You are here

Space Living: Astro Home

You’ve known you were destined to dwell in outer space ever since you first saw The Jetsons. So, how do you do that? Your new home will be the International Space Station (ISS), the only place in space that is known to be habitable. So far, the crews of the ISS have included pilots, engineers, scientists, and a few eccentric tech-zillionaire tourists. However, serious people are working hard on cheaper civilian rockets, and the station briefly had 13 people aboard it this year, the biggest space crowd ever. It’s not a fantasy: The place is as real as Poughkeepsie.

Backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. Earlier the STS-128 and Expedition 20 crew concluded nine days of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Photo taken September 8, 2009. Courtesy of NASA

Let’s boldly assume you somehow go there. Space travel is a thrilling and difficult junket, like an expedition to Everest. Good people have died going there and died coming back. The trip up and down involves crushing acceleration and many jolts.

The time you spend in outer space will change your blood and hormone levels, and your bones and muscles will slowly waste away. A three-month stay is optimal; six months is pushing it. You’re going to need to get in shape and remember to pack light.

With that understood, let’s settle in. Built over the course of ten years by a wide variety of contractors­­—–and still a work in progress—–the ISS is a hodgepodge trailer camp graced with quite a lot of Russian design. It features two basic living elements: big round tubes, trucked up there in the American Space Shuttle, and smaller knobby tubes, fired up on other people’s rockets. All these pods have been snapped together, mostly end to end, or, as you’ll say on the station, “fore and aft.” 

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 20 flight engineer, is pictured in the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), temporarily attached to the ISS while Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-128) remains docked with the station. Photo taken September 5, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

There are no proper floors nor ceilings, because there isn’t gravity like we know it on Earth, just the free-fall feeling of space. This lack of directional pull is the central design fact, and it affects everything, including you. It will take at least three days to learn to move properly, mastering gentle gliding to and from various handholds. You don’t want to zoom around circus-style, as the station has many hard, protruding metal surfaces. The place is also festooned with cables: sewer, electrical, electronic, and your new best friends—since they help you keep still—elastic bungee cords.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, both Expedition 21 flight engineers; along with European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne (background), commander, work in the Harmony node of the ISS. Photo taken October 15, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

All portable items must be either tied to the walls or stuck to your body. This fact accounts for the design of your new pants, space life’s primary contribution to futuristic fashion. Your space pants have thick Velcro strips across the thighs so you can stick your favorite toys to your legs and fly around barnacled with notepads, pens, and cameras. Ditch your shoes—you’ll nearly never be standing on anything. You’ll need, however, warm socks since your feet will lack proper blood flow and will always be cold.

The sun rises or sets through the portholes 16 times a day. Because the sunlight in outer space is cruelly bright you’ll need a baseball hat and some sunglasses. You might also opt for an open-collar golf shirt in an unnatural color, usually decorated with some nifty astro-industrial logo—–a tech college or European space agency.

Your new clothes don’t have gravity to cause them to drape or cling to your body, so they give you the hearty look of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Much the same goes for your floating hair. Meanwhile the blood rushes out of your hands and feet to pool in your chest and your face. You get a ruddy, pumpkin-headed look as your sinuses stuff up with fluid, hindering your sense of smell. As long as you lack gravity, you will stay that way.

You now live in a totally airtight, multiwindowed terrarium, about the size of a Boeing 767. Your surroundings have the general look and feel of an aircraft fuselage, except with a full-time live-in crew. The color scheme is bright aviation white, accented with the metallic blue handholds, chrome mesh cabling, and glittering gold cable connectors. Bright national flags and punchy-looking mission badges and stickers decorate the bulkheads, along with lots of duct tape and sticky notes, on which are written operational tips for all the hardware.

NASA astronaut John "Danny" Olivas, STS-128 mission specialist, poses for a photo with the growing collection, in the Unity node, of insignias representing crews who have worked on the ISS. Photo taken September 7, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

The station is loud: Air fans and sewage lines compete with the clicks, pops, and whirs from an onboard arsenal of knobby, dial-clustered scientific equipment. Occasionally some tiny piece of space junk whacks into the space station; you can get accustomed to the rest of the noise, but that’s one you don’t want to hear.

