What does it take to become an astronaut and find oneself far beyond Earth’s atmosphere? Here are some mind-blowing facts we bet you never knew about being an astronaut!
Keeping in shape is arguably the most vital part of being an astronaut. Due to microgravity, astronauts are at risk of suffering lower bone density, lower muscle mass, and an increasingly weakening cardiovascular system.
Forget any idea of someone in a spacesuit doing a bench press, though. As there is no gravity in space, lifting heavy weights will have very little effect on physical health as no gravity means no resistance. Instead, astronauts complete two hours of training daily on machines that help simulate gravity to provide resistance.
Oxygen in Orbit
Is an astronaut’s favorite band Air Supply? It is no easy feat to provide a space vessel with a fresh supply of oxygen. Besides bringing capsules of air from Earth, astronauts must generate new oxygen through a process called electrolysis.
This is done by running an electrical current through water which then splits the oxygen atoms from the hydrogen atoms. This is then converted into fresh, breathable oxygen. And what about the leftover hydrogen? That is then converted back into water!
From Dusk to Dawn to Dusk to Dawn to Dusk…
Due to the international space station traveling at a mind-boggling eight kilometers a second (almost 28,000 kilometers an hour!) astronauts get to enjoy sunrises and sunsets far more frequently than Earthlings do.
In fact, the International Space Station can orbit the earth in a mere ninety minutes. Within this time, astronauts have the privilege of witnessing sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets every day.
The state of Texas passed a law in 1997 that allows for Americans in space to vote. David Wolf, the first American to vote while in orbit, cast his vote via an encrypted email.
This email, routed by NASA, is received by a county clerk in Texas. The clerk is the only person besides the astronaut to know who the astronaut voted for. The clerk then fills in the astronaut’s selections on a paper ballot which is then submitted for counting.
The Fallen Astronaut
Reaching space and finally landing on the moon did not come without its risks. By the time the Apollo 15 crew landed on the moon, fourteen people had already passed away while on space expeditions.
To commemorate the sacrifices made by these fourteen cosmic comrades of theirs, the Apollo 15 crew laid a three-and-a-half-inch aluminum astronaut sculpture on the moon to honor them along with a plaque engraved with all their names.
In order to successfully qualify, American astronauts must become proficient in both spoken and written Russian. This is due to America and Russia being the foremost nations that have undertaken space travel in the past and have left a longstanding legacy of space equipment up in orbit.
Many of the manuals and controls on the space stations are in Russian. In addition to this, communicating with Russian counterparts is vital for safe space travel. Similarly, Russian astronauts must learn English.
Home Is Where the Moon Is
Charles Duke, an astronaut traveling with the Apollo 16 mission, had the idea – as many astronauts do – to take family photos with him on a trip into outer space. What is unique about Charles’ family photo is that it never returned to Earth (don’t worry – Charles did!).
After landing on the moon, Charles wrote a note on the back of the photograph stating: “This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972.”
An age-old question that many kids have asked is “What happens when someone in spacesuit farts?” A very valid question and one that poses more challenges than just the obvious.
Flatulence contains methane, a highly inflammable gas. Inside a small, pressurized capsule such as the space station, astronauts are to be very mindful of “letting go”. To ensure that flatulence is kept to a minimum, astronauts do not get to pack some freeze-dried beans with them!
An astronaut who finds him or herself crying will not have tears running down their cheeks and will instead see their tears floating around. As there is no gravity to pull the liquid downwards, the tears will form blobs around their eyes and eventually float off their eyelids.
The science behind the blobs forming is that the surface tension of the water itself keeps it together, but with no expected downward flow, it simply becomes an airborne mass of water.
The Ralph Rocket
Or better known as the “Vomit Comet”, this aircraft is able to create near-weightless environments that simulate the closest thing to zero gravity.
