(NASA/CNN) — On Tuesday, an unmanned NASA-contracted rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded just after liftoff. The incident focuses new attention on the men and women orbiting more than 200 miles above the Earth. It’s currently a crew of three Russians, two Americans and a German who are 49 days into their mission. We’re used to seeing live interviews with Space Station astronauts and cosmonauts and videos of their spacewalks.
The International Space Station orbits the earth every 90 minutes — traveling about 17,500 mph. It’s an understatement to say the astronauts and cosmonauts on board enjoy a spectacular view. But it’s still a bit of a mystery what daily life is really like for them in lower Earth’s orbit; it’s hard work and, at times, complicated. Even getting clean is a challenge because there’s no shower there. Instead, they use towels, wipes and a rinseless shampoo.
“Then, I take my no-rinse shampoo, and rub it in – again, working it out to the ends,” said an astronaut on board.
On board this $100 billion research laboratory, there are never more than six crew members at a time. They stay for about six months, which can feel like an eternity living on prepackaged food.
“We use a lot of the same items the military uses, the meals-ready-to-eat, the MREs,” said former ISS astronaut Leroy Chiao.
Every so often, supply ships — like the one that exploded this week — bring fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Around our dinner, this is a table for six. We don’t have plates. Of course, we don’t need plates in space because everything would just float away,” said another astronaut on board.
There are no refrigerators in space. And salt and pepper? It’s only in liquid form. Otherwise, the particles would be airborne, clogging air vents or getting in an astronaut’s eye. Peanut butter on a specially packaged tortilla is a Space Station staple.
“Weightless tortilla,” said Canada’s astronaut star, Chris Hadfield, showing the effects of gravity. “Got one tortilla. Whoa, got away!”
Most of the day is spent working on science experiments that only a microgravity environment can provide. There are also medical experiments, which can judge how well their bodies adjust to life in space for long periods of time. Of course, sometimes there are spacewalks. Otherwise, it’s more mundane stuff — like what you might do at home back on Earth.
“You have to change out some filters,” said Chiao. “Or you got, light bulbs burned out; you have take time to change the light bulbs out.”
And while you may be weightless in space, exercise is a must. They use equipment you won’t find on Earth, like a special treadmill.
“We attach the harness to a system of hooks and bungee cord,” explains an astronaut.
If you’re wondering about a bathroom break during the day, thanks to microgravity, using this tiny toilet isn’t easy.
“Of course, you do have your privacy; here’s a little door,” explains an astronaut, showing how it works.
Sleeping is easier, as long as the astronauts remember to tie down their sleeping bags. When the mission is complete, a Soyuz spacecraft brings them back to Earth. The return trip takes just 3 1/2 hours.