How Astronauts Tackle 12 Everyday Activities In Zero-G

Space. It's the final frontier, home of Pluto, and the place where all those balloons I let go of as a child ended up, probably. 

It's also the place where even the most quotidian activities are made insanely difficult. Recently, our friends at Breitling gave us the opportunity to speak with renowned astronaut Mark Kelly about tackling everyday activities in Zero-G, so we did. And then we took the liberty of illustrating his points with Ziggy Stardust as the model. Why? Because it just made sense.

On sleeping and waking up

Mark Kelly: You have a sleeping bag that's kind of strapped into something; it's snug. It's hard. Especially when you first go to space. I remember my first night in space, I got into my sleeping bag...I tried rolling over onto my side, and just thought, 'Wow, that was kind of stupid.' There is no side. There's no up or down. Now I'm just laying in my sleeping bag, all weird. There's only one position you can sleep in. Your arms are going to be locked in, and so are your feet. This makes your back really sore. I think my brother [Astronaut Scott Kelly] doesn't even use his any more. He just kind of floats around in his sleep compartment on the ISS, which I never had.

On brushing your teeth

MK: You use regular toothpaste, but you don't have a sink to spit into, and conserving water is important. I would always just swallow the toothpaste. Some people spit it into a wash cloth—but that adds up if you do it every day. I would use the same washcloth for an entire week, so it wouldn't work for me. 

On bathing

MK: Showering is very difficult in space. First of all, you don't have a lot of water in the first place, so you need to conserve it. So what you do is basically take a sponge bath, but with a towel. You spray water into a wash cloth with some soap, and wipe yourself down. As far as shampoo goes, it's no issue to me [Here's a pic of Kelly]. But we have shampoo that doesn't use any water. It's just some chemical compound that you use, then just wipe off. It seems kind of nasty, actually. 

On having your own space

MK: Well, the ISS is about 5,000 square feet, in internal volume. There are a lot of different modules (like rooms). We have what you would consider to be a "normal bathroom," but you generally just use that for going to the bathroom. Generally, you'd get ready and everything in your sleep station, which is kind of like a phone booth. Sometimes we'll set up part of the shuttle and turn it into a hygiene station, as we call it, where all your toiletries are Velcro-ed to the wall. 

On shaving 

MK: We use a razor with a vacuum. But you'll notice a lot of people don't have good haircuts in space. I think my brother does it himself at the moment, but people with longer hair usually get help from another crew member.

On exercising

MK: We exercise strapped into a treadmill, we have a weight lifting machine, and sometimes there's a bike. The exercise equipment is actually pretty good. The treadmill in the space station used to break down a lot, but we got pretty good at fixing it.

On cooking and eating

MK: It's just rehydrating food and heating it up. It's all pre-made. A couple of days ago, I asked my brother [currently on the ISS] what he had for dinner, and he said 'a bag of brown.' Dinner in space? There is no ideal. It's whatever you get. It's not great, it's not horrible. It all kind of tastes the same. Some of our food are Military MREs.

On going to the bathroom

MK: It's hard, you know. Everyone's peeing into a funnel, with suction, even women. Your gastrointestinal system takes a while to adjust to space. It's almost like your whole gut shuts down; physiologically it's one of my biggest challenges in space, as it is with a lot of people.

For #2, we have a toilet with airflow, and a vacuum in it. It's kind of like a regular toilet, but it has a lot of switches. You need to turn it on and there's a slider that goes across the hole—which isn't very big, so you have to have good aim. We actually have a trainer at NASA that even has a camera on the bottom of a practice toilet, so you can practice how to position yourself. Which is not a view of yourself you'd ever think you would see. 

On taking out the trash

MK: On the space shuttle, we stow it into plastic bags, then tape them up and compress them like little footballs. You put them into "volume D" which is the wet trash compartment. The space station uses these Russian bags, which are a little bit smaller, which they put into the Progress resupply vehicle, which burns up over the Pacific ocean on reentry. You incinerate the trash using speed and friction. 

On writing

MK: You know, I don't tend to do a lot of writing shorthand; some people do. The only writing I really do is on the Flight Plan, just keeping track of what we are doing. 

On doing laundry

MK: Washing clothes in space? There's no such thing. You can stand it up in the corner and after a couple weeks, declare it clean again. It's not an issue for a space shuttle flight; you're required to have clothes and you get plenty. But on the space station, they get a shirt about every two weeks, and a pair of underwear every few days. As a space shuttle crew member, we bring gifts up to the space station crew. The gift is almost always a shirt. I remember having dinner with Jeff Williams, and giving him a new shirt. He's so excited to have this new shirt. About 20 minutes later, somebody goes to put some soy sauce on their food package, the soy sauce sprays—and there's no gravity, of course—and it hits him right in the middle of his chest. And from his would have thought somebody died. You can't clean it! His brand new shirt ruined.

On tying your shoes

MK: We don't wear shoes in space. Except when we are on the treadmill. But even still, it's not any different. That's kind of a silly question.

Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Supercompressor. He's not going to space any time soon, but would still love some NASA-level poop training. Follow him @WilFulton.

Emily Niland is an Brooklyn-based illustrator who once met Coolio.

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