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How Astronauts Sleep in Space
Spacecraft like the International Space Station have pressurized cabins and are filled with the same kind of air we breathe on Earth, so the atmosphere onboard is made to feel as close to sea level as possible. But microgravity causes astronauts to experience the effects of weightlessness, so setting up a mattress on the floor isn't quite a part of the plan -- not only would the astronaut float away after dozing off, but the mattress would also drift off, creating the potential for midair collisions.
This means that astronauts can sleep practically anywhere in a spacecraft, as long as they tether themselves to something: the floor, the walls or the ceiling. While some astronauts, such as Canada's first astronaut Marc Garneau, prefer to sleep "free floating," which simply consists of curling up and going to sleep, most others use sleeping bags to mimic the way we sleep on Earth. A free floater would bounce around and flail his or her limbs around, so a sleeping bag keeps everything nice, cozy and normal.
Pilot Michael L. Coats (left) and mission specialist Steven A. Hawley (right) fall asleep listening to music on the lower deck of the shuttle Discovery.
The strange atmosphere of space can cause some problems for astronauts, and you can tell this by looking at the pills they take during their time spent in space -- almost half of the medication prescribed to astronauts is sleep aids and hypnotic medicines [source: Canadian Space Agency]. Most difficulties stem from the fact that living onboard a space station, despite the familiar atmosphere, can be very disorienting, even to astronauts who undergo months or even years of training.
For one, the International Space Station usually sees the sun "rise" once every 90 minutes -- that's about 16 sunsets every day. To counteract this, ISS administrators set astronauts' schedules on a 24-hour, Earth-based timetable to keep their activity as grounded as possible. The clocks onboard the ISS are set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), about halfway between Houston, Tex., and Moscow. To keep astronauts on that schedule, Mission Control sends wake-up calls to shuttle missions. They typically play music, which is either requested by an astronaut or an astronaut's family member. Astronauts on the ISS, on the other hand, wake up with the help of an alarm.
On top of excessive light, strange noises are a big part of the ISS. Because fans, air filters and other noisy equipment provide life support to the astronauts, the ISS is often filled with constant whirring noises. In fact, astronauts often compare the insides of the spacecraft to a giant vacuum. Astronauts sometimes sleep with earplugs to dampen the sound, but after a while they simply get used to it, much in the same way a person can adjust to living near a busy railroad track.
But thousands of miles above the Earth, where astronauts live and work in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station (ISS), going to sleep in space presents a much different situation.
Zero Gravity Zzzs: Joys of Sleeping in Outer Space
Over the course of five flights, Marsha Ivins has spent 42 nights in space. Her colleague, Dan Barry, has spent 30 nights on three different space missions. The two retired astronauts shared some intimate details about sleeping in outer space.
'You Just Float'
First of all, you don't have to worry about your lower arm, the one that is usually tucked beneath your torso. Because at zero gravity, there is no "under."
"Sleeping in space is fantastic!" says Barry. "You just float… and it's perfect."
On the other hand, says Ivins, while you don't lie on anything, nothing will lie on you. "I'm one of those 'likes to sleep under lots and lots of covers' people," she says. But in space, not even the heaviest blanket will lay on you — so you don't get that feeling of weight-on-top.