Growing up, so many kids wanted to be astronauts, and it's understandable as to why. Space travel can often seem like the peak of human accomplishment, and only a select few in all of the human race get to partake in it. So, being one of those select few is a tremendous honor.
But while the life of an astronaut never seemed easy, that doesn't mean people don't underestimate what they go through in space. And the real hardships of space travel are only the tip of the iceberg of what makes being an astronaut so bizarre.
The Difference Between An Astronaut And A Cosmonaut
Throughout the history of space flight, the terms "astronaut" and "cosmonaut" have been used more or less interchangeably. That's understandable because their respective jobs are roughly the same, but there is actually a difference between them. And it depends on where they were trained.
According to Forbes, "astronaut" describes people who were trained to go to space by either NASA, ESA, CSA, or JAXA, while "cosmonaut" describes people trained by the Russian Space Agency. Because they're trained by different organizations, astronauts have slightly different skill sets and areas of expertise than cosmonauts.
A Very Special Diaper
Although many spacecraft are equipped with bathroom facilities, an astronaut can nonetheless find themselves under circumstances that prevent them from using them for hours at a time. If they're in the middle of a launch or on a spacewalk, the chances of making it to the bathroom in time are slim to none.
So, the ISS National Laboratory explained that astronauts in these situations are expected to wear a type of underwear known as a Maximum Absorbency Garment. It's similar to a diaper, but its effect is more powerful thanks to a polymer called sodium polyacrylate that can absorb up to 1,000 times its mass in water.
Training Astronauts Is An Outside-The-Box Job
Naturally, space exploration isn't something that can be learned on the job, so astronauts need extensive training before they're ready to go into orbit. One of the largest and most commonly used training facilities is called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
According to NASA, which operates the lab, it's one of the largest indoor pools in the world, and among its many uses is its capability to simulate a partial gravity environment similar to what an astronaut may experience during a spacewalk.
Showering On Skylab
According to the Smithsonian's National Air And Space Museum, astronauts weren't able to shower in space until the Skylab space station was equipped with an elaborate shower system in the early 1970s. Before then, they had to resort to sponge baths with rationed water, which left them insufficiently clean.
When the shower was first introduced, it was a cumbersome experience that saw astronauts put their feet in restraints to keep them from floating away and attach a portable water bottle to the showerhead via a hose. It still beats sponge baths, though.
Vanna Bonta's Risque Invention
According to Wired U.K., a writer, actress, and passionate space enthusiast named Vanna Bonta developed 2Suit, a special space suit that allows astronauts to get intimate while in orbit. It's described as a "two-seater" space suit, and she and her husband (pictured) first tested it aboard the G-Force One zero-gravity simulator in 2008.
As for why she developed it, she envisioned a near future in which couples could potentially have their honeymoons in space. She also suggested that it could be used to store body heat in emergency situations.
Non-Russian Astronauts Often Need To Learn Russian
According to the European Space Agency, it's very common and often required for astronauts who weren't trained in Russia to learn both the spoken language and how to read Cyrillic script. This is because of the close and historical level of collaboration Russia has had with other spacefaring nations since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It obviously helps American astronauts in completing their tasks in facilities like the International Space Station if they can coordinate with their Russian colleagues, but that's not the only reason for this requirement. They'll often find that they'll need Russian spacecraft like Soyuz rockets to get to the ISS, and they need to read Cyrillic to work the controls.
Astronauts Have To Learn To Walk Again
When astronauts return home, the effects of the microgravity they experienced while in orbit are debilitating. As Dr. Gordon Cable from Human Aerospace told Cosmos Magazine, "They wobble all over the place. They can't drive. They can't walk for quite a few days."
Although the newly designed SkinSuit this astronaut is wearing is intended to reduce these effects, the problem most astronauts face is that life in orbit throws off their entire sense of balance. And that sense can take weeks to regain upon return.
Astronauts Lose Muscle Mass And Bone Density Quickly
The longer that people age, fall seriously ill, or lead sedentary lifestyles, the more likely they are to experience atrophying in their muscles and bones. But these problems are practically an inevitability when an astronaut goes into space.