Officially known as a reduced-gravity aircraft, astronauts are required to spend periods (albeit brief periods) in a near-zero gravity environment to test their levels of tolerance as the pressure exerted to create weightlessness does take its toll on human bodies. NASA has decommissioned its dedicated reduced-gravity aircraft and now relies on private contractors.
Sneezing in Space Sucks
Bodily processes while wearing a spacesuit can pose significant challenges in outer space. As discussed in this article with flatulence, sneezing is a challenging task. After a hearty sneeze, mucus that has splattered on the inside of an astronaut’s helmet cannot be wiped away.
To avoid this mini catastrophe from happening, astronauts are trained to ensure that they tuck their chins to their chests and sneeze downwards – averting all possible spray away from their visors.
One Small Bite for Mankind
Yuri Gargarin is well known for being the first human in space. To add to this accomplishment, he was also the first human to officially eat there.
There is no fine dining in space, though – Yuri Gargarin slurped down beef and liver paste which was encased in a tube. Dessert soon followed in the form of a gelatinous blob of chocolate sauce also squeezed from a tiny tube. We hope Yuri didn’t get any ideas about his toothpaste for breakfast…
The Menu on the Moon
Talking of dining in the cosmos, there was a first meal on the moon itself. The first and only human beings in history to dine on the moon were Neil Armstrong and his compatriot Buzz Aldrin.
What was on the menu? A slightly better menu than Yuri’s — four pieces of bacon compressed into cubes. Followed by a very sugary dessert of cookies, fruit, fruit juice, and a well-deserved coffee.
No Bootlegging Allowed
During the early stages of dietary planning, it was immediately understood that no alcohol of any sort would be consumed while in orbit.
After a few space trips of very uninspiring meals, NASA thought it may be permissible to allow wine on a space station even going as far as consulting a sommelier to advise which would be best. The proposal fell flat though and alcohol is still prohibited. Fun fact: the drink the sommelier recommended was sherry!
With the very official title of “Manned Maneuvering Unit”, the jetpacks used by astronauts are vital. As in the name, the unit allows astronauts to move outside their space stations and work freely without the risk of floating off into space.
Packing an impressive weight of 140 kilograms, these backpacks allow an astronaut to propel themselves with the use of high-pressure nitrogen. The capacity of these tanks can allow for up to six hours of exterior travel.
Will the Last to Leave Please Turn the Lights Off
We are all very familiar with the first person to have stepped onto the moon. How many of us are familiar with the last person to step off the moon? This enviable accolade belongs to American astronaut Gene Cernan.
Most people will be familiar with writing the names of their beloved on beach sand. Well, Gene took it a step further and scrawled his daughter’s name into the moon dust before boarding the spacecraft as the last human to have been on the moon.
Valeri Gets Lonely
The undisputed champion of space travel currently belongs to Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov. His earth-shattering record stands at a whopping 437 days alone in space. This beats the next record holder, American astronaut Scott Kelly, by 97 days.
Valeri’s contribution to space exploration was tremendous as it revealed that the human body can withstand long periods of being in space. The only impairment that Valeri was discovered to have during his medical assessment on return: a persistent bad mood that cleared up within the year of his return.
Quarantine That Cough
When sneezing or coughing on earth, a multitude of environmental factors help sweep the bacteria, germs, and viruses away from others before inhalation; wind and gravity carry these bacteria away before mass inhalation.
In space, a sneeze and a cough will remain almost static and float amongst the astronauts – easily making others potentially ill. Again, as with sneezing in a spacesuit, astronauts need to ensure that no offending sprays happen within close proximity of their colleagues.
Far Away From Home
While Valeri Polyakov holds the title of longest time in space, the American crew of the Apollo 13 mission holds the title of the furthest distance any human has been from Earth itself.
Wracking up a mind-blowing 250,000 miles (about 400,000 kilometers) away from Earth, the Apollo 13 crew – consisting of NASA astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise – traveled around the moon in a spectacular slingshot fashion before embarking on a very event-filled return to earth.
Cosmonaut or Astronaut?
