Living On The ISS

Anushka S Dongaonkar

Orbital Sunrise as seen from the ISS (Credits: ESA/NASA- A. Gerst)

Imagine having a bedroom smaller than a showering stall with all of your gadgets tied around you. Having to eat your favourite food as a paste sounds disheartening. Pulling yourself wherever you want to go, quite literally, doesn’t sound very comfortable either. Well, it certainly doesn’t feel as repulsive for some of us. From the global population of 7.8 billion, a lucky few are chosen to work on the ISS as astronauts and cosmonauts. They conduct research, maintain ISS in working order, and in general, learn more about living and working in space.

Living on the ISS requires many lifestyle modifications- ‘many’, likely referring to almost redefining your ‘normal’ day. You would be surprised to know that even while living in space, you would have to clean your rooms, take care of personal hygiene and still have to exercise! As tedious as it may sound, these mundane tasks are prominent on the ISS.

However, this comes with a twist. You still have to perform all the chores, but in space, the way of doing them is entirely different! And the main reason behind it is the absence of gravity. This plays a significant advantage for science and has benefitted humanity in ways we could only dream of, consistently improving our lives on Earth. Adding to this, you would get to see a stunning view of Earth, and witness almost 16 sunsets and sunrises in 24 hours, to name a few.

However, the main drawback of having no gravity is that there is no force pulling objects towards the ‘floor’. It sounds like fun until you have to use water in space. The water will free float, and if it gets near the expensive and sensitive machinery and gadgets, well, you get the idea. Since astronauts can’t use water as we do, there needs to be an efficient alternative for chores requiring water. This can be quite challenging since we use water for a lot of things.

A water-less bath, as impossible as it sounds, is a reality for the astronauts. They use non-foaming soaps to clean themselves and then wipe with a damp towel. Well, it’s not exactly a bath, but it will help the astronauts to, at least, maintain basic hygiene, won’t it? Brushing teeth is still more or less the same, the difference being that their toothpaste is edible and hence, can be swallowed at the end. The bubbles and foam may still float around; thus, attention is given to avoid any complications due to bubbles in the workspace.

Another place where they spend a lot of time is the bathroom. Using bathrooms in space is nothing less than an art in itself. A simple yet effective mechanism is used while in space to avoid incidents like the great space turd mystery of 1969. The astronauts strap themselves to a specially made toilet, which uses a vacuum to keep anything from escaping. Practising using these bathrooms before going on the ISS is very important for everyone on board for obvious reasons.

Another mind-blowing and enviable fact is that the astronauts don’t have to do laundry while in space! They use their clothes till they are dirty and then throw them out. The clothes burn out in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s neither viable to bring the dirty laundry back on Earth nor worth the risk to wash them on the ISS.

The food in space needs to be more nutritious and healthy. It’s quite necessary to have optimum nutrition, considering that their bodies are under a tremendous amount of stress. Moreover, the astronauts can’t have crumbs of food floating in the ISS for the same reason they can’t have water floating around. The food is made into a paste and packed in vacuum-sealed bags. It can be directly eaten (or drunk, whatever you want to say) out of the bag. The fresh stock of fruits and veggies soaked in vitamin C (decay rate decreases due to its antioxidative properties) can be transported to ISS when a new crew or shipment arrives. Water also is packed in bags. Food and water are ingested directly from these bags.

Next comes the exercising. Since the astronauts float for most of the time, their leg muscles weaken; the bones may also lose their mass and structure while in space. Weaker leg bones, along with atrophied muscles (shortened and weakened muscles), may not be able to bear their weight after they come back to Earth. It may permanently damage their walking ability. Therefore, they need to exercise at least 2 hours daily. That may sound like a lot, but it certainly won’t if you could float for the rest of the day.

An obvious question must have crossed your mind: why do astronauts have to change their ways? Why not create artificial gravity like in Sci-Fi movies? Why can’t they rotate the whole structure and create a large enough centrifugal force? It will surely be easier for the astronauts working there, won’t it? The answer is simple: they are not doing anything because they don’t want to. The main objectives behind deploying the ISS are researching in micro (or zero) gravity and studying its long-term effects on the human body.

ISS is the only space station where research in almost all fields is going on right now- from the effects of gravity on microbes to growing vegetables in space to monitoring earth from a bird’s view. ISS is the first step in paving the way for space civilization. Not only does it help in studying the effects of zero gravity on life, but it also makes us understand the basic functioning of the human body. ISS is undoubtedly one of the boldest steps in space exploration.

The official blog of SEDS VIT, Indian headquarters of the global NPO, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

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