What's it Like to Live in Space?

Why Should We Study Living in Space

An astronaut working in space. NASA

Ever since the first humans were sent to space in the early 1960s, people have studied the effects it has on their bodies. There are many reasons to do this. Here are just a few:

  •    to make it safer for humans to go to space
  •    to learn to live for long periods of life in space
  •    to get ready for eventual colonization of the Moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids.

Admittedly, the missions where we will live on the Moon (now that we've explored it with the Apollo and other missions) or colonize Mars (we already have robotic spacecraft there) are still some years away, but today we DO have people living and working in near-Earth space on the International Space Station. Their long-term experiences tell us a lot about how it affects their physical and mental health.

Those missions are good 'stand-ins' for future trips, including lengthy trans-Mars trips that will take future Marsnauts to the Red Planet. Learning what we can about human adaptability to space while our astronauts are close to Earth is good training for future missions. 

What Space Does to An Astronaut's Body

Astronaut Sunita Williams exercising aboard the International Space Station. NASA

The important thing to remember about living in space is that human bodies didn't evolve to do that. They're really made to exist in the 1G environment of Earth. That doesn't mean people can't or shouldn't live in space. Not any more than they can't or shouldn't live underwater (and there ARE long-term inhabitants of the sea bottom. If humans are to venture out to explore other worlds, then adapting to living and working space will require all the knowledge we need about doing that. Of course, it also means adapting to entirely different ways of doing such things that we all take for granted here on Earth, such as taking care of personal hygiene and doing exercises.

The biggest issue that astronauts face (after the ordeal of launch) is the prospect of weightlessness. Living in a weightless (really, microgravity) environment for long periods of time causes muscles to weaken and a person's bones to lose mass. Loss of muscle tone is mostly abated with long periods of weight-bearing exercise. This is why you often see images of astronauts doing on-orbit exercise sessions each day. Bone loss is a bit more complicated, and NASA also gives its astronauts dietary supplements that make up for the loss of calcium. There is quite a lot of research into treatments for osteoporosis that might be applicable for space workers and explorers. 

Astronauts have suffered from blows to their immune systems in space, cardiovascular system changes, vision loss, and sleep disturbances. There's also a great deal of attention being paid to the psychological effects of space flight. This is an area of life sciences that is still very much in its infancy, particularly in terms of long-duration space flight. Stress is certainly one factor that scientists want to measure for, although there have not been cases of psychological deterioration among astronauts so far. However, the physical stresses that astronauts experience could play a role in crew fitness and teamwork. So, that area is being studied, too. 

Future Human Missions to Space

One vision of Mars habitats that will provide shelter for astronauts as they learn to explore the planet. NASA

The experiences of astronauts in the past, and the year-long experiment astronaut Scott Kelly did during his last mission will all be very useful as the first human missions to the Moon and Mars get underway. The experiences of the Apollo missions will be useful, too. Life scientists are studying everything from the food astronauts eat, to the clothes they wear, to the exercise regimens they follow.

For Mars, in particular, the trip will include an 18-month trip in weightlessness TO the planet, followed by a very complex and difficult settling-in time on the Red Planet. Conditions on Mars that colonist-explorers will face include a much lower gravitational pull (1/3 of Earth's), much lower atmospheric pressure (Mars's atmosphere is about 200 times less massive than Earth's). The atmosphere itself is largely carbon dioxide, which is toxic to humans (it's what we exhale), and it's very cold there. The warmest day on Mars -50 C (about -58 F). The thin atmosphere on Mars also doesn't stop radiation very well, so incoming ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays (among other things) could pose a threat to humans. 

To work in those conditions (plus the winds and storms that Mars experiences), future explorers will have to live in shielded habitats (perhaps even underground), always wear space suits when outdoors, and learn quickly how to become sustainable using the materials they have at hand. This includes finding sources of water in the permafrost and learning to grow food using Mars soil (with treatments). 

In addition, with the onset of long-term living habitats on other worlds such as Mars, people will undoubtedly want to start families there. This brings up a whole new set of medical challenges for people who want to get pregnant in space or on other planets in the distant future.

Living and working in space doesn't always mean that people will live ON other worlds. During transport to those worlds, they'll need to cooperate to survive, work to keep their physical conditions good and live and work in traveling habitats that will be designed to keep them safe from solar radiation and other hazards in interplanetary space. It will very likely take people who are good explorers, pioneers, and willing to put their lives on the line for the benefits of exploration. 

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Your Citation
Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "What's it Like to Live in Space?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/whats-it-like-to-live-in-space-3072354. Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2021, September 3). What's it Like to Live in Space? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whats-it-like-to-live-in-space-3072354 Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "What's it Like to Live in Space?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whats-it-like-to-live-in-space-3072354 (accessed June 1, 2023).