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What you need to know about life on the International Space Station

It's not all business orbiting the Earth at 250 miles up.

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In an unfortunate turn of events, Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket exploded a few seconds after launch last week. The rocket was thankfully unmanned, but it was intended to ferry critical supplies to astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station. Luckily, crew members currently aboard the space station have enough food to last until March 2015 -- more than enough, as some are scheduled to come home this month. People living on the ISS depend on the ground crew for most of their needs, and each resupply mission brings spare parts and hardware needed for repairs and experiments, packaged food and hygiene supplies. These hygiene amenities and prepackaged chow differ quite a bit from what we typically use: The shampoo and hand soap, for instance, are the special no-rinse kind, while some of the food comes in dehydrated powder form. Want to hear more about life out there in zero-g? We do too, so we've dug deep into how astronauts and cosmonauts live each day in the ISS: from what kind of work they do to how they use the toilet.

WHAT IS THE ISS AND WHEN DID PEOPLE START LIVING THERE?

The International Space Station is a habitable satellite that orbits the Earth at an altitude of 220 miles once every 90 minutes, which means the sun sets and rises for the crew 16 times a day. It's a huge project not owned just by a single country: NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (several European countries) and CSA (Canada) all pitched in to build it. These space agencies regularly send astronauts (and "cosmonauts," in the case of Russia) to the station for six-month expeditions, the first of which took off on October 31st, 2000. There can be as many as 10 people living on the station at a single time, or as few as two to three.

HOW DO AMERICAN ASTRONAUTS FLY TO THE ISS AND BACK?

You might be wondering how American astronauts get to the station without an operational space shuttle program. There's a simple answer to that: They "hitch" rides (to and from Earth) aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the tune of $71 million per person. According to American astronaut Ron Garan, who lived on the ISS in 2011, Soyuz capsules are really small (it's a tight fit in there), so you can feel every bump of the crazy ride. He even likened the re-entry process into our atmosphere to "going over Niagara Falls in a barrel (that's on fire) followed by a high-speed crash." Good thing astronauts now only have to spend six hours per way in its cramped quarters, instead of two days like a few years ago.

It's unclear how the recent friction between NASA and the Russian Space Agency will affect future missions. The former's already working with private space companies to develop manned vehicles that can launch from US soil by 2017. Aboard the space station, however, crew members don't let politics bother them. NASA astronaut Cady Coleman told us in an interview that they emphasize the non-political and just look for what they have in common with each other.

WHAT DO RESIDENT ASTRONAUTS DO, EXACTLY?

We asked Coleman (whom you might remember as the astronaut who advised Sandra Bullock on what it's like to live in space ... straight from space) to run us through her typical day, and she gave us this sample schedule:

  • 7 AM -- Wake up
  • 7:10 AM -- Conference
  • 7:30 - 8 AM -- Breakfast and prep for work
  • 8 AM - 12 PM -- Do experiments as assigned (Setting up, performing, tearing down experiments)
  • 12 - 12:30 PM -- Lunch
  • 12:30 - 6 PM -- More experiment work
  • 6 - 6:30 PM -- Conference with ground crew to review that day's activities and discuss the next day
  • 6:30 - 7:30 PM -- Dinner while watching the news taped by the ground crew from the day before and beamed up to the station
  • 7:30 - midnight -- Clean up and read the procedures for the next day, family time and time to look out the window to see the glorious views outside.
  • Sometime within the day, 5-6 days a week -- Two-hour exercise (30 min. on the treadmill and 70 min. of resistance exercise)
  • Fridays -- Astronauts work on personal projects and watch movies together as a crew

When a crew member isn't working on an experiment or two, they're doing maintenance work or preparing for extra-vehicular activity (EVA), which you might know better as spacewalking.

WHAT KIND OF EXPERIMENTS AND MAINTENANCE WORK DO THEY DO?

The ISS has hosted a slew of scientific experiments for other government agencies, private companies and educational institutions since the year 2000. Experiments vary in nature from growing zucchinis to observing ant colonies, though some recent ones include 3D printing in zero-g and testing Robonauts' (a humanoid robot) potential to help humans with their tasks. When we asked Coleman to name what she thinks is the most interesting experiment, she said it's the astronauts themselves. She called herself a "walking, talking osteoporosis experiment," as humans in outer space lose bone mass 10 times faster than a 70-year-old. Their blood and urine samples apparently help us better "understand the mechanism of bone loss and bone rebuilding."

In addition to performing experiments, crew members are in charge of making sure the station is in tip-top shape -- after all, if anything goes wrong, it's their lives on the line. Sometimes, they even need to fix parts outside the station or to clear space debris (junk hurtling through space that can damage spacecraft) lodged into the station's nooks and crannies. In cases like those, a couple of crew members don their space suits and step outside. One of the most notable spacewalks in recent years involve astronaut Sunita Williams using a toothbrush to help fix the station's solar power system.

Since EVAs are typically time-consuming, though, the Canadian Space Agency attached a two-armed helper robot named "Dextre" to Canadarm2. Like its name implies, the latter is a robotic limb that catches unmanned vehicles heading to the station, such as SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Dextre, which is remotely controlled from the ground, takes care of minor repairs in lieu of crew members -- it was even used to repair the Canadarm2 itself earlier this year.

HOW DO ASTRONAUTS MAINTAIN CLEANLINESS AND USE THE TOILET?

