The Tricks and Troubles of Sleeping in Space

NPR science guru Robert Krulwich investigates the steps astronauts take to catch a few winks, including special fasteners that prevents floating arms. Human bodies, he found, grow accustomed to zero gravity.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Rachel, you know what I did last night?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

What?

STEWART: I read this book, "Standing Tall," by C. Vivian Stringer.

MARTIN: Yes.

STEWART: Because she's supposed to be a guest on our show this morning. Unfortunately, she's gone M.I.A.

MARTIN: Oh.

STEWART: Kind of our worst nightmare, kind of a publicist's worst nightmare. Publicist doesn't know what to do. But we, at the BBP, always have a plan.

(Soundbite of music)

DAN PASHMAN: When you're doing a live radio show like the Bryant Park Project, sometimes things go wrong. Guests sleep through their alarms. They get stuck in traffic. And sometimes, they get better offers. And when they do, the BBP is ready with a piece by NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich.

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STEWART: Get me Krulwich!

PASHMAN: We call it "Emergency Krulwich."

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IAN CHILLAG: But Mr. Martinez, you said only to use "Emergency Krulwich" in an emergency.

MATT MARTINEZ: Damn it, man. This is an emergency! Control room, deploy "Emergency Krulwich"!

(Soundbite of "A-Team" theme music)

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.

Dr. DANIEL BARRY (Retired NASA Astronaut): Oh, sleeping 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) Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream...

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

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Mr. Sandman, bring us a dream...

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

Ms. MARSHA IVINS (Retired NASA Astronaut): Well, it's wherever you want it to be, is what it turns out to be.

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

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

KRULWICH: Is it fun or weird?

Ms. IVINS: Yeah. No, 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.

Dr. BARRY: Yeah. You know how sometimes you get your arm underneath you and it goes to sleep or whatever?

KRULWICH: Right.

Dr. BARRY: None of that, OK? You just float. You don't have to lie on anything. On the other hand, nothing will lie on you.

Ms. IVINS: I'm one of those like-to-sleep-under-lots-and-lots-of-covers people.

Dr. BARRY: Yeah.

Ms. IVINS: I like the weight of the covers on me.

Dr. BARRY: Yeah, I love that.

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

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

Ms. IVINS: 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) So 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 you body just naturally wants to open up.

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

Dr. BARRY: Like the letter C.

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

Dr. BARRY: Kind of splayed wide open.

Ms. IVINS: You know, they'll be open.

Dr. BARRY: Yeah.

Ms. IVINS: And that's the posture that your body is comfortable in.

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

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

Dr. BARRY: Right. Kind of go in a little bit of a fetal position. I'll even sometimes strap my legs into a fetal position the first day or two.

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

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

KRULWICH: So you have to have a pillow, though, don't you? So...

Ms. IVINS: 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 a big...

KRULWICH: You like where you Velcro the front of your head...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: To your - the front of your head or the back of your head?

Ms. IVINS: No, you Velcro your head to your pillow.

KRULWICH: So really you're wearing your pillow.

Ms. IVINS: Or it's wearing you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

THE CHORDETTES: (Singing) Mr. Sandman...

KRULWICH: Astronauts Marsha Ivins and Dan Barry admit that sleeping in space has, you know, a few down sides. 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.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARRY: And I was like, 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...

Dr. BARRY: Not after that.

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

Dr. 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.

Dr. BARRY: And it's wonderful. At the end of a mission, I'm just, I mean, it's just fabulous. I love sleeping in space.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, in New York.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Sandman")

MARTIN: That was an "Emergency Krulwich." Thank you, Robert, once again, for saving our bacon on a Friday.

STEWART: So, you know what? It is Friday, Rachel.

MARTIN: It is!

STEWART: Which is a good thing. We've gotten through a whole week. Both of us here for a whole week.

MARTIN: We did it.

STEWART: So what have I learned this week on the Bryant Park Project?

MARTIN: What have you learned, Alison?

STEWART: Well, I learned today that "Stop Loss," not only is it a movie, which has a political point of view, that the whole stop-loss policy began in the Vietnam era. Did not know that.

MARTIN: We also learned how to pronounce Phillippe. Seriously, the guy who stars in this movie "Stop Loss," Ryan Phillippe. Actually, I taught Daniel Holloway how to pronounce that one.

STEWART: I also learned, today, on our show, from NPR's international economics correspondent that John McCain is calling for less economic regulation even as many Republicans are favoring more of it. I also learned this week on the Bryant Park Project that in North Carolina's markets, due to some rules with the NCAA, they can't play highlights while other games are going. So one guy has resorted to doing the highlights with puppets.

MARTIN: Of course.

STEWART: Got to go to our blog to see that.

MARTIN: I also learned that if you're a young woman that likes to ski and you live in Pakistan, you have to wear sweatpants over your ski outfit to adapt to cultural mores.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I also learned that weather people - weathermen in Haiti have a really good sense of humor when it's nice out.