Since space travel became reality in the 20th century, there has been a seemingly interchangeable use of astronauts with cosmonauts. There is, however, an official difference.
“Cosmonaut” is used to define anyone trained by the Russian space agency and an “astronaut” is used to define anyone trained by NASA, ESA, CSA, or JAXA. While an astronaut and a cosmonaut are essentially the same, a few procedural differences regarding training and space work delineate the two as well as mutual respect of title.
When You Tinkle, You Don’t Sprinkle
Here’s a thought: think about what happens when an astronaut cries. Now think of what happens when an astronaut needs to urinate. Correct – urine reacts in zero gravity as any other liquid – it floats.
To get around this, astronauts are issued diapers for short-term missions. For longer missions, however, a special “vacuum toilet” is used. This toilet does not have any water but rather vacuums out all floating liquid particles in the chamber.
Each astronaut on the moon wants to leave their legacy in some small way. As seen in this list, there has been a name scrawled in the moon dust, a family photo left behind, and now, to top all that, the longest golf drive in human history.
In 1971, while commanding the Apollo 14 mission, Alan Shepard teed off on the lunar surface and smashed a golf ball an impressive 1.6 kilometers. Consider that the average golfer drives a golf ball around two hundred meters in Earth’s atmosphere.
Stretched Out by Space
If anybody desires to be (temporarily) taller, then traveling to space might just be the solution. While being in orbit, astronauts generally have two inches added to their height. When returning to Earth, however, the extra length quickly vanishes and more often than not causes back problems – over half of astronauts complained of lasting back pain.
The process of becoming taller in space is known as “spinal unloading” whereby the spinal discs are not compressed by gravity, thereby expanding and lengthening the spine.
This Award Is No Peanut
There is an award in the form of a famous cartoon dog that each American astronaut strives to achieve: the Silver Snoopy.
The beloved beagle of Charlie Brown has helped inspire hundreds of astronauts to carry out their duties with extra precision and professionalism as being awarded the Silver Snoopy is handed out to less than one percent of the crew of an aerospace program.
No Lying Down
As there is no true direction in space due to zero gravity, when an astronaut sleeps, they technically are not lying down. And due to the zero gravity, a sleeping astronaut will float freely throughout the cabin. This, of course, can be highly hazardous.
As a safety measure, astronauts generally sleep within sleeping bags that are tethered to the cabin itself. Zipped up inside the bag that is fixed in place assures that no stray sleeping astronaut collides with colleagues or equipment.
As on earth, with very taxing work and the necessity to exercise for at least two hours per day, astronauts have a lot of sweat to wash off at the end of every workday.
Not to mention, an astronaut once mentioned that “sweat sticks to you” and “you have pools of sweat on your arms, your head and around your eyes. Once in a while, a glob of it will go flying off,” he reported.
All Work and Lots of Play
All space programs make provision for serious downtime for astronauts. The mental stress of the environment itself, besides the work, means that an astronaut requires very essential hours of personal downtime.
As there is nowhere to go on the space station, astronauts spend their leisure hours pretty much the same as any Earthling would – playing cards, calling their families back home, reading books, and, of course, admiring the view.
With no flowing water in space, how can clothes get cleaned? The short answer is there has never been a washing machine in space. Every item of clothing taken up and worn by astronauts has been worn until it becomes too dirty to handle.
At this point, it is stored in a cargo container and is usually incinerated with the container upon entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Tide has developed a unique detergent that will be used in future space missions to ensure fresh, clean clothing.
Many astronauts have reported that upon returning from a spacewalk, their spacesuits smell of what can only be described as “barbecue”. Amazingly, the very compounds released by burning wood, charcoal within a fire, and meat that's been cooked over a fire are the very same chemical compounds released by dying stars: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
These free-floating compounds travel through space and cling to space suits, hence the smell of barbecue once returning to the space station.
