BBC Future

Forty years of living in outer space

  • Home in the heavens
    Skylab, launched in May 1973, was Nasa’s first space station. For six years, teams of astronauts carried out experiments in its workshop and observatory. (Copyright: Nasa/SPL)
  • Shower in a bag
    On Skylab, astronauts showered in a screened compartment, washing and then vacuuming off the water. Nowadays, they can also wash with a special rinse-free shampoo. (Copyright: SPL)
  • Russia's Skylab
    After the Salyut and Almaz programmes, the Soviets launched Mir, an ambitious modular platform assembled in orbit and was manned for 15 years. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • No pain, no gain
    Living in space for extended period means astronauts had to counter the effect on weightlessness – brittle bones and muscle wastage – with exercise routines. (Copyright: Nasa/SPL)
  • Call of nature
    In zero gravity, bodily functions present special problems. Toilets use air to flush, ejecting solids into a special tank and liquids into space. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Crumbs of comfort
    Food presented particular problems – it had to be easy to consume gravity without spreading countless crumbs which could clog vital equipment. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Dining with the stars
    On the International Space Station (ISS), freeze-dried meals are rehydrated with water and cooked in a convection oven – then eaten round a special table. (Source: SPL)
  • Cosmic companion
    There’s no room for a pet dog or cat, but in Skylab there was room for a pair of spiders – allowed on to test whether they would still spin webs in weightlessness. (Copyright: SPL)
  • Tweeting star
    Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield – who returned to Earth this week – became a Twitter sensation after tweeting the day-to-day existence of life in space. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Extending the records
    The ISS has now been continuously manned for a record 12 years. As mankind’s tenure in space extends, further ways to improve space life will no doubt be found. (Copyright: Nasa)
The launch of Skylab in 1973 ushered in the era of the space station. Since then, astronauts have had to grapple with the challenges of life away from Earth.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, he barely had time on his 108-minute flight to tuck into the tubes of meat paste provided in case he got peckish. Compare that with Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who clocked up 437 days in continuous orbit between 1994 and 1995.

Space travellers like Polyakov have to deal with not just with the drama and awesome demands of life in orbit, but the day-in, day-out monotony of everyday tasks carried out tens of miles above the Earth’s surface and in absolute weightlessness. For instance, how do you take a wash in zero gravity? More delicately, what kind of toilets do you install in spacecraft when there is no gravity to help things flush?

Life in weightlessness means a permanently stuffy nose and impaired smell and taste – space travellers are said to crave spicy, well-seasoned food – and the threats of wasted muscles. Improvised gyms have been set up to ensure the astronauts don’t find their muscles have wasted when they eventually find themselves back on Earth.

Launched 40 years ago in May 1973, Skylab became America's first space station – a three-person laboratory designed to conduct scientific experiments such as the effects of weightlessness and observations of the sun. Almost four decades after, Commander Chris Hadfield became an internet sensation by revealing the day-to-day life of space living to a new generation – from making a peanut butter and honey sandwich to wringing out a wet cloth to his zero-g cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Here’s some more examples of what astronauts have had to experience when they are floating round their tin can...

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