The Astronaut Diaries

In a publication released by NASA this past summer, we are given a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of astronauts living aboard the International Space Station(ISS). Space travel has come a long way in the past half-century and it is therefore becoming increasingly important to establish day-to-day living conditions in space which are conducive to productivity and mental well-being. In acknowledgement of this fact, NASA performed a study aimed at analyzing the importance of various factors on the happiness of astronauts living in the ISS. To do this, they asked ten astronauts performing six-month stays on the ISS to keep regular journals of their experiences. Scientists then analyzed these journals based on subject and positivity/negativity to help determine ways to improve life in space. The results are fascinating: they give both a unique insight into what it is like to live in space, and a broader message about causes of stress in extreme isolation. The study came up with recommendations for ways in which to improve life on the space station. A primary source of stress was the effect of work schedules, especially schedules which allotted too little time for a given activity. Constantly feeling behind can really get to you, especially if you feel the need to give up what little “downtime” you have in order to catch up. One journal comment reads, “We are, by nature and by training, performance and goal-oriented. We tend to feel bad about ourselves if we do not complete the plan. I am aware of this and have consciously tried to get perspective on this and not feel that I must complete all tasks and in the given time. However, I think there is an underlying frustration that builds when I do not complete everything on time."

A second source of stress was often tedious or trivial maintenance work, especially if the procedures were needlessly confusing. When the station shifted to larger crews, these tasks could be shared among more people, leading to less frustration overall. The study also recommends taking recommendations from the astronauts about tasks whose instructions don’t fully correspond to the task. For example, one astronaut noted that in the instructions, a particular button was referred to by one label, whereas on the object itself the button was labeled differently. The study contains a large number of journal excerpts, which can help to get an “inside view” on various topics related to living conditions in space. Here are a few I enjoyed to give you an idea:

[on food] “We are getting tired of eating chicken all the time.”

[leisure] “Saturday night we watched a contemporary Russian movie for 3 hours—with good Soviet-capitalist type discussion of the value of the Russian aristocracy.”

[the views] “I took a peek out the side-facing JEM windows one evening, without camera in hand, and was so mesmerized that I ended up gazing upon the Earth for an entire 90 minute orbit. A hundred times I thought “I should go grab the camera” but I decided to just try to capture this one orbit with my own eyes and burn it into my brain.”

[scheduling] "One thing is for sure—I’m ready for the weekend. The past couple of days of reduced sleep and eating opportunities have added a little strain. I felt it especially yesterday. Today, the fatigue and hunger are present but not the strain."

The study is quite readable, so if you want to get to read some selections from the diaries of astronauts, this is your chance!


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog