Labor rights in space: Astronaut on a break | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.07.2018
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Labor rights in space: Astronaut on a break

Think astronauts are always on duty on the International Space Station? Well you'd be wrong. Even astronauts get time off in space, and holiday, says the German Aerospace Center's Volker Schmid.

Astronaut Alexander Gerst conducting an Experiment (NASA/ESA/picture-alliance/dpa)

Tidying up is important, especially if the work has to be left until the next day.

DW: Astronauts are expected to conduct a wealth of experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). They also have a lot of other tasks, like maintenance work. So how is a working day organized in space? Do astronauts get free time, as we do on Earth?

Volker Schmid: An astronaut's working day is not so different from that on Earth. Of course, it is a unique environment, but they work eight hours, sometimes nine or ten hours if a job requires overtime, just like in normal life.

Then there are eight hours of sleep and two hours of sports every day. That's important to ensure an astronaut's muscles, bones and metabolism function well.

The rest consists of eating, body care and social contacts, like calling home, joining a video conference, or watching a movie in their free time. Sometimes there are briefings with colleagues after work. But on the whole it's not so different, except that the pace is determined by the planners on the ground. They make sure that all of the 300 experiments on the Horizons mission [Ed.: the current ISS mission for which Schmid is responsible] can be carried out as well as possible.

And besides the science, research, eating, body care and leisure what else is there to do?

DLR Mission-Manager Volker Schmidt (DW/F. Schmidt)

Volker Schmid heads the planning and supervision of DLR research projects on the Horizons Mission

There is all the traffic with the transport vehicles that arrive every now and then. They have to be unloaded and loaded. The cargo needs to be repackaged, installed, switched on, and checked to make sure it's running smoothly. It's all part of everyday life.

Read More: On the ISS, 'Astro Alex' says he's found he has space 'muscle memory'

And how many days a week do they work?

It's like on Earth: Saturday is half a working day. The other half is reserved for cleaning the spaceship. Sunday is free. And there are holidays too.

Which holidays do they observe on the ISS? There are German, American and Russian holidays. Do the astronauts and cosmonauts have different holidays?

Yes, they have their specific holidays. But they're not always so strictly observed. Independence Day in the US is usually a holiday, and there's not much going on up there. But as for German Unity Day on October 3, we already know that German astronaut Alexander Gerst will have some work to do as commander.

Astronaut Tim Peake running a marathon in Space (picture alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser)

Two hours of sport is the daily minimum. In 2016, British astronaut Tim Peake ran the London Marathon in space.

Do the astronauts also take on voluntary tasks, such as projects that they are not allowed to carry out during working hours?

Yes, on weekends or in their free time they are often busy with educational programs. They carry out so-called trouser pocket experiments for students who have developed them in their class.

Even if Alexander Gerst takes photos of the Earth and then posts them on Twitter, he has to do that in his spare time. So he lets us take part in his weekends.

And does that also include experiments for the German TV show for kids, "Sendung mit der Maus" ("The Show with the Mouse"), and experiments that kids have programmed for the "Astro-Pi", this educational computer ...

Yes, that's exactly what he cares about: working with kids.

It is important for the next generation of scientists. We want to inspire young people to take up physics, technology, engineering and other sciences. We'll need them in the future. And what could be cooler for a school or student team than having an experiment of yours running up there on the ISS? You can't beat that.

So it's worth sacrificing your free time for it, even if you work overtime. Do astronauts get compensated for overtime? Or do they take the time when they're back on earth?

Whether an astronaut works eight or ten hours up there, the day always has 24 hours. No one's going to claim compensation time up there. Whatever has to be done is done. And the astronauts like to do it. Everybody tries to get the most out of the mission, no matter how long it takes and no matter how much effort it takes. 

Read more: Top 5 experiments on the Horizons Mission

Astronaut Alexander Gerst conducts an experiment with soap bubbles. (DLR/ESA/picture-alliance/dpa)

Soap bubbles for a student experiment. This is what Alexander Gerst does in his spare time.

But it's also important that the astronauts get sleep, because if they don't, the work suffers. So what do the astronauts do when they realize they can't finish in time? Do they leave experiments half-finished until the next day, or whenever there's time to continue?

Well if it's almost the end of the day, and there's still work to be done, work that might take another few hours, you let it go and see if it's okay to move on. You try not to leave a cable hanging out somewhere, or leave something in a gangway that might cause someone else to stumble.

The astronaut will also check with mission planners on the ground and see if there's anything else that needs doing. There may be something urgent that takes precedence. But the main thing is they leave a project or experiment in a safe and tidy fashion.

Volker Schmid is DLR Mission Manager for the ISS Horizons Mission. The DLR is the German Aerospace Center.

Fabian Schmidt asked the questions.

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