Socks Make for Good Neighbors
The soles of feet toughen up nicely on earth due to being pressured against the ground for most of our waking day. In doing so, the skin becomes thicker. In space, where there is no walking at all to be done, the skin on the soles of astronauts’ feet becomes very, very soft and begins to flake incredibly quickly and easily.
As a courtesy, astronauts keep their socks on at almost all times as removing them could release a cloud of dead skin cells sloughed off from their softening soles.
Spoons Are Almost Impossible in Space
Earthlings take for granted so many things that are made possible with gravity. When you take it away, it creates a near-impossible environment within a space station. Spoons can barely hold the same volume of food as on earth and using them is a balancing act.
Just the right amount of food must be scooped and if an astronaut raises the spoon too quickly, all the contents will quickly go flying. The same goes for if one astronaut bumps another. Truly a case of no elbows on the table.
The View Does Not Change
The night sky has dazzled humans for eons. Astronauts share the same view as people on earth and will see the exact same stars – not more.
The only advantage astronauts have is that the stars are seen without the obfuscation of Earth’s atmosphere, therefore making the stars appear far more brilliant and brighter. One astronaut said it would be the same view for someone in the space station as for someone to climb on a mountaintop on a clear night and simply look up.
The Overview Effect
Astronauts have an advantage over us on earth and that is looking down at the earth. Described as a “cognitive shift in awareness”, there have been many instances of astronauts reporting a complete mind shift viewing Earth from this vantage point.
Equal amounts of awe and equal amounts of fragility strike astronauts as they realize Earth is only protected from space by a thin layer of atmospheric gas.
Although NASA was almost certain that no life could inhabit the vacuum of space, they took no chances when Apollo 11 made its descent to earth and promptly put the astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – into quarantine for three whole weeks.
While having no actual data or theories as to what bacteria could have been brought back, NASA was taking no chances. Luckily, lunar germs were not brought back.
A World Without Borders
One striking psychological shift astronauts undergo is witnessing the lack of true, tangible borders.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst recounted that when seeing explosions happening on earth as a result of bombings, humans accept this as a “given but appear very different from an our [astronauts’] perspective.” Alexander further elaborated that we would not be able to explain to aliens why we allow this.
The crew members of the Apollo 15 were all alumni of the University of Michigan. The astronauts decided to establish an honorary branch of the university on the moon itself and dropped a document on the surface of the moon outlining such.
The document reads “The Alumni Association of The University of Michigan. Charter Number One. This is to certify that The University of Michigan Club of The Moon is a duly constituted unit of the Alumni Association and entitled to all the rights and privileges under the Association’s Constitution.”
The Falcon Feather on the Moon
A very peculiar object lies on the surface of the moon: a falcon feather. Of all things to take to the moon, why did Dave Scott of the Apollo 15 crew decide to bring the feather of a falcon?
Well, Galileo had a theory that gravity pulls all objects with equal force. To test this theory truly and fully, David Scott dropped the falcon feather and the hammer at the same time on the moon. Turns out Galileo was right.
No Seasoning in Space
Astronauts sadly must do without salt and pepper seasoning on their already bland food. The microcrystals of salt and pepper would not fall onto food but rather float freely around the cabins causing untold damage to highly sensitive space equipment.
In addition, the free-floating particles will likely land up in astronauts’ eyes and nostrils causing severe irritation. To work around this, scientists have created salt and pepper-infused liquid to squirt onto food instead!
First Woman in Space
Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova holds the title of being the very first woman to ever venture into space. Valentina, aboard the Vostok 6, was part of the Soviet Union’s early space exploration programs.
Valentina had no pilot training and was accepted into the cosmonaut training program due to having been an amateur parachutist. For her contributions to Soviet space exploration, Valentina was named a Hero of the Soviet Union and received the award “The Order of Lenin” twice in her career.
First Woman to Perform a Space Walk
Almost two decades after cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova entered space, the second woman to do so was Svetlana Savitskaya, also a fellow cosmonaut. Svetlana was the second woman to ever be in space and the first woman to have completed a spacewalk.
