Redux: Sleeping In Space

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Astronauts have to make many adjustments to what's 'normal' when they're in space. Beds and pillows are not available. So how do they sleep? In this archived piece, NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich spoke with two astronauts about their favorite sleeping positions in space. It originally aired in March 2007.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. When we learned back in 2007 that NASA astronauts wore diapers, we wondered, well, what else do astronauts wear, are there any garments they aren't telling us about? Well, as NPR's Robert Krulwich discovered, it turns out that when you're in space there are a few other accessories that come in very handy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If you could choose between the most comfortable, cozy bed on earth or sleeping in outer space with no gravity, which would you choose? And before you answer, let's cheat.

Mr. DAN BARRY (Retired Astronaut): Oh, sleep in space is fantastic. I mean, you just float and it's perfect, and it's wonderful. It's fabulous.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: Singing) Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

KRULWICH: Retired astronaut Dan Barry has spent 30 nights on three different space missions. Retired astronaut Marcia Ivins, 42 nights on five different missions. A nd here's why they say that space sleeping beats earth sleeping.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Mr. Sandman, Yes? Bring us a dream…

KRULWICH: First, when you're in the space you can go to sleep absolutely anywhere - and I mean anywhere. If you ask where is my bed?

Ms. MARCIA IVINS (Retired Astronaut): Well, it's wherever you wanted to be (laughing) is what it turns out to be.

KRULWICH: Basically, right. You choose a place where you're going to be and it could be on the wall or the ceiling or whatever.

Ms. IVINS: Yeah. It's actually fun.

KRULWICH: Is it fun or weird?

Ms. IVINS: Yeah, and oh, it's great fun. It's great fun. I loved hanging in a weird position, being in a weird position.

KRULWICH: And here's another plus. When you're in space, you never have to lie on your arm.

Mr. BARRY: You know - you know how sometimes you get your arm underneath you and it goes to sleep or whatever and...

KRULWICH: Right.

Mr. BARRY: None of that, OK? You just float.

KRULWICH: You don't have to lie on anything. On the other hand, nothing will lie on you.

Ms. IVANS: I'm one of those like-to-sleep-under-lots-and-lots-of-cover people, you know, the weight of the covers on you.

Mr. BARRY: Yeah, I love that.

Ms. IVANS: Yeah. Well, you don't get that where there's no gravity.

KRULWICH: Because when there's no gravity, you could be under five blankets, 10 blankets, 20 blankets. They're not going to weigh anything.

Ms. IVANS: It's a little disconcerting to sleep without weight. So, it's getting used to sleeping free.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Please turn on your magic beam, Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

KRULWICH: But sleeping free has some interesting complications. For example, suppose you like a fetal position, suppose you want to bring your knees up to your chest at night. In space, you can't do that because you're being pulled equally in all directions. So your body just naturally wants to open up.

Ms. IVANS: You'll be in sort of a opened-up C position.

KRULWICH: Like the letter C.

Ms. IVANS: And your arms will be like you're trying to hug a big tree.

KRULWICH: Kind of displayed wide open.

Ms. IVANS: You know they'll be open.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

Ms. IVANS: And that's the posture that your body is comfortable at.

KRULWICH: So if you want an all-night fetal curl, astronauts have to use a tool. They call it the Velcro strap.

Ms. IVANS: And so a lot of people will sleep and they'll use the Velcro strap, just sort of strap their knees up to their chest.

Mr. BARRY: Right. Kind of go on a little bit of fetal position or even sometimes strap my legs and go like fetal-position the first day or two.

KRULWICH: And that's not the only thing they strap up there.

Mr. BARRY: The other thing is that your head, you know, of course, doesn't stand the pillow. It drifts off.

KRULWICH: So how - You have to have a pillow though, don't you?

Ms. IVANS: There is a pillow, it's a block of foam, and you put the back of your head on it and then you Velcro the front of your head to it. So it's like… (laughing)

KRULWICH: You - like being Velcro the front of your head to your - the front of your head or the back of your head?

Ms. IVANS: No, you Velcro your head to the pillow.

KRULWICH: So really you're wearing your pillow.

Ms. IVANS: Or it's wearing you.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

KRULWICH: Astronauts Marsha Ivans and Dan Barry admit that sleeping in space has, you know, a few downsides. For example, there's the problem of phantom limbs. When you sleep in space, your arms - and your arms especially - get free of the sleeping bag and kind of drift around any way they like.

Mr. BARRY: So your arms are out there and in fact, the first night sleeping, I - my hand was hitting my face and I thought I was the guy next to me. So I said, stop bothering me. And he's like I'm not bothering, you're hitting yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRY: I said what, what? And sure enough, when you fall asleep your hands drift right in front of your face. And in my case, the first night, they were bumping into my face.

KRULWICH: And while that happened again the second night…

Mr. BARRY: Not after that.

KRULWICH: So somehow, and Dan doesn't know how, bodies learn to adjust to zero gravity. They just do.

Mr. BARRY: Never happened again after the first night.

KRULWICH: And so once you get the hang of it, then any time you like, anywhere you like, you could be right side up you could be upside down. Whenever you feel tired, all you have to do is just close your eyes and then...

(Soundbite of snoring)

KRULWICH: And that is why say both astronauts, assuming you don't mind being strapped to your knees while being clamped to a pillow, nothing, nothing beats a good night in space.

Mr. BARRY: And it's wonderful. End of the mission, I'm just - I mean it's fabulous. I love sleeping in space.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News in New York.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Please turn on your magic beam, Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

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