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Astronauts at Work

The Social Relations of Space Travel

Frequency Spectogram

Diagram of a Frequency Spectogram

Peter Dickens is a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, and the author of Society and Nature: Changing Our Environment, Changing Ourselves (Polity, 2004).

As societies interact with their external environment, human beings start changing their own internal nature. Marx applied this concept in order to understand the plight of workers at the dawn of industrial capitalism.1 It is used here to understand the relationship between the astronaut’s body and outer space. As astronauts penetrate ever further into the cosmos, how are their bodies and subjectivities being transformed? I will consider the earliest space missions to the Moon, as well as the experience of astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and their implications for future missions, such as those to Mars. Beginning from the idea of “space medicine,” which underlies many contemporary understandings of the astronaut’s body, I evaluate the usefulness of Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “rhythmanalysis,” with the aim of developing a more sophisticated relational framework for understanding the body of the astronaut.

So-called “space medicine” is a discipline derived from Nazi experiments on how human bodies respond when exposed to extreme cold. This supposedly “objective” science was really the direct product of power, a form of torture of Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill, and young children.2 Under the notorious Operation Paperclip, the Nazi scientists involved, including Herbert Strughold, considered the father of the discipline, left Germany at the end of the Second World War and quickly found influential positions in NASA, where early experiments were performed on animals.

Space medicine, as later practiced during the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, applied the scientistic “objective” view of medicine, one that allowed only a one-way relation between subject (the experimenting scientist) and object (the human body). More than half a century after the Cold War height of space travel, the “science” of projecting bodies into outer space is still portrayed as an unalloyed social good.3 But its claims to neutrality and objectivity were always suspect. Launching people or animals into outer space remains a process governed by mechanisms of power and domination, which treats astronauts as objects, not as subjects in control of their own bodies.4 At the same time, as will become clear, space medicine and its Earth-bound practitioners are now beginning to interact with astronauts’ bodies in a more multidirectional, dialectical fashion.

Hazards of Long-Distance Missions

Both NASA and the rapidly growing private space industry are now less concerned with catastrophic accidents and explosions than with the emerging challenges to the body of long-distance missions, above all human missions to Mars. Issues such as radiation exposure during long missions are now a major area of research. As Robert Phillips puts it:

Based on our current knowledge, Mars voyagers will be exposed to a level of radiation that would not be acceptable for nuclear power plant workers or hospital x-ray technicians. One prediction by a NASA radiation expert in 2004 was that the added risk of cancer from a 1,000-day trip to Mars and back was somewhere between 1 percent and 19 percent for a healthy 40-year-old male, and somewhat greater for a female because of the possibility of breast and ovarian cancers.5

Another threat to the outer-spatial body arises if the protection offered by a spacesuit or spaceship for some reason fails. Phillips notes that “the space environment is very unfriendly. It is an almost complete vacuum that would cause you to essentially explode if exposed without the protective atmosphere inside a space suit or spaceship. Actually you wouldn’t explode, but all of your body fluids would begin to boil due to atmospheric pressure, and you are mostly made of water. This would be a rapid and unpleasant end.”6

But probably the most important issue facing the outer-spatial body is the low level of gravity. The human body has of course evolved in an unchanging gravitational field on Earth: its form, structure, and physiology have been defined by terrestrial gravity. As Kevin Fong explains, “take gravity away, and our bodies become virtual strangers to us.”7 Once removed from gravity, the muscle groups of the human body start to deteriorate. (Experiments with rats in outer space show a third of their muscle bulk is lost within nine days.) The issue of changing gravity levels has become all the more pressing with the advent of long-distance spaceflight. It has recently been found, for example, that the human body is considerably stretched during a prolonged mission, a result of the spine straightening out when no longer compressed by the weight of gravity. This is just one of the many contradictions between the body and outer space.

