem obvious now, this consideration for an astronautâ€™s work-life balance and mental health was not always the case. Decades of space missions have allowed us to reach this point, and along the way, weâ€™ve encountered and overcome a few challenges. To understand where it all began, we need to take a step back to the dawn of human spaceflight.
All work and no play
In the 1960s American astronauts were journeying to space on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions that lasted days, or even just hours, in small cramped spacecraft with crews of up to three. On these missions to Earth orbit, and eventually to the Moon, every minute was invaluable.
â€œAstronaut happiness wasnâ€™t necessarily a factor,â€ says spaceflight historian David Hitt.
But by the 1970s NASA was looking at prolonged human spaceflight missions on a fully functioning space station, Skylab, constructed from the empty shell of a Saturn V rocket and complete with crew quarters, a kitchen, and even a running track of sorts. The station would be NASAâ€™s first attempt at long-duration crew missions lasting up to several months. Things needed to change. Especially schedules.
â€œSkylab was the first time that comfort, the little things that could make life better, became a factor,â€ says Hitt. â€œNot only in the schedule and leisure time, but just from a creature comforts perspective.â€
NASA went so far as to bring in an interior designer, the French-born American Raymond Loewy, famed for his design of the Coca-Cola bottle among other work, to design Skylab. He did so with a few principles in mind: eight hours of daily solitude, meals facing each other, and smooth partitions.
With that fresh design also came a renewed look at how astronauts spent their time in space. On the second mission, Skylab 3 in July 1973, the astronauts overperformed in their two months on the station, achieving â€œ150 percent of their mission requirements,â€ says Hitt, also the author of Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story. â€œThey were able to accomplish more than was anticipated.â€
But on the third and final Skylab mission, Skylab 4 in November 1973 with Gerald Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue, things didnâ€™t go so smoothly. The crew was given a jam-packed list of tasks to complete every day with little free time to relax. They became overworked and frustrated.
â€œThey were overscheduling the crew,â€ says John Uri, manager of the History Office at NASAâ€™s Johnson Space Center. â€œThe crew, being professionals, wanted to get everything done, and that cut into all their leisure time activities.â€
The crew relayed their concerns to NASA, and the agency readily agreed. The astronautsâ€™ days were restructured to include more downtime, a more streamlined approach to exercise, and more time to unwind before and after sleeping. â€œYou could see the difference,â€ says Uri. â€œThey were so much more productive in the second half of the mission.â€
Years later, the events on Skylab 4 would be misreported as a â€œmutinyâ€, but it was nothing of the sort. â€œThis story is an albatross that unfortunately hangs around the necks of these heroes,â€ says Hitt. â€œItâ€™s not true.â€
Instead, by the time NASA got back to long-duration spaceflights again at the turn of the century with the ISS, they had vital data on how best to approach the structure of each mission. Astronauts would ultimately not work around the clockâ€”they would work nine to five, with evenings and weekends to themselves.
â€œThatâ€™s one of the big things from Skylab, just the conscientiousness around the crew members needing some time for themselves,â€ says Whitmire. â€œYou canâ€™t just schedule things back to back.â€
Ground control to Major Tom
How astronauts spend that free time is up to them, and there are many ways to do so. A popular activity on the ISS is to float down to ESAâ€™s Cupola module, which affords a glorious view of Earth with its seven windows.
â€œMany astronauts have said one of the most pleasurable activities is simply being able to see Earth,â€ says Gloria Leon, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Minnesota. â€œTaking photographs [of Earth] is an area of relaxation thatâ€™s mentioned a lot.â€
Some astronauts take musical instruments with them to unwind. NASAâ€™s Carl Walz serenaded his crewmates with a keyboard in 2001, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield wowed us with Bowieâ€™s â€œSpace Oddityâ€ on the ISS in 2013, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet took his saxophone in 2017.
Astronauts are also able to watch movies, or even live sports beamed up from Earth. â€œThe Russians are big soccer fans, so when the World Cup was playing they were pretty much glued to the sets in their downtime,â€ says Uri.
Others, like NASAâ€™s Douglas Wheelock on his mission to the ISS in 2010, have enjoyed the simple act of keeping a journal. â€œI spent a lot of time writing down my thoughts,â€ he says. â€œI really started to find solace in writing down my thoughts, and I ended up writing a little bit of poetry.â€
Wheelock says he enjoyed using an amateur radio on the station as well, called a Ham radio, to communicate with people on Earth. Astronauts can broadcast on an FM channel using a handset on the station, which can then be picked up by listeners on the groundâ€“a popular pastime for crew on the ISSâ€“and Wheelock vividly remembers his first time using it.
â€œIt was like alphabet soup coming up at me,â€ he says. â€œThat started a trend for me where I made thousands of contacts across the world. That really became part of my connection back to the planet.â€
Astronauts can also phone and email home, and even use the internetâ€”most have active Twitter accounts and tweet from space. This high level of communication allows them to feel grounded with Earth, something that might be difficult on future missions to Mars when timing delays will make talking to Earth difficult.
â€œI canâ€™t imagine doing a long-duration mission without that connection to the planet,â€ says Wheelock. â€œItâ€™s a huge psychological hurdle that weâ€™re going to have to figure out.â€
Until then, however, modern astronauts will continue going about their day, just like you or me. Where once military men spent days locked in small capsules, today diverse and multi-national crews of men and women live and work in space, in a way that seems almost brazenly normal against a literal out-of-this-world experience.
â€œThereâ€™s a good equilibrium,â€ says Hitt. â€œThe astronauts are pretty happy with life on the space station. Weâ€™ve just come such a long way.â€
Like this article?
SIGN UP for our newsletter