According to NASA, this muscle mass and bone density loss is the result of existence in a microgravity environment. Because gravity is incredibly weak in space, the body's bones and muscles don't need to support its mass like they would on Earth. So without even more frequent exercise than on Earth, nothing is stopping that atrophying.
Astronauts Grow Slightly Taller In Space
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, astronauts find that after four to six months in space, they see an average decrease of 19% in lean muscle mass. Unfortunately, they also typically find that they can only recover about two-thirds of their original muscle mass after physical rehabilitation on Earth.
But while this is a serious drawback to space travel, it also has a fascinating side effect called "spinal unloading." This effect can actually make astronauts an average of two inches taller by the time they return to solid ground. Once their bodies readjust to Earth's gravity, this extra height disappears.
Crying In Space Is More Unpleasant Than On Earth
In a video obtained by CBS News, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield noted that while tears form about the same way they do on Earth, the tricky part of crying in space concerns what happens after they're formed. Namely, they don't fall. They don't even float away.
Instead, the tear just stays on the face around the eye. As further tears are formed, they just build onto the existing bubble that sticks to the astronaut's face, spreading their skin until they're removed. It can be a little embarrassing cry on Easth, but it actually hurts in space.
Astronauts Turn Sweat And Urine Into Drinking Water
As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported, much of the International Space Station's air and water supply comes from Earth, but both have to be recycled on-site to ensure long-term survival. This is achieved by running electricity through water in a process called electrolysis, which separates the oxygen atoms needed for clean air.
However, this also means that no usable liquid can be wasted, and this electrolysis process also needs to be used on wastewater, sweat, and even urine. As an astronaut named Douglas Wheelock once said, "Yesterday's coffee is tomorrow's coffee."
An Astronaut Left A Photo On The Moon
As WCNC reported, Charles Duke was one of the astronauts involved in the Apollo 16 mission, and at 36 years old, he was the youngest person in the world to walk on the Moon. Although it's been 50 years since he landed on the lunar surface on April 27, 1972, that record hasn't been beaten.
However, Duke's age wasn't the only significant aspect of his mission. He also made the unprecedented decision to prepare an autographed family photo for transport and leave it on the surface of the Moon. Although the Sun has likely blanched it since then, his photos of the photo make it a permanent collective memory for humanity.
Only A Tiny Number Of Applicants Can Be Trained
Although it's generally understood that only a small number of people will ever be astronauts, it's nonetheless staggering to learn that less than a thousandth of a percent of applicants will even undergo training. That's one exclusive club.
According to Voice Of America, about 18,000 people applied to be astronauts in 2017. Of this total, only eight to 14 applicants were even allowed to begin the two-year training program that prepared them for space operations. Those who passed either ended up on the International Space Station, NASA's Orion spacecraft, or a commercial shuttle.
Astronauts Have A Hard Time Scratching Themselves
In a statement obtained by Newsweek, retired astronaut Clayton C. Anderson said that when an astronaut gets a bodily itch, their only recourse is to shake their bodies until their stiff suit and the liquid cooling garment underneath scratches it.
However, alleviating an itch is much harder when it's under the helmet. Anderson said the strip of foam inside the helmet that astronauts blow their noses into to equalize ear pressure could also serve this purpose, but he modified it to poke into his nostrils for even deeper relief.
One Astronaut Couldn't Resist Playing Golf On The Moon
CNN reported that while Alan Shepard was preparing to embark on the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, the avid golfer saw a golden opportunity to fulfill his greatest curiosity. So he asked golfer Jack Harden to make him a modified club that he snuck aboard the shuttle with a few balls.
After about nine hours of unrelated scientific experimentation, Shepard grabbed the club and swung at the ball one-handed, as his suit was too bulky to use both hands. Although his first attempts didn't satisfy him, Shepard was finally able to hit the ball forward, and the Moon's gravity took it "miles and miles."
Astronauts Need To Be Toilet Trained For Space
According to Space.com, NASA toilets are similar to the ones on planes that use suction and airflow to remove waste, but they're much more sensitive and harder to work with. As a result, astronauts have to be trained on the specific way they need to go to the bathroom to keep them working.
Although there's a vacuum hose to collect urine, astronauts need to be trained in the right position to ensure their solid waste goes into the narrow slot in the space toilet. Although they don't actually use the toilets they train on, there's a camera at the base of them to let prospective astronauts check their alignment.