The galley consists of just a microwave, and you’ll have to look after yourself. Thanks to ten years of visits by Russians, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, and their friends, there’s a veritable global food court of micro-wavable delights stowed aboard. Cosmonaut chow—–jellied fish and borscht—–is in especially lavish supply.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk (left), NASA astronauts Jeffrey Williams and Nicole Stott; along with Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, all Expedition 21 flight engineers, share a meal at the galley in the Zvezda Service Module of the ISS. Photo taken October 12, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

None of it is fresh, but it’s easily as good as the food on most airlines. Soup and coffee come in squeezable bags, because liquids left alone in microgravity turn into wobbling water balloons. Crunchy food requires care as crumbly bits fly off at high velocity and end up stuck to the air filters.

Then there’s the gym area, where you will be spending a mandatory two and a half hours every day working out to keep your bones and muscles from dwindling away. There you’ll find a nifty treadmill equipped with springs and dampeners to keep the entire ISS from vibrating with each step you take, a high-tech bicycle with straps to hold both you and the bike stationary, and a bungee-cord contraption that lets you get in some upper-body work. There are no weights because, well, everyone and everything is weightless.

Space life doesn’t differ much from the daily grind on Earth—–it just demands more attention. Leroy Chiao’s daily workout requires tying on both sneakers and a bungee harness before putting in miles on the TVIS (“treadmill vibration isolation system”). Image courtesy of NASA.

After one of the 16 sunsets, you go to sleep in a stiff private tent about the size of a phone booth. It’s quiet and dark in there, so the racket and the constant sunrises won’t bother you. Your suite looks pretty small, but it feels roomy, since you have no need to lie down. You can also latch yourself to a wall in a sleeping bag; the crew will see you, but no one snores in space.

The ground-control crew sets all the schedules, including when to eat and sleep, since the day’s 16 sunsets quickly become disorienting. In the ISS’s Kibo laboratory, Koichi Wakata sleeps while secured to the wall in a sleeping bag. Image courtesy of NASA.

Naturally, you’ll want to space walk. Of course, nobody can literally venture “into outer space,” because you will die in two minutes without air, as well as freeze. To leave the station, you have to camp cramped inside an airlock for many hours, as the nitrogen boils out of your blood, deep-sea-diver style. The airlock is boring and quite claustrophobic. Then there’s your space suit, which is best understood as a micro-spacecraft complete with onboard propulsion and life-support systems.

You’ll be outside the ISS for six hours, tops. It’s an incredible experience—but after the time in the airlock you probably won’t want to repeat it. Space walking is, however, the real deal in space living. It’s the best way to see and feel the station as an entity—as the huge multiwinged construction it is. Compared to life inside, the station feels much different from the exterior.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 20 flight engineer, participates in the STS-128 mission's first session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction and maintenance continue on the ISS. During the six-hour, 35-minute spacewalk, Stott and astronaut John "Danny" Olivas (out of frame), mission specialist, removed an empty ammonia tank from the station's truss and temporarily stowed it on the station's robotic arm. Olivas and Stott also retrieved the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) and Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) from the Columbus laboratory module and installed them on Discovery's payload bay for return. Photo taken September 1, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

It looks like some monster space moth, a techno-marvel with camera eyes, radio ears, and grappling arms. The long round tubes where you live are just a fraction of it. The rest consists mostly of naked trusses that hold huge solar panels, which glow so brightly they can be seen from Earth with the naked eye.

It’s just you and your hissing space suit out in the Carl Sagan cosmos, an awesome empty blackness pierced with harsh untwinkling stars. It’s marvelous and scary, but nobody wants to dwell out there. You’ll much prefer life back inside the capsules, where there are interesting international experts to socialize with, along with some air, warmth, music, and food.

Expedition 20 crew members pose for an in-flight crew photo in the Harmony node of the ISS. Pictured clockwise are Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka (bottom center), commander; Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, all flight engineers. Photo taken October 1, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

Social life in the station is polite, professional, diplomatic, and very dutiful. There’s a lot going on in this floating crowd of foreign strangers, and little of it involves dreamily staring out the portholes—–at least after the first week. Drinking is nigh unheard-of; smoking a catastrophe. No one ever has sex.

