Space travel is really an extraordinary thing. To think that a small, metal rocket projects people into space where gravity and the oxygen we breathe are no longer there. Then there’s the fact that these men and woman are exploring our stars, something that seems more at home in a television show or Hollywood film.

It all very bizarre and often leads to many questions – usually around the eating and toilet habits of these astronauts. But one question that’s often forgotten is, how exactly do astronauts sleep in space? Especially away from our usual night and day on Earth. Do they use beds and mattresses?

Well, in space astronauts tend to get subjected to a sunrise or sunset every 90 minutes – much more than the twice daily that we’re used to. But does this affect their sleep cycle? Well according to Erin Flynn-Evans, who is the director of NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory, these sunrises/sunsets are far too quick for our body clocks to adapt to. Which makes sense, you can’t fit 24 hours into just 90 minutes, however, this is bad news for our astronauts as it means that these men and woman will feel like they’re on a never-ending jet lag cycle, and we all know how debilitating jet lag can feel even for a day or so.

AstronautThe lack of day/night cues for sleeping means that our bodies instead slip into a sleep cycle that is longer than our usual 24 hours, although this is only a slight increase to 24.2 hours, which is around 12 minutes extra a day. Yet, this 12 minutes actually makes a world of difference to our sleep. Being subjected to a 24.2 cycle for a few weeks means the ‘bedtime’ that these astronauts started with when they first entered space will now see them falling asleep several hours later. Something that can lead to a lot of lost sleep. Indeed, research has found that astronauts, on average, get 6.5 hours of sleep a night whereas the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that 7 hours of sleep a night is essential. Of course, this number can be very subjective as 6 hours of quality sleep in better that 7 hours of bad sleep. Plus, different amounts of sleep will affect different people in different ways.

The worrying factor, though, is that we know what a bad night’s sleep does to our bodies. We feel groggy, grumpy and far more likely to make mistakes. Which is fine if you work in an office and can fix your mistake, but when your millions of miles into space, just one wrong touch of a button has the potential to be life-threatening. So, what does NASA do to ensure that their astronauts stay focussed, even if they are sleep-deprived?

Well that’s where Flynn-Evans and her sleep lab becomes so important, as it is their inventions and gadgets that help safeguard our space explorers. One such gadget is a wristband that monitors sleep and light levels in the space ship/station. This way it’s known if any particular astronaut is suffering from poor sleep. Light levels in space are particularly important as it’s light that controls our circadian rhythms. Because of this, the lab has called for the International Space Station to be fitted with blue-enriched LED lights as a way to synchronise the crew’s circadian rhythms – the same as people on Earth being similar due to daylight/night time. Blue light has also been known to trigger alertness in shift workers such as pilots and doctors.

Of course, it’s not just the extra-long day that can keep interfere with your sleep – sleeping is also vastly different in space. For one, you float! Beds are just not a thing in space. Instead, you strap yourself so you don’t float into something. Although, some astronauts say that this weightless feeling is actually rather pleasant.

Most detrimental to sleep, though, is the fact that space is just ridiculously exciting to witness. You get to see Earth and other planets in all their glory and many astronauts miss out on sleep as they want to see their hometown as it passes by.

One thing is for sure though, the more research and funding that goes into space and sleep, the more our own sleep in improved as these inventions and discoveries become used back on Earth. Just think, memory foam is one of the most popular mattresses on the market, and this was an invention by NASA!