What would life be really like in space?

Click below to listen to discussion on ‘Living in Space’ on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast on 1st February 2016)

Mars colonies will use the resources of the planet to grow plants, produce drinking water and generate energy (Credit: Bryan Versteeg)

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live in space for an extended period of time, or whether humans will one day be living in thriving communities dotted across Mars, and some other planets?

President Obama – now 54 – plans to be still around when NASA lands astronauts on Mars sometime during the 2030s. And for children born today, there is a real chance they could travel to Mars in their lifetimes.

But, what is it like to live in space for an extended period of time? And what role is Ireland playing in mankind’s quest to explore other planets?


We have been in space now, of course, for almost 50 years, which will come as a shock to people who still vividly recall Neil Armstrong landing on The Moon in 1969.

The famous Apollo missions took place between 1969 and 1972, and since Apollo finished, more than 44 years ago now, humans have – remarkable – not left lower Earth orbit.

This means we have ventured no further than about 400km above the ground, which is the altitude of the International Space Station, as well as many of our communication satellites.

Yet, although technically this is not space, as space starts somewhere out around 800km above the Earth, the I.S.S. living environment tells us most of what we need to know about living in space for a long time.

Much of what we know about life in space comes from the information passed on to us by scientists and astronauts that have spent time there.

Space Station life 

The I.S.S. was launched in 1998, and astronauts and scientists, such as Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have enlightened us. Others have too.

In 2014, as part of the RTE Radio 1 science series What’s it all about? I got the opportunity to talk to an Italian astronaut called Paolo Nespoli, who spent six months onboard the I.S.S. about his life there.

Paolo, a married man with kids, employed by the Italian army, was onboard the I.S.S. for six months in 2006. He said it was a struggle at first for his body to adjust to the microgravity onboard the I.S.S.

Micro-gravity is defined as very small amounts of gravity; a negligible amount compared to what our bodies are used to here on Earth.

He suffered from nausea, and all the while he had to share a space of about 100 square metres – a modest apartment – with five colleagues.

He noticed that while they were all working on different surfaces in a relatively small space, the people rarely touched off each other.

They fly around like superman and the utilisation of all the 3D space meant that people could work on different surfaces and still have space.

There was a definite sense of constantly falling, he said, and that’s not a surprise because the I.S.S. IS constantly falling to Earth.

It doesn’t hit the Earth because the Earth is round, and it has booster rockets which keep it in a stable orbit 400 km above the Earth.

For the I.S.S. to stay in that relative position it needs to have an orbital speed of 28,000km per hour – or about 8km per second.

At that kind of speed, the I.S.S. does a full orbit of the Earth in about 1.5 hours or the same time as it takes to drive from Dublin to Belfast.

Paolo said that when he was living on the I.S.S. he had to get used to a sunrise or sunset every 40 or 50 minutes with 16 sunrises every day – defined as a 24 hour period.

There is a viewing area, and from there he said he could make out Italy and other parts of the world coming into view below.

Staying in touch 

NASA, and the other space agencies, make a big effort to ensure that people living on the I.S.S. do not feel isolated so there are telephones and people can call who they want.

Paolo called his family every night, and once a week he had a video conference with his family from the I.S.S. There is internet, and Paolo, like fellow I.S.S. astronauts Chris Hadfield, and the UK’s Tim Peake used social media to connect with a huge audience.

There are strange little things to get used, said Paolo,  like the fact that there is no more ‘up and down’ and fluids don’t automatically go into your stomach. That means it can feel like choking when you take a drink of something.

Paolo said that despite the painfully slow internet connection he could check his bank account, transfer money and pay his taxes from space!

During this time on the I.S.S. his mother died, and he couldn’t attend her funeral, but his colleagues on board gave him a one-minute silence.

Ireland’s involvement in space

Ireland is involved in a surprising amount of space projects, and the past decade or so saw the growth of a vibrant space industry here.

There are in the region of 50 Irish companies working directly with the European Space Agency with contracts to the value of 31 million euro.

