The future of civilian space travel in low Earth orbit (or "LEO," for those in-the-know) is looking brighter by the day, but what will life be like when you're soaring hundreds of miles above Earth's surface? How will you eat, how will you sleep, and how will you go to the bathroom? We've got a preview of ten things you should know about day-to-day life in LEO, so you don't embarrass yourself when your opportunity at space travel finally presents itself.
10. Find yourself in the inky black vacuum of space? No biggie — just don't hold your breath.
First things first, let's talk emergency preparedness. According to NASA, brief, unprotected exposure to space is unlikely to produce any permanent injury. That said, you might get a bit of a sunburn. Oh, and the moisture on your tongue might start to boil off:
Holding your breath is likely to damage your lungs, something scuba divers have to watch out for when ascending...but theory predicts — and animal experiments confirm — that otherwise, exposure to vacuum causes no immediate injury. You do not explode. Your blood does not boil. You do not freeze. You do not instantly lose consciousness.
Various minor problems (sunburn, possibly "the bends", certainly some [mild, reversible, painless] swelling of skin and underlying tissue) start after ten seconds or so. At some point you lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. Injuries accumulate. After perhaps one or two minutes, you're dying. The limits are not really known.
That said, one experiment-gone-wrong at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in the 60's offers up a few clues. When experimenting with a vacuum chamber, a test subject was accidentally exposed when his suit developed a leak. According to NASA:
He remained conscious for about 14 seconds, which is about the time it takes for O2 deprived blood to go from the lungs to the brain. The suit probably did not reach a hard vacuum, and we began repressurizing the chamber within 15 seconds. The subject regained consciousness at around 15,000 feet equivalent altitude. The subject later reported that he could feel and hear the air leaking out, and his last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil.
9. Going to the bathroom in low-Earth orbit is a very involved process, and requires precise aim
The fact that you don't experience gravity in low-Earth orbit means that water-flush systems are entirely out of the question (just take a moment to imagine what that would be like). Make no mistake, though —orbiting astronauts do have toilets, and they do flush… they just rely on a fan-driven suction system to do so. To make sure everything winds up where it's supposed to, astronauts have to strap themselves in — using foot anchors with accompanying tie-downs, and bars that secure over their thighs — every time they have to go.
But they also need to aim very carefully. Why? Well, simply put, their target is a lot smaller than it is here on Earth. In fact, aim is so important, astronauts can actually train how to position themselves using a mock-up toilet, complete with a built-in ass-camera. Yes, I said ass-camera. In the video featured here, NASA crew habitability trainer Scott Weinsten and astronaut Mike Massimino explain.
8. On the other hand, if all you're doing is peeing...
There's a handy little hose apparatus that makes urinating while standing up (or floating with your head towards the toilet, for that matter) easy for men and women alike; the astronaut simply pees into a funnel (if he's a man) or "docks" with the hose via an anatomically specific modifying attachment (if she's a woman) and lets fly. Note that the word "dock" is Weinstein's, and not mine. And the fact that he calls it that is absolutely awesome.
7. Your waste returns to Earth in a blaze of glory
Alright, so it doesn't make it all the way back to Earth, but it's not like all that human excrement is just jettisoned into space, either (there's enough junk in orbit as it is). Here's how they take care of waste onboard the ISS: Liquid and solid waste are separated, and collected in specialized containers that are stored onboard the space station until they can be offloaded on a Progress spacecraft like the one pictured here.
The Progress crafts are what are known as "expendable" freighter spacecrafts. They carry supplies to the ISS 3—4 times a year, but before they disconnect and deorbit, they're loaded up with waste (that includes human waste) before passing through the atmosphere, where they meet their end in a ball of human excrement-y flames.
6. Plan your meals about a year ahead of time
Some of the first ISS missions lasted only a few weeks, so bringing food meant hauling along anything you thought you'd eat while you were up in low Earth orbit. But now, astronauts spend months at a time on the ISS, meaning they actually have food delivered to them, and can even select from a pretty extensive menu — they just need to phone their order in about a year ahead of time.
