What do astronauts do in space?
It’s a question many of us have pondered at some point in our lives — maybe when we were convinced we’d be on the edge of exploration as the captains and commanders of deep-space missions, or maybe when we hear about the feats of amazing astronauts and explorers and wonder: Is that what they’re doing up there all day?
Well, wonder no more, because we’ve got you covered with a day in the (fictional) life of a fearless explorer. Time for blast off.
Setting the Stage
Before we get down to business, it’s worth making sure we’re all on the same page. First up is the concept of a “day.” On Earth, one sunrise and one sunset bookend each day. Astronauts aboard a space station, however, will experience 15 dawns every 24 hours. Those on deep space missions, meanwhile, encounter a steady-state scenario that could be day, night, or anything in between. Given that humans tend to perform poorly when they don’t get enough rest, astronaut crews adopt a timekeeping standard (typically the same as mission control) and stick with that for the duration of their voyage.
What Do Astronauts Do in Space?
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks the question “what do astronauts do daily?” Most people guess that scientific experiments and spacecraft maintenance top the list. We’ve all seen videos of crew members going on spacewalks to repair or maintain equipment or perform microgravity experiments, and these activities are often highlighted as primary functions of the job.
It’s true, astronauts have slipped the bonds of Earth to explore the universe and uncover new knowledge, but in the same way that people on-planet can’t work 24/7/365, spacefarers also need to sleep, eat, clean and occasionally relax.
So what does an astronaut do in space?
Their morning starts at around 6 AM when lights on the station start to brighten and, if they’re sleeping with earplugs, their alarm goes off. While you might think space is silent — no one can hear you scream, after all — it’s actually quite noisy thanks to all of the machinery needed to keep systems running and keep astronauts alive.
Consider fans. If our intrepid explorer doesn’t have a fan pointed in their direction all night, they’ll end up trapped in a bubble of their own carbon dioxide, as warm air doesn’t rise in space. With water reclamation, oxygen purification, and air filtration systems, it can be a noisy night, but just like people on Earth with houses near freeways or train tracks, astronauts eventually adjust.
Once they wake up, our engineer needs to get to work. This starts by climbing out of their sleeping bag, which they’ve smartly attached to the wall of their bunk to prevent themselves from drifting around the station and smashing into equipment. Then, it’s time to check the schedule. During the night, teams at mission control have finalized tasks for the day, and it’s worth knowing what’s on deck to help with preparation.
Next up is using the washroom, getting dressed and having breakfast. Simple, familiar functions, right? Not quite. Unlike toilets on Earth, the space counterparts can’t rely on gravity to keep waste where it’s supposed to be. The solution? Suction. This means a funnel attached to a hose for liquid waste or a larger tank attached to a similar hose for solid waste. In either case, it’s a very different experience from washrooms here on Earth. NASA is in the process of making these toilets smaller and more efficient — the agency sent a toilet to the space state that took six years to design and cost $23 million but is 65% smaller and 40% lighter.
Getting dressed means shimmying into a set of disposable clothes that will be replaced every three days and then heading off for a breakfast that typically involves food in bags consumed via straws. While more solid meals are also possible, they must be eaten slowly and carefully to ensure no food particles escape. No one wants crumbs floating about the cabin.
Midmorning into afternoon sees our fictional astronaut working on tasks mission control has laid out. This might include checking systems, conducting diagnostics or running experiments. As noted by astronaut Shannon Walker, who spent 168 days on the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2021, astronauts get a one-hour break for their midday meal, and then it’s back to work.
Along with science and system-focused work, astronauts are required to keep fit with two hours of exercise each day. This includes cardiovascular work on exercise bikes or treadmills along with resistance-based work to reduce the amount of muscle loss suffered by astronauts as their bodies adjust to the significantly reduced pull of Earth’s gravity. Manual labor tasks are also common. These may include moving equipment from place to place, unloading cargo from a transport ship or cleaning the station to ensure no dust or debris obstructs vents or ports.
This is hard work. While heavy equipment and bulky boxes have no weight in space, their mass hasn’t changed. Maneuvering objects is also challenging thanks to the lack of gravity, which can stretch and strain muscles in strange ways over time.
Dinner is next on the list, followed by finishing up any outstanding tasks. Our engineer wraps up their workday around 7:30 p.m. and has two hours to relax and recharge. Free time activities may include emailing friends or family back home, watching videos, reading books or even surfing the Internet — thanks to recent upgrades, the ISS now has a 600 Mpbs connection. Astronauts may also spend their time simply looking down at Earth, snapping photos of interesting weather systems or taking videos of their flight high above the surface.
At 9:30, the engineer crawls into bed, makes sure their sleeping bag is securely attached to the wall and drifts off to sleep, rather than drifting out of their bunk. The next morning at 6 a.m., it all starts over again.
Taking It One Day at a Time
Despite the amazing views and incredible opportunities that come with being an astronaut, the regimented nature of a day in the life of these spacefarers means that low morale is a real possibility. Along with a schedule that affords some time off on “weekends,” crews keep their spirits up by meeting for group meals, while mission control does their best to regularly send up supplies of fresh fruit and other items that help to keep astronauts connected to home.
What do astronauts do daily? A little bit of everything to keep the spacecraft running, conduct experiments and take care of their bodies.
Interested in all things related to outer space and exploration? We are too. Take a look at open positions at Northrop Grumman, and consider joining our team.