As early as 1923, Hermann Oberth devised a solution to the problem of maintaining long-term gravity in outer space. It consisted of a vehicle attached to a counterweight that would “spin end over end like a twirling baton, subjecting the occupants to artificial gravitation load.”8 Subsequent research programs have developed new solutions to the problem. Space medicine expert and television presenter Fong, who has himself been the subject of artificial gravity experiments, makes clear that it will not be easy to incorporate gravity devices, which he calls “compact torture chambers or giant twirling batons,” into future spacecraft. “There’s a lot of work to be done before that can happen,” Fong stresses. Long-distance missions will require gravity-making devices small and efficient enough to fit into already crowded spacecraft.9

In short, “the gravity problem” has still not been resolved. Furthermore, NASA’s Artificial Pilot Project, designed to find ways to protect muscles from low levels of gravity, has reportedly been shelved due to budget cuts. Research in this critically important area will now have to be taken up by the private sector, namely private aerospace tycoons such as Elon Musk.

Conflicting Rhythms

Research in these areas by both government agencies and private businesses runs the risk of conceiving them as technical problems to be solved, and therefore remaining trapped in the scientistic paradigm of space medicine. By contrast, the work of Lefebvre is uniquely helpful for understanding both the astronaut’s body and outer space in dialectical, relational terms. Lefebvre coined the term “rhythmanalysis” to describe the intersecting and often contradictory relations between the rhythms of the universe, the rhythms of the body, and the rhythms or regimes imposed by the powerful. The strong influence of Earth-bound controllers over human life in outer space remains analogous to the labor processes of more conventional spatial relations. The controllers have ready access to large amounts of information which is simply unavailable to the astronauts.

Yet as Lefebvre’s work reminds us, the rhythms of the body in outer space are not simply a product of power hierarchies in the space industry. They also arise directly from the rhythms of the universe itself, from the regular orbits and rotations that structure days and nights, weeks and years, here on Earth. Rhythmanalysis examines the contradictions between the ways that the body has evolved on Earth and how these clash with the rhythms of the cosmos once they are launched into outer space. As Lefebvre puts it, “the cyclical originates in the cosmic, in nature: days, nights, seasons, the waves and tides of the sea, monthly cycles, etc…. Great cyclical rhythms last for a period and restart: dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday.”10 What are implications for the human body of the conflict between these different forms of rhythm?

On Earth, our bodily rhythms coordinate with each other, resulting in a relatively stable state of health. Again, these rhythms are clearly linked to cyclical movements such as day and night, but they also have their own internal cadences, determined by millennia of physiological evolution. For astronauts circling Earth or, hypothetically, undertaking long-distance space travel, the rhythms of the body do not necessarily combine well with those of the cosmos. For example, the astronaut’s body is completely separated from the familiar alternating phases of light and dark to which we are accustomed.

Little research has been conducted on the effects of these contrasting rhythms.11 Yet, as with the problem of gravity levels, the prospect of long-distance space travel has made the importance of this issue increasingly clear. And already in the case of space shuttle missions or weeks spent on the International Space Station, astronauts struggle to get adequate sleep and rest, since the Sun “rises” into view every ninety minutes.

Recent research shows that the interactions between bodily and outer-spatial rhythms are far more complex and far-reaching than brief earthbound simulations would suggest.12 Studies of sixty-four astronauts on eighty shuttle missions and twenty-one astronauts on International Space Station missions showed that “sleep deficiency is pervasive among crew members.” Space station and shuttle astronauts slept for just six hours per night on average, when mission controllers advised 8.5 hours. Astronauts often turn to sleeping pills to compensate for this rhythmic imbalance. About 78 percent of shuttle-mission astronauts used sleeping pills on 52 percent of flights. But this is hardly a viable solution, especially for longer missions, since astronauts can only get a few hours of sleep at a time, affecting their performance and potentially endangering their health. The conflict between the rhythms of the cosmos and the internal rhythms of the body are thus real and problematic, and must be addressed before long-distance space flight can be made safe.

