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Zero Gravity Zzzs: Joys of Sleeping in Outer Space

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Zero Gravity Zzzs: Joys of Sleeping in Outer Space

Zero Gravity Zzzs: Joys of Sleeping in Outer Space

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When we learned last month that NASA astronauts wear diapers usually during flight, or flights of fancy, that got us wondering, what else do astronauts wear? Any other garments they're not telling us about?


Well, it turns out - says NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich - that when you're in space, especially when you're asleep in space, there are a few accessories that prove astonishingly useful.

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.

Unidentified Man: 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 Group): (Singing) Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.

KRULWICH: Retired astronaut Dan Berry has spent 30 nights on three different space missions. Retired astronaut Marcia 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...

Unidentified Man: Yes?

THE CHORDETTES: ...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. MARCIA IVINS (Former Astronaut): Well, it's wherever you want it to be is what it turns out to be.

Mr. DAN BERRY (Former Astronaut): 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 then here's another plus. When you're in space, you never have to lie on your arm.

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


Mr. BERRY: None of that. Okay? You just float.

KRULWICH: 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 cover people. You know the weight of the covers on you?

KRULWICH: Yeah, I love that.

Ms. IVINS: Yeah. Well, you don't get that when 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. 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) Please turn on your magic beam. Oh, 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. IVINS: You'll be in sort of a opened up C position.

KRULWICH: Like the letter C.

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

KRULWICH: Kind of splayed wide open?

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


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 to their chest.

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

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

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

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

Ms. IVINS: No, you Velcro your head to the 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 Marcia Ivins and Dan Berry 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 anyway they like.

Mr. BERRY: So your arms are out there. And, 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. He said you're hitting yourself. 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...

Mr. BERRY: Not after that.

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

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

KRULWICH: And so once you get the hang of it, then anytime 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. BERRY: And it's wonderful. The end of the mission I'm just pffft - 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) ...a dream.

BRAND: When he's not reporting for NPR or sleeping, Robert Krulwich moonlights as the co-host of WNYC's radio lab.

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. Sandman")

BRAND: And if you want to hear more stories from Robert, he's got his very own podcast. Go to our Web site, and search our podcast directory for Krulwich on Science.

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