Wake up, work, relax, sleep, repeat.
For many on Earth, this is a typical day—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 off—barring any cause for alarm on the International Space Statoin (ISS) that requires immediate attention, like dodging space debris.
“It’s important to offer those opportunities for them to decompress,” says Alexandra Whitemire, the Deputy Element Scientist for the Human Factors and Behavioral Performance (HFBP) team at NASA. “They’re living and working in the same tin can, so it’s an important aspect of the mission.”
While it might seem obvious now, this consideration for an astronaut’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, we’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.
“Astronaut happiness wasn’t necessarily a factor,” 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 NASA’s first attempt at long-duration crew missions lasting up to several months. Things needed to change. Especially schedules.
“Skylab was the first time that comfort, the little things that could make life better, became a factor,” says Hitt. “Not only in the schedule and leisure time, but just from a creature comforts perspective.”
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 “150 percent of their mission requirements,” says Hitt, also the author of Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story. “They were able to accomplish more than was anticipated.”
But on the third and final Skylab mission, Skylab 4 in November 1973 with Gerald Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue, things didn’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.
“They were overscheduling the crew,” says John Uri, manager of the History Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “The crew, being professionals, wanted to get everything done, and that cut into all their leisure time activities.”
The crew relayed their concerns to NASA, and the agency readily agreed. The astronauts’ days were restructured to include more downtime, a more streamlined approach to exercise, and more time to unwind before and after sleeping. “You could see the difference,” says Uri. “They were so much more productive in the second half of the mission.”
Years later, the events on Skylab 4 would be misreported as a “mutiny”, but it was nothing of the sort. “This story is an albatross that unfortunately hangs around the necks of these heroes,” says Hitt. “It’s not true.”
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 clock—they would work nine to five, with evenings and weekends to themselves.
“That’s one of the big things from Skylab, just the conscientiousness around the crew members needing some time for themselves,” says Whitmire. “You can’t just schedule things back to back.”
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 ESA’s Cupola module, which affords a glorious view of Earth with its seven windows.
“Many astronauts have said one of the most pleasurable activities is simply being able to see Earth,” says Gloria Leon, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Minnesota. “Taking photographs [of Earth] is an area of relaxation that’s mentioned a lot.”
Some astronauts take musical instruments with them to unwind. NASA’s Carl Walz serenaded his crewmates with a keyboard in 2001, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield wowed us with Bowie’s “Space Oddity” 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. “The Russians are big soccer fans, so when the World Cup was playing they were pretty much glued to the sets in their downtime,” says Uri.
Others, like NASA’s Douglas Wheelock on his mission to the ISS in 2010, have enjoyed the simple act of keeping a journal. “I spent a lot of time writing down my thoughts,” he says. “I really started to find solace in writing down my thoughts, and I ended up writing a little bit of poetry.”
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 ground–a popular pastime for crew on the ISS–and Wheelock vividly remembers his first time using it.
“It was like alphabet soup coming up at me,” he says. “That 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.”
Astronauts can also phone and email home, and even use the internet—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.
“I can’t imagine doing a long-duration mission without that connection to the planet,” says Wheelock. “It’s a huge psychological hurdle that we’re going to have to figure out.”
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.
“There’s a good equilibrium,” says Hitt. “The astronauts are pretty happy with life on the space station. We’ve just come such a long way.”