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Incredible journeys and the people who take them.

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What It’s Like: To Live In Space

Image: Tracy Caldwell Dyson on the International Space Station looking at Earth
Dyson began her NASA training in 1998. Her first trip was on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2007. Later, in 2010, she spent 174 days aboard the International Space Station.

The first time I glimpsed earth from space, I stared long and hard. I wanted to be able to describe it to my friends and family—it can’t be matched by any photo. No adjective can convey the feeling of knowing I was one of a small fraction of humans to see it with my own eyes: the richness of the changing colors, the glow of the atmosphere, the opalescence of the sun glinting off water. It was overwhelming. You have these emotions going through your body because you’ve worked a lifetime to be there.

It wasn’t until the middle of my first flight—day five or six—when my commander brought the rookies onto the flight deck, and asked, “Can you ask mission control to turn off all the station’s external lights so we can see outside?” He stuck us in front of the windows and said, “Stay there for an orbit,” about 90 minutes. He gave us that pause because on a flight, you’re so busy that unless somebody forces you to take a moment like that, you don’t get one. I’m so grateful for that.

On the space station, the biggest surprise was the pace. It was nothing but a sprint, every day. You could have a day where you’re doing multiple experiments: One might be turning on all the systems and telling the ground that everything looks good, and then they collect data. For the next, you might be the subject, so you set up a cycle ergometer and hook yourself into it with electrodes, which takes hours; then you have to sync it with the ground so they can collect data while you exercise. After that, you might eat a meal prescribed for a nutrition experiment for which you are, again, the subject. Later on, you might have to take apart the carbon dioxide removal assembly and replace a filter.

Your days are full of science and maintenance, living where you work and working where you live. The pace is necessary, but not yet understood by everybody on the ground. They might think they’re being reasonable with your time, but tasks often take longer than expected. Being in orbit turns a 30-minute task into a two-hour task. On Earth, we take gravity for granted: When you look in your refrigerator, you see everything lined up on the shelf. In orbit, everything is floating—I’ve described it as opening a trunk of butterflies.

There are also small tasks like house cleaning: vacuuming vents and cleaning handrails. We have to be very diligent about surfaces so everybody stays healthy, because in orbit, we basically walk with our hands—we move around by grasping all over the place, and then our hands touch our face.

Knowing that the days were so long, one of my greatest challenges was keeping my spirits up. Everyone has their own way of maintaining a sense of normalcy. It helps that we each have private quarters. On a shuttle flight, you camp out in the mid-deck with your crew-mates—everybody has a sleeping bag. But on the space station, you each have a big box, basically, where you get some solitude at some point in the day. You couldn’t fit another person if you wanted to. Nobody bothers you there. You can regroup.

That’s important because you need some separation between the living part and the working part. You can’t just go home. As soon as you come out of your crew quarters—bam! Even if you float down to go to the bathroom, you pass through a laboratory. So you just adapt.

Another challenge is being away from family for so long. When I went to the space station, my husband and I had just gotten married. He was a Navy pilot, deployed on a ship at the time. I wanted to share my experience with him and he wanted to be a part of it. Yet in order for us to complete our missions, we had to focus on our jobs and just relish the 30 minutes each Saturday when NASA was able to make a connection with his ship in the middle of the ocean.

In that kind of environment, not everyone does well. Certainly not extremists or adrenaline junkies. People who know themselves—know their limits and can articulate them—thrive there because they recognize that the environment will test them. Weaknesses will be amplified, and those willing to adapt can look out for others as well as themselves.

People who thrive in space can see a six-month mission not as an individual accomplishment, but as a team thing. Teamwork is the only way to survive when you’re cooped up like that. But just like you can’t pick your family, you can’t pick your crew. I won’t lie—sometimes you are in space with people who are like sandpaper for you. But due to the uniqueness of what you’re doing, the relationships you form there can be pretty significant.

That said, people have to make a concerted effort if they want to really commune. Everyone is very busy working in different areas of the station, so coming together isn’t easy. My crew of six had dinner together every night, but we had to be diligent about it.

When you're going 17,500 miles per hour, the view constantly changes. If there’s a storm going by, you can see how far and fast lightning travels across a continent. You can also see lightning flashes on the belly of the space station.

When you look at the space station itself, the structure that surrounds you and keeps you safe and that you work in and live in, it’s impossible not to be impressed. It is a miraculous thing in and of itself with all the moving parts, solar rays, and radiators that you know are functioning to keep you alive.

When the sun sets, you see the blackness of space and all the stars, which are solid and intense. I was surprised to find they don’t blink in space because you’re above the earth’s atmosphere. Your eyes detect their depth as well—you can actually see which stars are closer than others.

Once, I was looking at Earth, watching the Nile Delta, and all of a sudden, the scene got very blurry; I didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t until I started rubbing my eyes that I noticed I was tearing up out of amazement. Because of the lack of gravity, the tears weren’t falling—they were just staying in my eyes.

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