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Why haircuts, food and exercise are so hard in space

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Jan 20, 2015, 16:30 UTC

Sen—In space, even the simple act of getting one's hair cut is a complicated procedure. This month on the International Space Station, European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti received a haircut in what was dubbed "Terry's space salon", a joking reference to fellow Expedition 42 crewmate Terry Virts cutting her hair.

While Virts carefully plied the scissors, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov stood ready with the vacuum cleaner to make sure that no hair accidentally strayed away in the microgravity environment. This is paramount, as debris can clog the station's air systems or potentially interfere with experiments or other activities on station.

The haircut is just one of many activities one takes for granted on Earth, but which prove to be more difficult in space. Among the largest problems astronauts face during lengthy space stays is how to stay fit. Some pieces of equipment on station have been changed over the years as doctors gain more understanding about health in space.

For weightlifting, the astronauts use the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED), which uses vacuum cylinders powered by pistons, as well as flywheels, that astronauts can exercise with. It was flown to the space station in 2008 to replace another system that used cords, called the interim Resistive Exercise Device (iRED). Astronauts used to sometimes "max out" on iRED after several months in orbit, which prompted NASA to fly the better system and retire iRED in 2011.

Cardiovascular exercise is also important, which is why astronauts use a treadmill. The current system is called the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.

This is a joking reference to comedian Stephen Colbert, who attempted to have his many fans name the U.S. module (now called Tranquility) after him in a NASA naming contest. COLBERT replaces the Treadmill Vibration Isolation Stabilization System, a now-discarded treadmill that was a little more wobbly than COLBERT.

Like everything else in microgravity, food tends to float away. Stray water or juice could damage station surfaces or electronics, and bits of food can also interfere with the station's air system. This is why astronauts use pita bread instead of regular bread in space, for example.

Most meals are vacuum-packed inside plastic bags and then rehydrated using heated water on the station. Drinks are placed in containers and sipped through a straw.

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Expedition 41 astronaut Alexander Gerst (left) works out on the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) while commander Maxim Suraev floats in the frame. Picture taken on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

If food requires extra care, using the lavatory in space requires an even more delicate touch. How astronauts cope with this natural function is a question they are most commonly asked!

Before launch, they undergo "positional training" on Earth to learn exactly where is best to place themselves over the small hole on each of the space station's two toilets. (There are two in case one happens to break or clog, which has happened relatively frequently on station over the years.) Urine is recycled and purified for the station's drinking system, while feces are jettisoned along with the rest of the trash.

Sleeping is another challenge, as an untethered astronaut pushed along by the ventilation system could inadvertently crash into something important. There are six individual sleeping compartments on the space station, which also includes a bit of room for a laptop or other electronics in case the astronauts want to check on social media before bed. Inside these compartments, the astronauts zip themselves inside sleeping bags and can tether themselves in place so they don't go floating off.

These ordinary activities in space do require more attention, but NASA and other agencies are planning to finesse them as much as possible while the station is in service. This is because the station is considered a platform for simulating long-duration missions to Mars or other destinations in the Solar System. The hope is that by understanding how to mitigate any unwanted effects now, it will make these long journeys all the easier.