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A day in space: Here’s what an astronaut’s daily routine looks like

Even astronauts’ free time is scheduled

Astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, Expedition 13 NASA space station science officer and flight engineer, trims his hair in the Zarya module of the International Space Station. Williams used hair clippers fashioned with a vacuum device to garner freshly cut hair. (Image: NASA)
Astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, Expedition 13 NASA space station science officer and flight engineer, trims his hair in the Zarya module of the International Space Station. Williams used hair clippers fashioned with a vacuum device to garner freshly cut hair. (Image: NASA) (WKMG)

ORLANDO, Fla. – You think you’re busy? Wait until you see what a day in space looks like for astronauts on the International Space Station.

You might be an all-star planner but I’ll bet your schedule isn’t as structured as theirs.

Believe it or not, from eating and brushing their teeth to working and sleeping, pretty much every move an astronaut makes is scheduled.

According to NASA, astronauts’ schedules are planned down to five-minute increments by a team in mission control called Ops Planner. Their schedules show what is happening and who is involved at any given time on the Space Station.

Making sure every task fits perfectly into each astronaut’s schedule isn’t always easy because so many variables have to be considered, including times that the vehicle is in the dark or light and the various time zones for the ISS, for Mission Control in Houston and in Russia.

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But don’t worry, it’s not all work, no play. Astronauts even schedule their free time.

Here’s a look at an astronaut’s typical day in space:

According to a 2004 report from NASA, an astronaut’s workday is from approximately 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time and includes three meals and 2.5 hours of exercise to maintain muscle tone and fitness.

Morning routine

Let’s start with that early morning wakeup call. Once an astronaut wakes up and rises from their sleep station, their morning routine is pretty similar to ours down here on Earth since they still have the same hygiene needs, the way those needs are met just looks slightly different because of the microgravity in space.

For example, you might roll out of bed and into the bathroom to start your shower for your morning rinse. An astronaut cleans up for the day using the items in their personal hygiene kit, including what NASA calls “rinseless” shampoo, which was originally developed for hospital patients who were unable to take a shower. With help from a little bit of water, astronauts comb the no-rinse shampoo through their hair to get it nice and clean since there are no actual showers in space. And since they don’t drench their hair and some of the little water they do use floats away during the hair-washing process, I bet they save a lot of time not having to break out a blowdryer.

Also in their kits are other personal hygiene items each astronaut has chosen to take, including their favorite brand of toothpaste, if NASA is able to accommodate their preference, which the agency says it aims to do. Regardless of the brand, you will find a toothbrush and toothpaste in each kit. Astronauts also take a few minutes each morning to brush their teeth, pretty much the same way we do on Earth.

And finally, you can’t start your day without a morning potty break, which may take a few minutes longer than on Earth because using the restroom in space is slightly more complicated than we’re used to down here.

To use the toilet (to go No. 2), astronauts have to position themselves on it using leg restraints and good aim. The toilet works like a vacuum cleaner to suck air and waste into the commode. To go No. 1, each astronaut has a personal urinal funnel that attaches to the hose’s adapter and sucks air and urine through it into a wastewater tank.

Confused about how that works? Watch NASA astronaut Suni Williams give a tour of the space potty in the video below.

Astronauts can also use razors from their kits to shave or clippers or scissors to give themselves or each other a hair cut. They just have to be sure to vacuum up the hair so it doesn’t fly everywhere.

Of course, breakfast is still an important meal in space and astronauts are scheduled to eat one every day. We’ll get more into the whole eating-in-space thing in a minute.

Reporting for duty

Not the kind we just talked about, the work kind.

After wrapping up their morning routine, an astronaut begins their work assignments for the day, which can entail a number of different tasks. As NASA explains, the ISS is designed to be a permanent orbiting research facility, and the astronauts who orbit Earth while living on the ISS help carry out those research efforts.

Astronauts spend their days working on science experiments that require their input, monitoring projects that are controlled from the ground and taking part in medical experiments to figure out how well their bodies adjust to living in space for long periods of time.

Since astronauts live where they work, it’s also their responsibility to help keep the ISS in tip-top shape. Much like homeowners do routine maintenance and other work around the house to protect the good health of their home, crew members are tasked with regularly checking support systems and cleaning filters, updating computer equipment and even taking out the trash.