Space visitors have created their own unique language, which is 50 years old and consists mostly of acronyms. A simple space heater becomes the ITCS—–for “internal thermal control system.” The ground-control crew also speaks the language, and they set all the schedules. There’s some scientific work involving materials science and biology, but much of station life involves the station itself: dozens of complex, fragile systems that must be kept running so you don’t smother, freeze, or tumble wildly out of control. 

European Space Agency astronauts Christer Fuglesang (top foreground), STS-128 mission specialist; and Frank De Winne, Expedition 20 flight engineer, install a Materials Science Research Rack-1 (MSRR-1) in the Destiny laboratory of the ISS. NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (partially out of frame), STS-128 pilot; is at left; and NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, mission specialist, works in the background. Photo taken September 2, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

There’s a great deal of computer housework, so you and your new friends are commonly tethered to a station wall, pecking at the keys of Velcroed notebook computers. There’s a lot of scrubbing, because any kind of body dirt or damp floats off and congeals in the station’s quiet corners.

Supply ships arrive from Russia, Japan, and Europe, and they have to be docked, unloaded by hand, and reloaded with trash, which the station generates in copious amounts. Heaps of supplies have turned the ISS into a space attic. Simply finding gear, digging it out of bags and boxes, assembling it, disassembling it, and lashing it back down is very time-consuming.

You have to test your own health: blood tests, spit tests, urine tests, and psychological tests to assure that you haven’t drifted into some spacey frame of mind that might endanger the mission. The Russian psychological tests are especially peculiar.

Life in space is beautiful and sublime. Completely sane people train cheerfully for years, undergoing every kind of trial and indignity for the bare chance to do it. Ironically, the most beautiful thing up there, all veterans agree, is Earth. The second-most beautiful are the people, a technical elite in excellent health and a generally good-looking, congenial bunch. The rest is hardware. It’s frail, dangerous, expensive, unique, and impressive, but, at the end of the day, just hardware.

A gibbous moon is visible above Earth's atmosphere, photographed by an STS-128 crew member on the Space Shuttle Discovery during flight day three activities. Photo taken August 30, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

The station is getting old. It has a rough life in the harsh glare of space. It’s the freakiest construction project that the human race has ever built. It cost about a hundred billion dollars, and there has never been anything like it. It’s also destined to be flung out of the sky in small pieces around the year 2016, unless somebody solves its midlife real-estate crisis.

There are no trees nor flowers nor animals. There is no wind nor rain. There are no children. In fact, no little kid has ever been in space. Without children, there’s no future. So the ISS isn’t the future. Not by itself. It’s what it is: a station in space.

Categories: is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


Thanks for the article and pictures.

I love it... it must feel so strange to sleep in space. I guess there's no real difference between side, back, front or whatever.

This was very helpful to our study in space. We have been working on space pants and it has been very fun and exciting! When we looked through these pictures, it is very hard to imagine what it would like to sleep in space. There are soooooooooooooo many things that were so interesting that it is unexplainable. Thanks, Mrs. Craven's Red Group. ( 2nd Class.)

Going to space has been my childhood dream. Space has always been an area of interest for me and I will try my level best to make my dream come true. Moreover these pictures gives a good idea of the living in a space craft. It is really a work of a genius!!

Thank you for such an informative article! I found your observations and descriptions of life in a space station so interesting and well written.It really gives an idea of the day to day operations on a human scale. I may have been written for kids, but I enjoyed it's straight-forward language and gave me a nice sense of your experience. cheers!

I love these quotes:

"The station is getting old. It has a rough life in the harsh glare of space.

Station is only 10 years old, which means the hostile space environment accelerates the aging process. Too bad we don't have spacecraft botox injections. *kidding*

"It’s the freakiest construction project that the human race has ever built."

I started work on Station in 1986, fresh out of grad school. We struggled (often against ourselves) in the process of getting Station into orbit, but what a magnificent feat of mankind. We pieced it together module by module, cable by cable, battery by battery IN SPACE -- all within the context of international cooperation among multiple languages and cultures and geographic locations. We've succeeded despite the odds for failure. Bravo!