Svetlana was an accomplished pilot, and this counted greatly in her favor of being selected for the mission. Additionally, Svetlana held records in “stratosphere jumps”, descending from heights of almost fifteen kilometers above the earth’s surface.
Scratch, Rattle, and Roll
Bound by a spacesuit, an itch can become a nightmare for an astronaut. With no way to reach the offending spot, astronauts have had to rely on a few rather rudimentary methods to alleviate the annoyance of an itch.
A tried and trusted method for facial itches is to stick a strategic strip of Velcro in their helmets. To deal with bodily itches, astronauts must shake and roll around in their spacesuits so the friction itself will sort out the itch!
Beware the Martian Bears
Every space mission has a survival kit in case of emergency. Curiously, the emergency kits for cosmonauts sent with the Soyuz space vessels had – of all things – a shotgun in it.
What dangers could astronauts possibly face in space whereby firepower would be necessary? None, it turns out. The shotgun was included in case there was an unexpected crash landing upon returning to earth and cosmonauts found themselves stranded in the wild of Siberia.
Sally Ride Educates the Scientists
It may be rocket science for the engineers at NASA, however, some things truly aren’t…rocket science.
While doing preparation work for American astronaut Sally Ride’s space flight, NASA engineers determined that she may need one hundred tampons for seven days. Making sure to enquire with Sally if this will be sufficient, Sally replied “No. That would not be the right number.” To which she further quipped “You can cut it down by half.”
Tools Really Do Grow Legs
Astronauts will always be heard saying “Did this thing grow legs and walk away?” when referring to their tools in outer space. If an item becomes dislodged and begins to float, it could be impossible to locate for weeks on end as it sneakily flies through nooks and crannies in the space station.
Terry Virts, a NASA astronaut once jokingly said, “When the station finally comes back to Earth—hopefully, decades from now—there will be a lot of lost tools, lights, wedding rings, and who knows what else, re-emerging.”
Not Much Liftoff
A common belief is that astronauts spend most of their careers in space stations. This could not be further from the truth. Traveling to space is actually a very rare event in an astronaut’s career.
On average, astronauts will make two to three space trips within twenty years. Far more work is done by astronauts back home on planet earth to enhance the spaceflight technicalities — physical and technical studies being the foremost focus.
Dreaming of Earth
Spending much time completely ungrounded while in the space station would lead to the conclusion that many dreams about being suspended weightless will be a common dream theme for astronauts.
Fascinatingly though, most astronauts report that very few of their dreams involve zero gravity and are mostly very gravity-filled dreams of being on Earth. It appears our minds have not fully comprehended the reality of microgravity and struggle to create a dream world for it.
Very tragically, space flight is as dangerous as it is thrilling. As of 2021, a total of nineteen space explorers have passed during spaceflight: fifteen astronauts and four cosmonauts. However, there have been no cosmonaut fatalities since 1971.
The only fatalities to have occurred in space itself number three cosmonauts after a defect in a venting valve opened when they were preparing for re-entry to Earth, causing the capsule to depressurize and instantly killing all three cosmonauts.
Fountain of Youth
Ok. Maybe not the fountain of eternal youth but being in space causes astronauts to age slower than if they were on Earth. Space-time is a real unit, measurable science.
Gravity essentially dilates space-time. If one were closer to the center of the earth, they would age a tiny bit slower as gravity slows time down. Then why don’t astronauts age much quicker? This is due to the speed at which they are traveling around the earth, which has more of an impact than their exposure to gravitational time.
Astronauts will have no final say in which part of the cosmos they are sent to. Any space mission is dependent on current aims and policies at the time so an astronaut might find themselves part of a lunar mission or simply fixing the International Space Station.
In late 2021, NASA had plans to send a manned mission around the moon but – possibly sadly for the astronauts – pulled out citing safety concerns.