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Unidentified Haitian Weatherman: Pretty much everywhere, it's going to be hot. (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Then I don't need a jacket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Thanks, Arthur.

STEWART: Thanks, Arthur.

MARTIN: We just kept playing that one over and over and over again. And I also learned that for NPR's foreign correspondent based in Istanbul, Ivan Watson, sometimes it's easier to draw a map of Mesopotamia than it is to draw a map of, say, the Midwest of his home country, the United States of America.

STEWART: I learned during our new music segment that Madonna can really rely on her friends, Justin Timberlake and Timberland. And also the song "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley is still really good.

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Mr. CEE-LO GREEN: (Singing) I remember when, I remember when I lost my mind...

STEWART: And that does it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project, which is directed by Ian Chillag. Our technical director is Manoli Weatherall. The staff includes Dan Pashman, Jacob Ganz, Win Rosenfeld, Angela Ellis and Caitlin Kenney.

MARTIN: Our interns are Laura Silver and William Hoffman and Elsa Butler.

Ms. CASSIE MCKINNEY: Butler. Hehe. Butler. Hehe.

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MARTIN: Our senior producer is Matt Martinez. Sharon Hoffman is our executive producer.

STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. We are online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. Hey, have a good weekend. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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Zero Gravity Zzzs: Joys of Sleeping in Outer Space

Astronaut Daniel Barry works on the International Space Station during a space walk in 1999. i i

Astronaut Daniel Barry performs external tasks on the International Space Station during a space walk in May 1999. Barry, who likes to sleep curled in a ball on Earth, used Velcro straps to keep his knees close to his chest. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Astronaut Daniel Barry works on the International Space Station during a space walk in 1999.

Astronaut Daniel Barry performs external tasks on the International Space Station during a space walk in May 1999. Barry, who likes to sleep curled in a ball on Earth, used Velcro straps to keep his knees close to his chest.

NASA
Marsha Ivins (center) with her flight crew on the space shuttle, Atlantis, in February, 2001. i i

Marsha Ivins (center) with her Atlantis flight crew in February 2001. In outer space, Ivins secured her pillow to her head so that it wouldn't drift away while she slept. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Marsha Ivins (center) with her flight crew on the space shuttle, Atlantis, in February, 2001.

Marsha Ivins (center) with her Atlantis flight crew in February 2001. In outer space, Ivins secured her pillow to her head so that it wouldn't drift away while she slept.

NASA
Astronauts Richard "Dick" Truly (left) and Guion Bluford get some sleep during a misson in 1983. i i

Commander Richard "Dick" Truly (left) and Mission Specialist Guion Bluford take a mid-deck snooze during a mission in September, 1983. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Astronauts Richard "Dick" Truly (left) and Guion Bluford get some sleep during a misson in 1983.

Commander Richard "Dick" Truly (left) and Mission Specialist Guion Bluford take a mid-deck snooze during a mission in September, 1983.

NASA

Over the course of five flights, Marsha Ivins has spent 42 nights in space. Her colleague, Dan Barry, has spent 30 nights on three different space missions. The two retired astronauts shared some intimate details about sleeping in outer space.

'You Just Float'

First of all, you don't have to worry about your lower arm, the one that is usually tucked beneath your torso. Because at zero gravity, there is no "under."

"Sleeping in space is fantastic!" says Barry. "You just float... and it's perfect."

On the other hand, says Ivins, while you don't lie on anything, nothing will lie on you.

"I'm one of those 'likes to sleep under lots and lots of covers' people," she says.

But in space, not even the heaviest blanket will lay on you — so you don't get that feeling of weight-on-top.

Don't Forget the Velcro

Then there's the problem of fetal curls. Ivins and Barry like to bring their knees to their chests at night but curling into a ball to fall asleep can be a problem in outer space.

In space, where you are being pulled in every direction simultaneously, it is hard to stay in a curled-up position; instead, you sort of stretch out.

So both astronauts made use of a Velcro strap to hold their knees in place.

It's the same with pillows. In space, Ivins attached her pillow to her head — otherwise it would float away, or her head would just float up, and she would wake with a stiff neck.

"You put the back of your head on [the pillow]," says Ivins, "and then you Velcro the front of your head to it."

Getting Adjusted

On their first few nights away from Earth, Barry and Ivins say they felt a little awkward. Barry describes his arms getting loose and floating onto his face, slapping himself awake.

But after a few rounds, both Barry and Ivins found it possible to relax, and once they got the hang of it, any time they needed to sleep — wherever and whenever they could — they would just close their eyes, and off they'd go.

By the end of the mission, says Barry, he could fall asleep almost anywhere.

"I can just float out there," he says. "It's just totally relaxed sleeping. I love sleeping in space."

One warning, though.

Barry told me what happened when he got back to Earth and snuggled into bed — his own bed.

To his amazement, he'd go to sleep and terrible things would happen...

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