Returning to Earth

These contradictions do not end when the astronaut returns home. The process of reentry brings difficulties of its own, sometimes deeply affecting astronauts’ mental health. Smith’s 2005 study of the nine surviving lunar astronauts is very suggestive here.13 All the moon-walkers struggled to adjust to the social regimes and rhythms they faced when returning to Earth. This was partly due to the “overview” effects of perceiving Earth and humanity from such a—literal and figurative—distance, and the resulting epiphanies that many of the moon-walkers had felt in outer space. For example, Marc Garneau, the first Canadian to enter outer space, reported: “there are wars going on, there’s pollution down there, but these are not visible from up above. It just looks like a very beautiful planet.”14

The experience of circling Earth appears to lead many astronauts to new conceptions not only of the cosmos, but of themselves and their relation to society and the universe. This “overview effect” has even been given physical recognition in the design of the International Space Station. NASA now provides a special “cupola” offering space for meditation, which is by all accounts regularly used by International Space Station astronauts.15

After such intense experiences, returning to the workaday routines of life on Earth can cause astronauts considerable stress. For example, Neil Armstrong, virtually disappeared from public life on his return. He became notorious for his absence, even failing to turn up to dinners and other events held in his honor. Ed Mitchell, an astronaut on the Apollo 14, became increasingly interested in the paranormal and the idea of “an Intelligence in the Universe.” He believed he had glimpsed such an intelligence on the Moon and, on his return, founded an Institute of Noetic Sciences to continue this scientifically dubious research. Alan Bean (Apollo 12) developed a passion for painting, but his only subject was the surface of the Moon. On his return to Earth, Bean seemed to view human life with the bemused wonder of a visiting alien. As Andrew Smith writes: “When I review my travels among astronauts, my mind’s eye goes first to the Houston shopping mall where Alan Bean sat for hours after returning from space, just eating ice cream and watching the people swirl around him, enraptured by the simple but miraculous fact that they were there and alive in that moment, and so was he.”16

Note the apparent absence of official concern for the returning astronaut. The “space medicine” offered by NASA largely loses interest in the outer-spatial body once the astronaut’s job is done and he or she is decommissioned. Returning astronauts, especially in the early days of space travel, have been largely neglected, left to look after themselves once they reentered society on Earth—another instance of the objectification of the astronaut’s body.

Appropriated Time

The cyclical rhythms of the body in outer space are today constantly subject to monitoring and control, especially by mission supervisors on Earth. Ground controllers attempt to impose a “linear” regime on the astronauts, in which standardized tasks must be undertaken as part of a regular sequence. This causes tensions between the controllers and astronauts, since the latter prefer a degree of autonomy and flexibility. Astronauts often comment on this rigid linear order imposed by their superiors, often sounding notably like workers in Earth-based labor processes. One astronaut complained of being given “only 30 minutes [scheduled] to execute a 55-step procedure that required collecting 21 items. It took 3 or 4 hours.”17

Another astronaut recorded in his journal: “It has been a pretty tedious week with tasks that were clearly allotted too little time on the schedule. Talking to [a Mission Control staff member] today, I realized he just doesn’t understand how we work up here.”18 Yet astronauts also find ways to resist the controllers’ authority. In considering the relationship between power and human agency, Lefebvre introduced the notion of “appropriated time,” which has a special significance for the outer-spatial body. It is, in Lefebvre’s words, “time that forgets time, during which time no longer counts (and is no longer counted).”19 The reflections of Marc Garneau, who was quoted above, offer an example of “appropriated time,” in opposition to the highly organized “linear” control over time directed by the managers from Earth.

From Alienation to Autonomy?