Toilets Become Ludicrously Expensive In Space
As invasive and difficult as training to go to the bathroom in space may seem, it's necessary considering how expensive it is to put a toilet on a space station. After a series of technical issues, the only toilet aboard the International Space Station had to be supplemented by a second toilet from Russia in 2008. This cost $19 million.
The cost comes from the level of sophistication it takes to remove waste from the toilet in a microgravity environment. As Mark Roberts from New York's Intrepid Air And Space Museum told Space.com, "If you get stuff around these air vents that are providing the suction in there, things can get really clogged up, and you can damage a multimillion-dollar toilet fairly easily."
Astronauts Had A Seriously Messy Time In The Old Days
As cumbersome as modern space toilets sound, all astronauts like Neil Armstrong had when they were on the Apollo 11 flight was an adhesive bag. They also had to use the attached "finger cot" to ensure the feces actually made it into the bag.
According to Space.com, early astronauts were also limited to a protein-rich diet to minimize the number of times they had to go to the bathroom. They also had to put germicide in their used bags to prevent the kind of bacteria that could expand the bag until it explodes from flourishing.
An Astronaut Once Lost His Wedding Ring In Space
According to Wired, Ken Mattingly was serving as the command module pilot on the Apollo 16 mission when his wedding ring somehow floated off his finger during the second day of his voyage. Although the other astronauts on the mission were able to spend three days on the Moon without a hitch, Mattingly still couldn't find the ring.
This remained true on the ninth day of the mission when the crew went on a spacewalk. Amazingly, the ring floated by during this task, but Charles Duke couldn't quite catch it. Mattingly assumed the ring was lost in space and threw himself into his biological study, only to discover that the ring came back and bumped into his head. At long last, he got it back.
Space Suits Are Too Complicated To Put On Alone
According to the Smithsonian Institute, the pressurized and complicated nature of a space suit is such that astronauts have to help each other put them on. Not only that, but the helpers must diligently check every connector and zipper to ensure that the suit is airtight.
After all, a drop in the pressured oxygen that is supposed to surround an astronaut in a space suit could prove disastrous without this diligence. With that in mind, it's not the biggest surprise to learn that it takes about 45 minutes to put a space suit on.
Those On The International Space Station Move Crazy Fast
According to The Atlantic, the International Space Station moves about 17,100 miles per hour. And since it's orbiting the Earth, that means it only takes 90 minutes for it to revolve around the world once. But while this is a disorienting experience, that's not just because of the G forces.
Although a person on Earth can expect to see the sun rise and set just once a day, these astronauts witness a sunrise each time they complete a revolution. That means the sun rises every 90 minutes for them, and they see 16 sunrises and sunsets a day as a result.
Laundry In Space Is a Biohazardous, Logistical Nightmare
To keep their bones and muscles from atrophying, astronauts have to work out for two hours a day. And this exertion, plus their mission duties, make the clothes they're wearing completely unusable by the end of the week.
As former astronaut Leland Melvin told the Smithsonian Magazine, "After that, they're deemed toxic. They like to have a life of their own. They're so stiff from all that sweat." This means that each person has to have 150 pounds of clothes for long missions, which makes less room for valuable scientific equipment.
Astronauts Just Throw Clothes Away Instead Of Washing
Although the amount of clothes an astronaut needs can take up a lot of room on a space station or shuttle, that doesn't mean anyone can do laundry up in space. No laundry facilities are installed on any spacefaring craft, and the astronauts can't improvise washing because it would use too much water.
So, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, all those dirty clothes are jettisoned from the spacecraft before it returns to Earth. As far as NASA and anyone aboard is concerned, the dangerously sweaty clothes are treated as trash and intended to burn up upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Showering On The International Space Station Is Rough
Although Skylab was equipped with a fully functioning shower, such systems are still not the norm on spacecraft. Indeed, both NASA's shuttles and the International Space Station don't have them. As Canadian astronaut Julie Payette told NBC News, "We wash like we would if we were on an expedition or a camping trip or something. It works."
