What do astronauts do all day in the International Space Station? (Intermediate)

What do astronauts do all day in the space station? Isn't it super small?

Planning an astronaut's schedule at the International Space Station is actually quite difficult. There are several daily tasks and maintenance operations an astronaut must do, as well as scientific experiments. Every day astronauts must get 2.5 hours of exercise (mostly using resistive equipment) just to maintain normal muscle tone and ordinary fitness levels because without gravity they do not have to use their muscles like we do here on Earth. Scheduling the exercise time can be difficult because they can't exercise just before or just after a meal. They must also give themselves and each other frequent physicals to monitor their health. When astronauts take "space walks" to check on the outside of the Space Station, these walks can take up to 7 hours and require that the astronauts re-compress for an hour afterward. Astronauts are also often asked to give interviews to update those of us back home of their progress and to help us understand what life is like for them on the Station. When making up their schedules, astronauts have to take into account when the Space Station is in the light versus the dark, what hours of the day they can communicate with people in Houston or in Russia, as well as when certain satellites are "up" so that they can communicate with home and use certain equipment.

The main reason the astronauts are at the International Space Station is for science and a large variety of experiments are done there. What all of the experiments have in common is that they have to improvise with what equipment is available due to the limited space available on the Station. There are two main research facilities on the Space Station: The Human Research Facility and the Microgravity Science Glovebox. Many experiments are done at the Human Research Facility to determine how well the human body can adapt to living in space. The Microgravity Glovebox allows astronauts to handle otherwise dangerous fluids in a sealed box using built-in gloves. At the time this answer was first written -- October 2004 -- Expedition 10's crew of astronauts were working on experiments like:

  • Observing and photographing natural and manmade changes on Earth over time as well as short timescale events like storms so we can better understand our planet
  • Studying how humans behave in isolation and confinement
  • Leaving potential future spacecraft equipment outside to see how well it withstands being in space to improve materials used to build spacecraft
  • Studying magnetorheological fluids using the glovebox to hopefully lead to the construction of better brake systems, seat suspensions, and airplane landing gear here on Earth

Of course, astronauts do get some free time, during which they usually like to call their families and check their e-mail, or even Twitter!

Update from Ann: While many of the day-to-day tasks for the crew of the International Space Station stay the same, I thought it might be handy to have a summer 2015 update on the kinds of research going on at ISS these days.

Currently, the major focus is on the so-called "One Year Mission." American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend about a year, starting in March 2015, on the ISS. This is a chance to study the effects on the human body of long-term space travel, which is important as we look forward to longer missions to Mars and deep space. While astronauts have been on long-duration International Space Station missions in the past, this one is different because of the large set of experiments and measurements that have been set up. It's also different because Scott Kelly happens to have a twin brother who was also an astronaut - Mark Kelly, who is now retired. Mark will participate in the year-long mission in his own way, by enabling the study of two very, very similar people over the course of the same year: one on Earth, and one in space.

Measurements and experiments will be carried out to explore questions like: how well do astronauts perform key tasks over time? How is their behavioral health, like sleep and cognition? Are their vision, metabolism, or physical performance impaired? Does their microbiome -- the balance of different bacteria living in the human gut -- change over time? What is their overall quality of life?

To learn more about what's happening on the International Space Station at any given time, check out NASA's frequently-updated ISS blog or their page about the research and development work happening on ISS.

Page last updated on June 25, 2015 by Ann Martin.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt

Sabrina Stierwalt

Sabrina was a graduate student at Cornell until 2009 when she moved to Los Angeles to become a researcher at Caltech. She now studies galaxy mergers at the University of Virginia and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville. You can also find her answering science questions in her weekly podcast as Everyday Einstein.

 Twitter: @galaxygirlguru
 Website: www.astro.virginia.edu/~srs5vn

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