Taking some examples:

For example, NASA and others are worried about the deterioration of bone and muscle tissue in people living in space for an extended time.

The trip to Mars may take up to three years to complete, and during this time people will experience muscle wasting from living in low gravity.

Dr Brian Caulfield and his team at UCD have designed a muscle stimulating device, which can help astronauts exercise while asleep.

This work has been funded and supported by the European Space Agency and could be relevant to all future manned space missions.

This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, will be used to track and monitor dangerous 'space junk' [Source: National Space Centre]
This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, is used to track and monitor dangerous ‘space junk’ [Source: National Space Centre]
One big danger to astronauts in space, is the growing problem of ‘space junk’ but an Irish company, the National Space Centre in Midleton Co Cork is using a 32 metre satellite dish to track and monitor space debris.

The dish was originally built in 1984 to transfer telephone calls between Ireland and the USA, but now it’s being used to track space junk.

Meanwhile, an Irish firm called Cortona 3D is helping train astronauts.

Cortona has been contracted by the ESA to develop training videos for astronauts so they are less likely to make mistakes in space.

Up to recently astronauts were faced with long lists of ‘to do’ tasks and reading manuals, but these videos take them visually through the jobs.

The Irish made videos will be helping astronauts to dock the Automatic Transfer Vehicle that carries food and other supplies to the I.S.S.

In January, meanwhile, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, announced it was to be a partner in Japan’s ASTRO-H space mission.

This is a mission that wishes to find out more about about things like black holes, and the dynamics of hot gas in galaxy clusters.

The mission is set for launch by the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA on the 12th February equipped with powerful equipment to observe x rays.

Observations in X-rays are a key part of modern astronomy and can only be made from space as X-rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Could humans live on Mars

The answer to that is a resounding yes, although there are many technical problems to be overcome to setting up a Mars colony.

Mars is incredible hostile for humans. It is very cold and as there is little atmosphere, there is no protection from harmful space radiation.

The average temperature on Mars is -60C and temperatures range from -126C in winter near the poles to 20C during summer near the equator.

Temperatures can fluctuate widely, and quickly and this can result in powerful dust storms which could clog up electronics and equipment.

Like an army invading a foreign country, supply lines will be crucial, as shipping materials from Earth will not be viable for the most part.

Gravity is just 40 per cent as strong as Earth, and there is little known about the long term effects of this on our bodies.

To survive the cold and lack of air pressure humans will need to live in pressurised and heated habitats, and NASA is offering a prize of $ 2.25 million to anyone who can design a 3D printed habitat for Mars.

It will be important to use the resources of the planet, as carrying water to Mars will use a lot of resources – water is heavy to carry across space.

It will be important to extract water from the Martian soil, which is feasible now that scientists know Mars once had flowing rivers.

This water can be used to generate drinking water, breathable air, and rocket fuel, but there is still the issue of food and other vital supplies.

Martians will have to grow their own plants and that means removing toxins from the Martian soil and using what we have learned on Earth about hydroponics – which is the growing of plants without soil.

The new science of genetic engineering might make it possible for Martians to engineer offspring adapted to conditions on mars.

There is also the strategy of changing Mars to better suit humans, rather than the other way around, through the process of terraforming.

This will require lots of greenhouse gases to warm up the planet, and it could also unleash frozen reserves of water buried under the soil.

The vision of some is to create a Mars where humans, or genetically engineered humans, could live on it without need for a spacesuit.

Certainly, the exploration of Mars up to now, which has been a fascinating story, has shown that it has the resources to support life.

The key life-supporting compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and water are available on Mars, though harnessing these will be a big challenge.

The Martian soil contains compounds with high chemical energy and this would help to manufacture rocket fuels on mars.

There is potential to harness solar and wind power, which are available on Mars too.

The new technology of 3D printing would also help Martians to print spare parts when things break rather than wait for Earth supplies.

Why go?

It’s in our nature to explore, and like ants, if some intrepid individuals don’t explore the health of the colony is at risk.

This is the second coming of space exploration. It is not driven by fear, as it was before, but by curiosity and our need to keep developing.