All of us are aware of the fact that a good night’s sleep is crucial for our overall health. From improving our cognitive function to lifting our mood, having a good sleeping schedule brings a myriad of benefits. However, when dealing with unorthodox sleeping environments, like space, a few complications might arise. If you’ve ever wondered “how do astronauts sleep”, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we will explore all the ways sleep in space differs from our normal sleeping arrangements, from the proper setup to gravity-impacted technicalities. We also cover other topics related to sleep in space, like potential sleeping problems astronauts face, how many hours of sleep they get on a daily basis, what sleep phenomena they’re faced with, as well as take a look at some of their other habits, like exercising and eating.
So, if you’ve ever been curious about this topic, we hope we’ll be able to satisfy your curiosity.
How Do Astronauts Prepare for Sleep in Space?
As you can imagine, adjusting to such a different sleeping environment than that on earth can be quite difficult for astronauts, especially if it’s their first time in space. Any disruption to our natural circadian rhythm can cause not only difficulty sleeping, but other problems as well, some of which might affect their work performance.
Luckily, astronauts know what they can expect from this change in environment and receive in-depth training months before take-off.
First things first, let’s address the question that pops up in everyone’s mind when discussing how astronauts sleep: how do they manage to sleep vertically?
Astronauts don’t have to worry about falling while they sleep or losing balance like us gravity-ridden, earth-bound folk do. Due to this peculiar weightless environment in space, astronauts get to sleep wherever they want. They can choose to sleep in whatever sleeping position they feel like it that day. However, to ensure that they’re being safe and getting as comfy as they can, they attach a sleeping bag to either the floor or the wall. Otherwise, their body might drift around the spacecraft during the night, which can be a potential safety hazard both for them and for the rest of the crew.
An interesting phenomenon related to the astronaut’s sleeping positions is that their arms float around them while they sleep, even if they’re perfectly strapped to one of the walls. Even though this might be awkward for us to imagine, it’s one of the consequences of sleeping in a weightless environment and luckily something the astronauts get used to quite quickly, despite how awkward it might look from the outside.
Another option is to strap themselves in their seats, but most astronauts prefer sleeping in bags because they get to zip themselves up and experience both warmth and comfort.
Sleeping Arrangements in Space
Wondering how an astronaut’s sleeping arrangements differ from our own?
The sleeping set-up in space is anything but ordinary. For starters, astronauts don’t have typical beds. Instead, every astronaut on board has their own so-called sleep station. Apart from essentials like a sleeping bag, their sleeping station includes things like air vents and compartments for personal belongings. If you’re wondering about the role of air vents in space, they serve to ward off any carbon dioxide bubbles that might form around the astronaut’s heads as they exhale during the night.
Other sleeping accessories astronauts use include earplugs and sleeping masks. As you can imagine, there is a lot of light in space stations, so having something that blocks the light off while they’re trying to get a good night’s sleep after a hard day’s work is crucial. The same applies to sound – space stations are anything but quiet and the noise can seriously affect the quality of sleep of astronauts, which, in turn, directly affects their work. Luckily, some sleeping stations are soundproof, making the use of earplugs redundant in that case.
What About Blankets and Pillows?
One common thing astronauts report missing in space, apart from the feeling of the ground beneath their feet, is covering up with a blanket. You already know why doing so is technically impossible when in space, so astronauts have to resort to zipping up their sleeping bag all the way to the top to replicate that feeling of being covered with a cosy blanket.
When it comes to pillows, things are a little different. While certainly not a necessity, many astronauts report that sleeping on a pillow makes them more comfortable. So how do they circumvent the lack of gravity? Some astronauts decide to fasten their heads to a cushion or a similar supportive surface, much like they do with their sleeping bags. This makes them feel like they’re sleeping horizontally, similarly to how they do at home.
How Many Hours Do Astronauts Sleep?
We all know that we should get anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep every night, but does the same hold true for astronauts?
One of the many tasks astronauts have in space is sticking to a strict sleeping schedule that includes sleeping anywhere from six to eight and a half hours of sleep. While sleeping for only six hours per night might seem very little for a stressful situation like being in space, some astronauts report that they feel just as refreshed when sleeping for less than eight hours a night.
This phenomenon might be due to the fact that astronauts don’t feel as tired due to the weightlessness in space – the body doesn’t have to work as hard to keep you functioning. Despite getting exercise on a regular basis, astronauts aren’t as active for the rest of the day, which is another reason why they might not tire as quickly.
Regardless of what their sleeping preference might be, eight hours of sleep are included in their daily schedules, so most astronauts make use of their much needed time to rest and recharge. Not to mention, there are many factors that can decrease the overall quality of their sleep, which is why some astronauts sleep for longer hours than they do on earth.
Another interesting fact worth mentioning is that some astronauts are asked to keep a log of their sleep while in space. This doesn’t merely serve as their diary, but it also helps fellow scientists in their space-related research.
Do Astronauts Use an Alarm Clock?
We all know that feeling – we set an alarm before going to bed, hoping that we wake up as soon as we hear that heart-rending noise, only to end up snoozing multiple times and waking up much later than we intended to. While this occurrence is more than common on earth, we have to ask ourselves: do astronauts struggle with the sound of the alarm clock as equally as us or are they more disciplined?