Mission Control Center also monitors the ISS from the ground and sends instructions via email or voice message to the astronauts each day about any work that may need to be done around the Space Station. If a task calls for it -- for example, batteries need to be replaced on an external area of the ISS-- an astronaut may have to suit up and conduct a spacewalk, as seen below.

Always time to eat

I think it’s safe to say a spacewalk is far more exhilarating than any 9-5 we see on Earth and by conducting one, an astronaut is sure to work up an appetite. Spacewalk or no spacewalk, astronauts are scheduled to eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

How much they eat depends on the astronaut, as calorie requirements differ for each of them. According to NASA, a small female astronaut requires only about 1,900 calories a day, while a large man requires about 3,200 calories.

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As for how long it takes them to eat, that depends on what they’re eating and how much prep time it requires. Some snacks in space, like brownies and fruit, can be eaten just how they come, so that’s a good option if an astronaut is looking to refuel quickly. Other foods, like spaghetti or mac and cheese, require water to be added during prep since the food is dehydrated and they must be placed in the oven for heating before consumption. You may still have to carve out cook time, but there isn’t much prep time required in space since the meals are first cooked on Earth.

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Look how quick and easy it is to make Thanksgiving dinner in space:

One thing astronauts really don’t have to waste time on in space is doing dishes. That’s because space food comes in disposable packages they just throw away once they’re finished eating.

Exercise is essential

It’s so essential that astronauts dedicate hours each day to fitness. On average, astronauts exercise about two hours per day in an effort to prevent bone and muscle loss while living in microgravity. This video from NASA, titled “Your Body in Space: Use It or Lose It” pretty much sums up how crucial exercise is in space.

To put it simply, our bodies are constantly working because they’re working against gravity to move here on Earth. With very limited gravity in space, movement is easier for astronauts and doesn’t require much work. Astronauts who spent a long period of time in space and didn’t continue to train physically would lose a lot of the muscle they built on Earth, which would leave them feeling rather weak when they return home.

Astronauts can do some cardio using a treadmill or bike or lift weight -- and lots of it. Lifting 200 pounds might be tough on Earth, but in space’s weightless environment, astronauts can easily lift more weight because that 200 pounds would weigh less in space.

In the video below, astronaut Doug Wheelock squats 200 pounds, his own body weight, like it’s nothing using the Advanced Resistive Exercise, or ARED, weightlifting machine on the ISS.

A good night’s sleep is key

On Earth, there’s nothing better after a long day at work than climbing into bed for a good night’s sleep. It’s the same story in space except instead of beds, astronauts cozy up in their sleeping bags located in their personal crew cabin. The sleeping bags are attached to the wall to keep the astronaut secure because they’d otherwise be floating around all night, which doesn’t sound very restful (or safe).

According to NASA, astronauts are usually scheduled for eight hours of sleep at the end of each mission day.

If they have trouble sleeping, astronauts can also spend that scheduled time chatting if they have a computer in their sleep quarters or reading if they have books, as seen in the video below.

Make time for fun

First of all, this is pretty easy to do in space since astronauts often get to have fun while working depending on their assignments for the day. Experiments in space sometimes involve working with plants or even toys and seeing how microgravity affects them. Who else can say they get paid to play with toys?

They also get to have fun while off the clock, as well. Too much work isn’t good for anyone, not even those in space. As NASA says, “Fun is an essential ingredient to the quality of life.”

Astronauts like to have fun and they need a break from their busy schedules, too, so flight planners on Earth carve out time each day for them to relax.

How they spend that free time is up to them. They certainly have plenty of options. One popular pastime in space is looking out the window, which may sound lame to us Earthlings, but in space, astronauts on the ISS get to look out the window and see Earth spinning beneath them. How cool is that? They can also soak in spectacular sunrises and sunsets, which occur every 45 minutes above Earth’s atmosphere.

Astronauts can also play games or cards, read books, play an instrument, listen to music or watch movies, chat with their families, style each other’s hair, or -- if they didn’t get enough of it that day already -- exercise.

And like many full-time workers here on Earth, astronauts also get weekends off to recharge before another busy workweek.

As you’ll see in the video below, there is plenty of time for hobbies in space and plenty of hobbies to choose from.

Next time you think you’re busy, just remember that even astronauts have to schedule to relax.


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