Above: The largest crew ever assembled in space got together in July of 2009 – 6 space station crew, including Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, bottom centre, and 7 space shuttle crew members, including Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, to the right of Thirsk). It was the first time more than one Canadian had been in space at the same time.

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Living in space today is a lot like camping, or going to the cottage:

  • you’re in a small, self-contained group
  • you have to carefully pack all food, gear and other supplies you’ll need for the entire trip
  • and you have limited room for all those supplies, plus room for living/sleeping/eating


ISS & the Canadarm2And just like a camping trip (hopefully), going into space is pretty exciting (possibly even more so than camping.)

Also like a trip through the wilderness, there’s lots of excitement and challenge in space. But there are also danger and health concerns.

Here’s a look at what we humans need to go into space…


Tracy Cadwell Dyson in the ISS cupola windowEver wonder how spaceships in movies, on TV and in video games keep a supply of breathable air for everyone? While the process in real life might not be the same as how most Hollywood producers imagine it would work, we actually already have the technology to make our own atmosphere on spaceships.

To make air for astronauts to breathe, modern spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS) have life support systems that use electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen out from astronauts’ waste water. The oxygen is used to breathe, while the leftover hydrogen from this process is vented into space.

And the waste products humans exhale after breathing in air? An “Air Revitalisation System” removes the carbon dioxide astronauts breathe out. Activated charcoal filters remove other by-products from humans, such as methane (from astronauts’ bathroom visits) and ammonia (from sweat).


Drinking Water in SpaceWater for drinking, bathing, going to the bathroom, and helping cool a spacecraft from the heat of the Sun in orbital space all starts out in containers brought up on resupply missions.

After that water is used the first time, it’s collected, purified, and then re-circulated. About 93% of water used on modern spacecraft is eventually reused.

Sweat, urine, and waste water from showers all goes through a series of filters and a garbage-bin-sized distiller. That distiller spins to create artificial gravity to move waste water along. On the ISS, this process accounts for 6,000 extra litres of usable water each year.

ISS BathroomFor showers, this water is collected using a special hose to suck off the water that sticks to bathing astronauts in microgravity. From there, the water makes its way into an airtight container where it’s reclaimed to be purified.

For bathroom visits, crew members collect water from “number ones” on either of the ISS’s toilets through a hose and funnels.

Since 2010, the ISS crew have also used a new system that actually creates water out of by-products from space station life support systems.


Dining on the ISSToday’s space station astronauts can eat almost any type of food they would want on Earth, with some slight modifications.

For example, astronauts can make sandwiches in space, but they have to use tortillas instead of bread (bread crumbs could clog instruments, float into astronauts’ eyes, or unexpectedly drift into their throats, turning a harmless kitchen cutting board by-product into dangerous garbage).

Turkey Dinner!You could have a turkey dinner with all the trimmings in space, as long as you don’t mind it looking like the image at left. (Interestingly enough, NASA found that the best way to ship individual servings of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce to space is in the standard package used in restaurants and cafeterias all over the world.)

Because the almost total lack of gravity in orbit dulls astronauts’ sense of smell and taste, space explorers prefer spicy foods like burritos with salsa or shrimp with shrimp cocktail dressing. For other meals, astronauts use a lot of hot sauce.

Astronauts have instant tea and coffee and can make different juices using dried crystals like you’d use for Tang or Kool-Aid on Earth.

Fish Farm at EPCOTAstronauts have grown vegetables successfully in orbit (in extremely limited quantities) and taken small live food such as fish into space for experiments.

In the future, astronauts on the way to Mars could grow large gardens of fruit and vegetables from on-board seeds, and harvest seafood like tilapia from a “fish farm” (like the one pictured at left in The Land pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT) made from the ship’s water supply (which would in-turn still be available for human use and recirculation back into the fish farm.)


Bubble detectorsA lot of the science experiments running on the ISS have to do with understanding how radiation can affect astronauts outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field (and using that information to find ways to protect astronauts from such radiation).

An especially massive solar flare can eject an entire career’s worth of radiation at an astronaut in a matter of minutes.

multi-Earth-sized solar flareSuch damage could trigger nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea in mild cases, and central nervous system damage or even death in extreme cases.

The effects from long-term exposure to space radiation range from cataracts to an increased chance of cancer and sterility.

To protect against this, astronauts can take cover during solar storms in radiation “shelters” which have extra-thick walls made of materials known to block harmful radiation.

Exercising in spaceOther hazards astronauts face can include impacts from micrometeorites, mental and physical fatigue, and bone loss in microgravity: “From the first day you get there, you are literally peeing out your skeleton,” says Canadian astronaut and Expedition 35 (spring 2013) ISS commander Chris Hadfield.


While there are some very real needs and safety concerns for astronauts, there’s also the challenge of keeping boredom away. On the Apollo Moon missions of the 1960s and 70s, as well as space shuttle missions, this was never a problem…such missions lasted 1-2 weeks most of the time. But a round-trip to Mars would take about 2 years, and missions on the ISS run 6 months to a year.

Today’s astronauts have an 8.5-hour work day most of the time. A large portion of that day on the ISS is spent running experiments, maintaining the operations of the station, and communicating with Earth for engineering, personal, and public outreach calls.

Spacewalk!While these tasks are part of a career astronaut’s job, they also help keep space explorers sane (literally) during the pauses between high-action events like dockings, spacewalks, and landings.

Even if astronauts were not in space to do science experiments and explore the cosmos, they would still need something meaningful to do.

To give you an idea of how important this aspect of living in space is, even paying orbital “space tourists” end up choosing to do productive science and/or science-based photography for a good part of their vacation in orbit.

Music in spaceJust like you and I, astronauts need (and get) weekends, evening entertainment, and the ability to play around with stuff - from movies to the latest gadgets to musical instruments.

For decades, space agency psychological support staff have recognized the importance of having fun for astronauts on long-duration space missions.

That could explain why there are so many jam sessions in the final frontier: From guitars to electric keyboards to flutes, saxophones, and even an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo, there’s been no shortage of musical instruments in orbit.

Chris Hadfield & his guitarChris Hadfield even took a Vancouver, BC-made parlour guitar into orbit for his third mission to space in 2012 and 2013. While in orbit, he not only is recording original songs based on his experiences in space… he sang a duet with Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson (who was in a studio in Toronto) during Expedition 35.

While doing the recording session isn’t life-and-death, the happiness the experience will bring will surely be as precious as a glass of recycled water on a busy day inside history’s biggest spaceship.


Images: NASA, Peter McMahon, and Larrivée Guitars

Peter McMahon

Peter McMahon is a Port Hope, Ontario-based space and astronomy author, journalist, and planetarium presenter who has written/produced for CTV, Discovery Channel, The Toronto Star, Today's Parent, Canadian Geographic, Space Quarterly and the Canadian Space Agency. His latest book - Space Tourism (Kids Can Press, 2011) was chosen as a 2012 selection for the prestigious U.S. Junior Library Guild. You can read his "Wilderness Astronomer" column about stargazing in the great outdoors in each issue of Sky News: The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy & Stargazing, where he is a contributing editor.

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