In space astronauts have free time, but it wasn’t always the case

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Like many people on Earth, the astronauts aboard the ISS have regular work schedules, with time off and days off to relax. Although this may seem normal to us, this consideration for the mental health of astronauts has not always been taken into account.

In the 1960s, American astronauts experimented with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, which sometimes required several people to be confined to small, cramped spaceships for several days. Back then, every minute spent in space was invaluable and the “happiness” of astronauts was not necessarily a factor.

The Skylab experience

Then, in the 1970s, NASA began to consider extended missions aboard a fully functional space station, named Skylab. From then on, “little extras” that could improve the quality of life of astronauts were thought out and developed.

Built from the empty hull of a Saturn V rocket, Skylab offered crew quarters, a galley, and even a race track. At the time, NASA even went so far as to call on interior designer Raymond Loewy, famous among other things for his design of the Coca-Cola bottle.

However, new designs aren’t everything. While during the second mission (Skylab 3, in July 1973), the astronauts were able to carry out their work without problem during their two months on board the station, the following mission (Skylab 4, in November 1973) did not take place. not unfolded as well.

Restructured days

On board, astronauts Gerald Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue had a busy list of tasks to complete each day, but little free time to rest. Result, they have “does the job“, But soon felt frustrated. Very quickly, the crew therefore expressed their concerns to NASA. And the agency not only heard them, but listened to them as well.

On board the Skylab station, the schedules were then restructured to include more free time, especially before and after sleep. And that changed everything. “You could see the difference“, Assures the historian of space flights David Hitt. “They were so much more productive in the second half of the mission“.

The Skylab experience naturally shaped the new way of living aboard the International Space Station (ISS). On board, the astronauts no longer work 24/7, but from nine to five from Monday to Friday. Evenings and weekends are reserved for rest.

Well, not quite. In fact, the crew spends three to four hours of their Saturday cleaning their environment from top to bottom to prevent the proliferation of fungi, mold and other bacteria. The rest of the weekend, on the other hand, is well and truly reserved for free time.

Astronaut Jeffrey S. Ashby, STS-112 mission commander, reviews a procedural checklist on the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: NASA

Music, films or contemplation

How astronauts spend their free time depends on each individual. Some let themselves be carried by the lack of gravity to the observation dome of the ISS from which they can appreciate the beauty of our planet. “Take photos [de la Terre] is an area of ​​relaxation that is often mentioned“, Underlines Gloria Leon, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Others take musical instruments with them. In 2001, astronaut Carl Walz had offered his friends at the station a serenade with his keyboard. Later, in 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield blew us away with his guitar in with the title “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Our Frenchman Thomas Pesquet had took his saxophone during his first mission in 2017.

Just like us, astronauts can also watch movies, TV shows, or listen to podcasts. Others, like Douglas Wheelock during his mission in 2010, do not hesitate to keep a journal. “I really started to find comfort in writing my thoughts down“, He explains. “I ended up writing some poetry“.

Finally, astronauts can also make phone calls or connect to the Internet. Most of them have very active Twitter accounts. This high level of communication allows them to feel anchored with the Earth and to us, on the surface, to be able to fly with them.

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