Orbiting 240 miles from the surface of Earth, day-to-day life aboard the International Space Station is often a mystery to terrestrials. The station is a faint glimmer that appears in the sky for a few minutes at a time—if you happen to be looking up as it passes. From inside, it’s another story.
“It felt like you were going into someone’s home after a long drive or a cold walk,” says Michael Lopez-Alegria who rocketed to the station in 2006. Inside what would be the NASA astronaut’s home for 215 days, trinkets, mementos, and photos of astronauts like Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, hang on the walls. A 360-degree bay window offers stunning views of our planet, its paparazzi-like lightning storms, billowing curtains of northern lights, and glowing city skylines all seen from above.
For astronauts, the day starts with or without sunrise, at 6am GMT. Cocooned in quarters the size of a telephone booth, crew unzip from jacket-like sleeping bags, heads sometimes fastened with Velcro to a pillow or bags bungeed to the walls.
Then they float to one of two bathrooms, “where you crave gravity a lot,” admits Lopez-Alegria. A small vacuum tube collects urine but solid matter is…another matter. Crewmembers strap onto the space toilet with a seatbelt and air suction draws waste downward into a bag which eventually burns up when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Rinse-less body baths and shampoos replace real showers, and clothing is worn every day for about a week before it’s discarded.
Monday through Friday, the crew commutes to work in their socks. A conference call with Mission Control once in the morning and once in the evening allows the astronauts to discuss the day’s tasks. They spend most of their day maintaining or repairing the station—like the broken valve in the cooling pump in 2013—and working on experiments with scientists on the ground. One experiment might measure how space affects the astronauts’ reaction time and accuracy. Another may test a new invention, such as “spheres,” volleyball-sized robots that will someday carry out construction work autonomously. An electronic timeline of each crewmember’s tasks, called an On-Board Short Term Plan Viewer, tracks their activities in real time.
Daily cardiovascular and resistance exercises are not optional, since bone density loss is a serious problem when you’re weightless. Astronaut Leroy Chiao would alternate stationary biking and three-mile jogs harnessed into a treadmill every day. Astronaut Sunita Williams once participated in the Boston Marathon, and after 90 minutes, the time it takes for the station to lap the Earth, claimed that she had run around the world.
At every moment since the first astronaut stepped into the station, life support systems must run seamlessly. Chemical scrubbers absorb carbon dioxide and micro-impurities reactors remove toxic chemicals. Resupply ships bring oxygen to the station and a regulator injects it into the atmosphere.
Meals come as “flexible cans,” metal pouches heated in an oven, or freeze-dried foods that require a special water dispenser. The fajitas, casseroles, and pastas aren’t so bad, but “it was overwhelming to smell the fresh fruit that we take for granted on Earth,” says Daniel Bursch, whose mission began in 2001. Lopez-Alegria enjoyed the occasional latte-flavored coffee, a powder made with the help of his favorite California coffee shop and The Johnson Space Center. But when delivery costs $10,000 per pound of food, meals are mostly a time to talk with fellow crew from the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan or Europe.
Sometimes the crew stays up late together to watch movies—like The Godfather or, aptly, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bursch moistened strands of bamboo and wove them into tiny, Nantucket Lightship Baskets. Because going outside for a stroll is impossible, others read e-books, write emails, and shop online.
Most use their downtime in zero gravity to gaze out the window at Earth. “Here you are hundreds of miles away looking at the rainforest and the desert, but you’re looking at it from a pretty sterile environment,” says Chiao. “The thing I missed the most was nature, the smell of grass, being around trees and seeing birds and other animals.” Chiao also took the first documented photo of the Great Wall of China from space.
To connect back to people they left behind on Earth, astronauts use a space phone that reaches anyone, anywhere in the world. “The first few times you call from space, people would say, ‘I think it’s a prank call,’” says Lopez-Alegria. Even so, that’s how a place the size of a football field starts to feel like home.