There are two ways astronauts know when it’s time to wake up: either by hearing the dreaded sound of an alarm clock or listening to music broadcasted from Earth.
Sleep Problems in Space
Some common sleep problems and disorders, like insomnia, snoring, and sleep apnoea, don’t disappear when we’re outside the earth’s gravitational pull. In fact, some sleep-related problems and disorders are infamously amplified while in space.
According to a study titled “On-orbit sleep problems of astronauts and countermeasures”, the most common causes of sleep problems include “uncomfortable ambient temperatures, higher noise levels, uncomfortable sleeping bags, or the absence of familiar proprioceptive cues”. When these conditions aren’t addressed and continue for a prolonged period of time, sleep disorders might occur as a result.
For instance, many astronauts report suffering from astronaut insomnia” while being in space. Seeing that most astronauts spend a couple of months in space, you can see how prolonged insomnia might have serious consequences on their overall health. Apart from standard medication and supplementation, scientists have started researching innovative ways to help with astronaut insomnia. Such an example is the creation of new lamps that aim to increase the body’s natural production of melatonin, but they have yet to be implemented across all space stations.
How Does a Lack of Sleep Affect Astronauts in Space?
Sleeping enough hours is crucial for normal day-to-day functioning, let alone when we’re placed in stressful situations like being in space. This begs the question: if astronauts fail to get proper sleep during their time in space, how is their work affected?
Some common symptoms of sleep deprivation that undoubtedly affect our ability to work include failure to solve complex problems, brain fog, and lower accuracy on tasks. You can imagine how all the abovementioned symptoms could affect astronauts and their important findings in space, which is why they follow a strict sleeping and exercise schedule.
Supplementing in Space
As both a treatment to some of the sleep problems we mentioned earlier and prevention of further symptoms, some astronauts supplement while in space. Sleep-related supplementation can take many forms, such as taking non-prescription substances to fall asleep faster and taking medication prescribed by a doctor.
One of the most common ways astronauts supplement is by using melatonin – the sleep hormone that regulates day and night cycles. Melatonin is sold over the counter and doesn’t require a prescription.
If astronauts are consistently having trouble sleeping, they can take prescription meds like Benadryl. The space station is usually supplied with medication of this calibre in order to prevent the serious consequences related to sleep deprivation which we discussed previously. Needless to say, these meds are tested on the crew prior to departure and they’ve checked for any allergies or possible adverse effects.
We know about sleep paralysis and sleepwalking, but are there any similar sleep phenomena that occur in space?
Many astronauts report seeing something akin to fireworks when they close their eyes at night. We’ve all experienced odd visions if we squeeze our eyes too tightly, but the appearance of fireworks can be likely attributed to the altitude of the space station. Even though it’s not a serious sleep disorder, this can impact the quality of sleep for astronauts. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a reported cure for this phenomenon but scientists have been monitoring it closely for a long time, so hopefully we’ll see a resolution soon.
What About Other Habits?
We covered the intricacies of sleeping in space, but what about other habits, like eating?
Just like sleeping, eating in space comes with its own challenges. Eating has changed since the first flight to space; back then, astronauts resorted to dehydrated yet nutritious food just for the ease of consumption and storing. Nowadays, the meals eaten in space resemble those on earth. However, a lot of attention goes into storing the meals because they can easily float away. The meals are stored in small and neat packages, while drinks are stored as dehydrated powders to avoid the risk of spillage on the equipment and fellow crewmembers.
When it comes to exercise, astronauts are advised to do a lot of weight training to preserve as much muscle mass as they can while in space. As astronaut Shannon Walker states, they also have the option of using an exercise bike and a treadmill for their daily dose of cardio. They exercise on average two and a half hours per day which might seem excessive to us but keep in mind that they need to preserve their muscle and cardiovascular health to the best of their ability.
Is Sleeping in Space Comfortable?
While not as comfortable as sleeping in their own beds, astronauts find sleeping conditions in space quite comfortable considering the environment, provided that they have the proper equipment.
Is It Difficult to Sleep in Space?
If astronauts are equipped with a comfortable sleeping bag, earplugs, and a sleeping mask, sleeping in space isn’t as difficult as some might assume.
Do Astronauts Sleep in a Bed in Space?
There are no beds in space stations – astronauts use sleeping bags which they strap on the walls, or they sleep in their seats fastened with the seatbelt.
If you’ve ever wondered “how do astronauts sleep”, we hope our article provided you with all the answers related to this interesting topic.
Astronauts usually sleep in sleeping bags, fastened to the wall. They are provided with some sleeping accessories, such as a sleeping mask and earplugs. They sleep anywhere from six to eight and a half hours per day and have strict daily routines which also extend to their exercise regimens. Just like us, they’re woken up by an alarm clock or by music broadcasting that comes from their earth-bound colleagues.
Due to the difficult conditions in space, some astronauts struggle with sleeping problems. Some of the ways these problems are tackled is by giving astronauts some supplements, like melatonin or sleeping medication, if necessary.
Wu, Bin et al. “On-orbit sleep problems of astronauts and countermeasures.” Military Medical Research vol. 5,1 17. 30 May. 2018, doi:10.1186/s40779-018-0165-6