In other words, Payette and other astronauts use specialized "squirt guns" to get their bodies wet and use a washcloth to get themselves clean. As for their hair, they use a special rinse-less shampoo that works as a more sophisticated version of the dry shampoos available on Earth. Again, it's like a camping trip.
Astronauts Have To Attach Themselves To Walls To Sleep
Although the weightless feeling that astronauts experience in spacecraft makes so many aspects of their day-to-day lives harder, it appears that sleeping isn't one of them. As Julie Payette told NBC News, sleeping while floating is surprisingly conducive to quality bed rest.
However, that doesn't mean issues can't arise. That's why the sleeping bag astronauts crawl into has to be anchored during the night because crew members will otherwise float around in their sleep. This is potentially dangerous because their floating bodies could switch important computers or equipment on or off.
Each pound of food costs thousands of dollars
Although recent years have seen the International Space Station embark on experiments to grow edible plants on board, such spacecraft are clearly less than ideal environments for crops. Thus, the food that astronauts bring with them has to be specially prepared so they don't spoil on a mission.
Both this process and the act of bringing anything to the space station can end up making even simple food items prohibitively expensive. In fact, the cost of a supply run is high enough that food ends up costing between $9,000 and $18,000 to bring into space. And that's a fairly conservative estimate.
Even By Space Travel Standards, Gemini VII Was Cramped
By 1965, it was hard for NASA officials to determine how long an astronaut could realistically stay in space. That made demonstrating the feasibility of a two-week flight one of the stated goals of the Gemini VII mission.
But while this aspect of this mission turned out to be successful, the Smithsonian Institute noted that those two weeks took place in the most cramped conditions imaginable. As they described it, Frank F. Borman II and James A. Lovell Jr. spent all 14 days in a space no larger than the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Astronauts Age A Little Slower When They're In Space
Although it's long been suspected that space travel slows aging down, Berkeley Public Health noted that a 2020 study confirmed this to be true at the epigenetic level. It's still not entirely clear why this happens, but the fact that it does is essentially undeniable at this point.
Although the effect of this decelerated aging is often subtle, study co-author Jamaji C. Nawanaji-Enwerem reported that the effect becomes more pronounced the longer a mission lasts. He also added that the youthful effects of those long missions aren't as good for the body as they sound.
Astronauts Often Faint Or Get Dizzy When They Return
According to the American College of Cardiology, it's very common for astronauts to either become lightheaded or faint shortly after returning to Earth. This is due to a condition known as orthostatic hypotension, which refers to a sudden drop in blood pressure.
It's not unheard of for a similar effect to come as a result of standing up too fast on Earth, but the transition from microgravity to the planet's gravity makes this effect more likely. That's because the heart pumps differently while it's in space.
Space Travel Can Change The Shape Of The Heart
Although they can sometimes be subtle, the effects of microgravity on the body can be powerful enough to change the shape of an astronaut's heart. Specifically, the American College of Cardiology noted that it becomes more spherical the longer it's in space.
Like many of the body's muscles, the heart doesn't work quite as hard to pump in space as it does on land, which can lead to some potentially serious loss of muscle mass. Although the heart rebounds to its normal shape after spending enough time on Earth, the long-term effects remain unknown.
Chinese Space Travellers Are Often Called Taikonauts
Although people who go into space are typically referred to as either astronauts or cosmonauts, Western media sources will typically call them "Taikonauts" if they're taking part in a Chinese mission. According to Reuters, this terminology is based on the Chinese word for "space."
Although the Russian and U.S. governments have collaborated in space for decades, U.S. law specifically bans China from working either directly or indirectly with NASA. So, not only does this "taikonaut" distinction refer to the differences in training between nations, but also the fact that Chinese space missions are purely independent ventures.
Astronauts Can Sometimes Have Their Fingernails Fall Off
Although microgravity environments have demonstrated some serious bodily changes, it's actually the astronaut's gloves that prove so damaging to their fingernails. To work effectively, these gloves have to be tough enough to protect hands from not only the vacuum of space but also the small pieces of debris floating through it.
Unfortunately, this toughness has the side effect of making the gloves rigid and inflexible. It's especially problematic for astronauts with larger hands, who are more likely to experience stifled circulation and trauma to the fingertips. That trauma can break fingernails and cause them to detach entirely in extreme cases.
Cosmonauts Used To Be Equipped With Shotguns
According to Business Insider, the TP-82 was a pistol capable of firing rifle rounds, shotgun shells, and flares. It was also equipped with a machete attachment. And since firing a gun in a pressurized spacecraft is a terrible idea, the triple-barrelled pistol was stored in a metal canister that wasn't supposed to be opened.
So why pack it in a cosmonaut's survival kit at all? The Russian space program put that policy in place after two cosmonauts struggled to hunt prey and fend for themselves in a Siberian forest after crash-landing there in 1965. In fact, the use of the TP-82 was only discontinued due to expired ammunition.
A Spacewalk Takes About Six Hours At A Time
As astronaut Nick Hague said on NASA's Curious Universe podcast, an astronaut who goes on a spacewalk can generally expect to spend at least six hours exiting the airlock, conducting their maintenance or scientific task, and coming back in.
It's this grueling process that chiefly necessitates the use of the Maximum Absorbency Garment, and it's also why candidates who train at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory can expect to stay underwater for six hours at a time. After all, they're supposed to treat the massive training pool like a real spacewalk.
NASA Blew Craters Into Arizona Fields For Training
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Cinder Lakes area around Flagstaff, Arizona, was the site of a massive training project intended to prepare astronauts involved in the Apollo program for the Moon's craters. This was accomplished by drilling holes in the dry fields and filling them with dynamite.
Those 312 pounds of dynamite were paired with 13,492 pounds of ammonium nitrate to blow crater-sized holes into the landscape. This not only prepared Apollo astronauts for the sheer size of the craters they would encounter on the Moon but also provided ideal grounds to test Moon rover vehicles like the one shown here.
NASA And The Air Force Teamed Up For The "Vomit Comet"
According to Space.com, NASA started using one of the Air Force's KC-135A planes in 1950 to simulate a microgravity environment with a parabolic flight plan similar to a roller coaster. Once the plane was on the right path, candidates could experience 20 to 25 seconds of weightlessness at a time.
Since about a third of trainees became sick to their stomachs while engaging in these flights for the first time, the simulator was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet." However, that wasn't why this aspect of astronaut training was discontinued in 2014. The planes involved just became too difficult and expensive to maintain.
Astronauts Have To Undergo Survival Training
Although NASA and other organizations try their best to guide space crews back to safe locations, it's not unheard of for astronauts to land in a location that's nowhere near the intended drop zone. According to the European Space Agency, that's why they're trained to survive in a variety of environments ranging from seas to deserts to glaciers.
Although much of an astronaut's two-year training concerns their experiences in space, two weeks of that training are dedicated to grueling wilderness survival training. Once it's completed, astronauts have the knowledge they need to survive in harsh environments with little equipment.
Astronauts Also Train On An Air Hockey-Like Floor
According to NASA, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is equipped with an air-bearing floor, which works by outfitting the space with a complex series of ground-facing air jets. Despite its complexity, the air-bearing floor works similarly to an air hockey table.
But it's not intended for fun and games. Instead, the air-bearing floor allows astronauts to move heavy machinery in a similar fashion to their corresponding tasks in space. Although it's true that it's a lot easier to move these large objects in a microgravity environment, mistakes happen when it's not clear what "easier" feels like.
Being In Space Can Even Affect An Astronaut's Eyesight
As Vox reported, it's not uncommon for astronauts to experience vision problems upon their return to Earth. This is among the more lingering effects that space travel has on the body, and research remains ongoing as to how to mitigate this effect.
As for why it's happening, it comes down to the common issue of the eyes being as used to Earth's gravity as the rest of the body. When they're in space for long enough, the eyeballs change shape, which leads the tissue around the optic nerves to become swollen.
Astronauts Have To Wait Years To Go To Space
As former astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger wrote for Quartz, astronauts who complete their two years of training should not expect to be able to go into space right away. In fact, chances are good that they'll be waiting several years until there's a mission for them.
Metcalf-Lindenburger added that in the resulting "waiting game," prospective astronauts have to maintain the skills they learned in training for that extended period of time while also working their day jobs. In her case, that uncertain period took four years before her first mission.