Astronauts on the ISS Have Trouble With Work-Life Balance, Too

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The good news: Even astronauts feel like they don't have enough time. The bad: Even astronauts feel like they don't have enough time.

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Literally clockwise from left: Ford, Hadfield, Marshburn (NASA)

What's one thing astronauts wish they had more of (aside from showers and Snickers and, occasionally, gravity)? The same thing most of us would like more of: time.

At an event at NASA's Washington headquarters this morning, three astronauts currently aboard the ISS -- NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Thomas Marshburn, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield -- answered audience questions about everyday life on the orbiting laboratory. And one thing they agreed on about that life: It's busy. Really, really busy. Astronauts who get to live on the ISS often talk about the wonder, the literal awesomeness, of the experience. ("It's a little bit like being in a dreamland up here," Fold said today.) But they have to take time to schedule in all the awesomeness -- because, orbiting Earth, as far-removed as possible from the mundane pressures of everyday life, they actually have very little time to themselves.

As Ford explained: "We have a very busy life up here, to be quite honest with you. The work week is pretty full." (And, yep, astronauts on the Space Station do get weekends.) ISS denizens joke, he said, that there are pretty much two days on the station: Monday and Friday. Monday goes by ... "and then it's Friday again." Time flies, apparently, when you are literally flying.

But it also flies because, as Ford noted, the ISS astronauts operate with packed schedules, full of experiments, maintenance tasks, scientific work, highly regulated sleep, and exercise -- lots of exercise. (Since loss of bone density is a particular threat to humans in space, even in low orbit, ISS astronauts do two-and-a-half hours of cardio and weight-lifting with modified equipment, day in and day out.)

So, basically: "We have no lack of things to do," Ford put it. And that leads to the kind of pressures that are so familiar here on Earth -- tensions of the "work/life balance" variety. How, given all the stuff you have to do, do you make time for all the stuff you want to do? "I've been up here for probably almost 120 days," Ford said, "and I've never not had something else that I wanted to get to as soon as I was done doing the thing I was working on."

One of those "other things" is astronauts' own pet science experiments. "We all have projects that we bring up," Ford said -- just like, he told the crowd, "you probably have a lot of ideas of things you'd like to try up here." Don Pettit, for example, spent some time -- fantastically, for us here on Earth -- experimenting with water droplets' behavior in microgravity. Hadfield, more recently, has made a point of using the media capabilities of the ISS to record songs, take gorgeous photos, and tweet up a storm. As for Ford himself: "I have my little red book," he noted. "Sometimes we don't show it to other people, because we don't want other astronauts to steal our ideas." [Space explorers: they're human, too!] "But if I haven't had a chance to do all the things I wanted to do," he continued, "I'm gonna pass it on to these guys and let them try it out, too."

And of course, there's always ... the cupola, the place where ISS-bound humans can catch spectacular sights of home. "I was at the window with Tom [Marshburn] the other day," Hadfield said, "and it occurred to me, my favorite time is when two of us are looking out the window. Because it's as if the two of you are almost looking at a miracle together. It's just so brain-stopplingly beautiful, to come out of what looks like this kind of austere hospital laboratory, and suddenly you poke your heads into this little room, and there's the whole world, pouring by underneath you, and it's been there the whole time."

"And we only get a little bit of time every day that we can go steal and spend time there," Hadfield continued. "But to be able to share them is magnificent."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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