Bits of hair and nails or blobs of water don't play well with expensive equipment; add microgravity to the mix, and you've got a disaster waiting to happen. That's why crew members are extremely careful when it comes to cleaning their bodies. Canadian expedition commander Chris Hadfield (who became a social media superstar while out there in 2013) said that they even go so far as to swallow their toothpaste after brushing their teeth. Hadfield also made YouTube videos to explain how they wash their hands (using no-rinse soap), shave their stubble (using a special type of shaving gel), cut their hair (with the help of a vacuum) and clip their nails (while catching every clipping that floats) aboard the station. Coleman said they use no-rinse shampoo to wash their hair, but she didn't shower out there -- and she didn't exactly miss it. To wash their bodies, residents take sponge baths instead.

Now that we're done with how ISS crew members keep themselves clean, let's talk toilets. Naturally, the ISS can't use the same toilets as the ones here on Earth. Space toilets use a suction system to collect wastes, which are then stored in bags and kept inside aluminum containers until they're full. Each container that's full to the brim with fecal matter is thrown to the atmosphere, so it burns upon re-entry. Tracy Caldwell Dyson (who was a crew member in 2010) told Huffington Post that while she made it work somehow, the toilet wasn't made with women in mind, as it was designed by the Russian space agency composed mostly of men.

As for urine, well, Hadfield says it goes straight into the water recycler, where crew members get water to drink and to rehydrate their food. Yup. Speaking of food!

WHAT ABOUT FOOD, ENTERTAINMENT AND INTERNET CONNECTION?

Food aboard the ISS is typically packaged in pouches for easy consumption. The crew gets different types of meals, from main course to desserts -- some are packaged and ready to be eaten, while others (say, powdered spinach or ice cream) need rehydration to be edible. Crew members need to throw these disposable packages away and prevent them and any food crumbs from getting into the equipment. Also, some commanders ban particularly pungent (gumbo) or crumbly (coffeecake?) food onboard.

The crew has access to different kinds of media for entertainment: movies, TV shows, books and music to name a few. But for Garan and many others who lived on the ISS at one point, nothing compared to looking out the windows to watch and take pictures of our planet from afar. That's why you'll see tons of results when you Google search "pictures from the ISS." (You should seriously do that right now.)

What with all these crew members uploading space snapshots to social media, it's obvious that they do have internet access on the station. According to Clayton Anderson, the ISS gained internet access in 2010, though Coleman told us it was still painfully slow when she got there in 2011. They could communicate with the ground crew and their families via video and voice chats sent through S Band channels, but the internet itself was "slower than was worth using on [her] expedition." These days, though, internet on the ISS (which takes advantage of one of NASA's communication satellites) has a max downlink speed of 300 Mbps.

HOW DO ASTRONAUTS TAKE CARE OF THEIR PHYSICAL HEALTH?

Crew members are prone to "space sickness" during their first few days out there, exhibiting symptoms such as nausea and dizziness. They're typically given a special (barf) bag, with built-in tissue to wipe their mouths with and seals to prevent globules of vomit from floating around. With time, their bodies grow accustomed to it, though they experience some physical changes. These include growing an inch taller while in space due to the spine elongating, as well as having a swollen face as the body's fluids move upward. Unfortunately, some also experience eye problems, defined mainly by seeing flashes and streaks of light. NASA's still looking to pinpoint the exact cause, so it has asked crew members to monitor each others' eyes and send data to the ground regularly. Some researchers, however, believe the issue comes from the increase in pressure within the skull (remember those body fluids moving upward?).

And then there's the fact that the longer you spend in space, the more you lose bone mass and muscle definition due to the absence of gravity. Hey, floating around is fun, but you'll literally waste away if that's all you do on the ISS. Luckily, crew members can combat those issues by exercising for two hours every day using special exercise equipment: a cycle ergometer (like the space version of a stationary bike), a treadmill (with lots of straps to weigh you down), and the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED), which uses vacuums to simulate deadlifts and squats (among other things). Williams even used it once to simulate swimming, so she could complete a triathlon in space!

HOW ABOUT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH?

Okay, so ISS residents take care of their muscles and bones, but what about their mental well-being? Coleman told us she talked to shrinks every two weeks during her expedition, though she was given the option to do so more often if she wished. It also helps that crew members get in touch with their families regularly and that they (usually) get along well with each other. "The importance of the mission becomes really clear when you are up on the ISS, and it is easy to get along with folks," she said. "Easier than down here on the ground, when your common purpose is not always so easy to feel or see."

DO ASTRONAUTS EVER SLEEP?

With all the experiments, maintenance and exercise they need to do, you'd think these people never sleep. But they do -- they can even choose to sleep while floating around. They do have sleeping compartments for privacy, though they're really just tiny closets, which conceal vertical sleeping bags that hold you in place while you snooze. Crew members can sleep for as long as eight and a half hours every 24 hours, though most are ready to go after a bit more than six, as the body's not as fatigued in microgravity.

WHO TO FOLLOW

If you want the latest pictures and news from the station, the best people to follow on social media are the current crew members.

These ISS veterans are worth a follow, as well:

Official ISS accounts:

NO, YOU'D RATHER BE FOLLOWED

You believe yourself capable of fixing satellite equipment with toothbrushes and finishing triathlons in space? Okay then! Get ready to train for three long years after you get your degree (with outstanding grades), fly jets for a total of 1,000 hours and pass a rigorous physical exam. Also, you'll need to learn Russian before you can hop aboard a Soyuz, so you may want to get started as soon as you're done following Williams around the station below.

[Image credit: Space station (NASA), Russian Soyuz spacecraft (Wikimedia)]

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