"Station crews have more than 250 food and beverage items they can select from the U.S. and Russian food systems, but they have to make their selections as early as a year before their flight," explains Vickie Kloeris, who oversees the production and supply of the Space Station's food. "The choices range from barbecued beef to baked tofu, with probably the most popular item being shrimp cocktail."
5. Condiments are your friends, provided they're not dry
Salt and pepper in Earth's orbit are a little different than what you might be used to, because there's nothing about the consistency of salt and pepper that helps keep all the individual grains together. If you rip open a salt packet in space, you're liable to lose track of all the little granules, and you just know they're going to wind up getting all over some important space equipment — and nobody wants to die on account of a packet of Morton's.
To get around the challenges of rogue granules, salt and pepper come in liquid form, not unlike a lot of other condiments. In fact, if you're a fan of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, etc., you'll be right at home in low-Earth orbit. The consistency of these condiments make them easy to manage in zero-gravity, and even allow for creative dispensing methods:
Getting the sauce to settle to the end of the squeeze bottle so you can get it out is kind of fun. You can either use a variation of the arm flapping technique, or do like [Expedition 7 Commander Yuri Malenchenko] and hold the bottle with the top facing away from yourself, and then spin your entire body like a top. The centrifugal force makes it settle to the outside, and you can then squeeze some of the sauce out while you are rotating.
4. Weightlessness effects more than condiments
It also effects, most famously, your height (lack of gravity causes your spine to expand 1—2 inches); nasal congestion and facial swelling (the weightlessness of space allows fluids to shift about your face in unusual ways); and bone loss, which leads to an increase in calcium levels in the urine and can even cause the formation of excruciatingly painful kidney stones.
3. Your sleep cycles will be all manner of messed up
If you're a light sleeper, you're liable to have a pretty rough time adjusting to space-snoozing. Consider, for example, that the absence of gravity makes it impossible to "lie down" per se; instead, you have to tie yourself to something to prevent yourself from literally drifting off while you're drifting off to sleep. But sleeping in low-Earth orbit probably presents the biggest challenge to your circadian clock, which here on Earth helps your body regulate things like sleep cycles according to a 24-hour day. Imagine what your body goes through trying to make sense of what the hell is going on in low Earth orbit, where the sun rises every 90 minutes.
2. No space-sex
No, really. Sex is banned on the International Space Station. Apparently, there was a time when it just wasn't talked about, and it was tacitly agreed that "discretion was a reasonable policy," but in 2010, NASA commander Alan Poindexter made it very clear that sex is simply not allowed on the ISS:
"We are a group of professionals…We treat each other with respect and we have a great working relationship. Personal relationships are not ... an issue. We don't have them and we won't."
Then again, we all know the saying about rules being meant to be broken — and I've heard that holds doubly true when it involves sex in space. Besides, it's not like you'll necessarily be on the ISS on your first visit to LEO, anyway. I mean, come on. It's space-sex. We've even created a special two-person space-suit-onesy designed specifically for doing the deed in zero gravity.
1. Even if you were allowed to have sex in space, you still probably wouldn't want to do any baby-making
As we mentioned earlier, the absence of gravity in space has a number of effects on an astronaut's physical condition. But experiments in low-Earth orbit have also demonstrated that the stimulus of gravity is, in fact, important in the early stages of human development, and that subjecting an unborn child to these effects might not be the best idea.
Case in point: rats that were sent into space midpregnancy gave birth to less-than-healthy offspring. The babies born to space-rats were shown to have "profound deficiencies in their ability to right themselves" when they were tipped over — something rat offspring are typically very good at. Researchers hypothesize that gravity plays an important role in the development of the inner ear, which is crucial for the creature's sense of balance. In other words, if humans ever go on long-distance space journeys to colonize other corners of our Universe, we'll probably need artificial gravity technologies. You know, for the babies.