With space travel now defined by longer missions, social relations between astronauts and their controllers are changing. Crews on extended missions have generally not found their experience boring and monotonous, but this is mainly because their every activity is intensively managed by NASA ground control. Ground control aimed to keep the astronauts busy by imposing heavier individual workloads. When the Skylab crew appeared insufficiently occupied by their assigned working hours, ground control quickly found more tasks for them.20

But as the duration and distance of missions into outer space are further extended, ground controllers have been compelled to allow higher degrees of agency among astronauts. Key to this effort is the simulation of terrestrial activities. One study described the environment of recent long-duration missions as a “microcosm of home life.”21 Special occasions from life on Earth, such as holidays, family birthdays, and football games, are covered and celebrated on the space station, enabled by satellite communications between Earth and the spacecraft. NASA managers now encourage these celebrations, recognizing that such events relieve monotony and sustain morale. In these ways, the links between the astronaut’s body and Earth’s rhythms are at least partly restored.

The social and spatial relations of outer-space travel are thus being reshaped, as the balance of power between controllers and controlled has shifted in the latter’s favor. The aim is to foster a more integrated, less alienated connection between the astronaut’s body and outer space. The deeper separation between the astronauts’ lives in outer space and their earthly rhythms has still not been fully bridged, but astronauts’ bodies are nevertheless no longer subject to the one-way, instrumental domination of engineers and supervisors. This represents an essential step toward making long-distance space travel not only safe, but relatively humane.


  1. “Labour is, first of all…a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature…. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.” Karl Marx,Capital, vol.1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 283.
  2. See Annie Jacobsen,Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (New York: Little, Brown, 2014).
  3. Gilles Clement,Fundamentals of Space Medicine (New York: Springer, 2011).
  4. One dimension of these power relations is the problematization of the female body in outer space. For a discussion, see Christoper Pesterfield, “Cosmofeminism: Challenging Patriarchy in Outer Space,” in Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod, eds.,The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 167–87; Bettyann Kevles,Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space (Boston: MIT Press, 2006). Monica J. Casper and Lisa Jean Moore, “Inscribing Bodies, Inscribing the Future: Gender, Sex and Reproduction in Outer Space,”Sociological Perspectives 38, no. 2 (1995): 311–33.
  5. Robert Phillips,Grappling with Gravity: How Will Life Adapt to Living in Space? (New York: Springer, 2011), 39.
  6. Phillips,Grappling with Gravity, 56.
  7. Kevin Fong,Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin, 2014), 229–30.
  8. Fong,Extreme Medicine, 230.
  9. Fong,Extreme Medicine, 234.
  10. Henri Lefebvre,Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 8.
  11. Though see Erin E. Flynn-Evans et al., “Circadian Misalignment Affects Sleep and Medication Use Before and During Spaceflight,”npj Microgravity 2 (2015); Jin Hu-Guo et al., “Keeping the Right Time in Space: Importance of Circadian Clock and Sleep for Physiology and Performance of Astronauts,”Military Medical Research 1, no. 23 (2014).
  12. Laura K. Berger et al., “Prevalence of Sleep Deficiency and Use of Hypnotic Drugs in Astronauts Before, During, and After Spaceflight: An Observational Study,”Lancet Neurology 13, no. 8 (2014): 904–12.
  13. Andrew Smith,Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (London: Bloomsbury, 2005).
  14. Frank White,The Overview Effect, 2nd ed. (Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1998), 230.
  15. Haris Durani, “Space Crystals and ‘Our Window on the World,'” M.Phil thesis, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 2016.
  16. Smith,Moondust, 347.
  17. Anonymous astronaut quoted in Charles Fishman, “5,200 Days in Space,”Atlantic (January/February 2015): 57.
  18. Anonymous astronaut quoted in Fishman, “5,200 Days in Space,” 57.
  19. Lefebvre,Rhythmanalysis, 76.
  20. Regina Peldzus et al., “The Perfect Boring Situation,”Acta Astronautica 94, no. 1, (2014): 262–76.
  21. Phyllis Johnson, “The Roles of NASA, Astronauts and Their Families in Long Duration Missions,”Acta Astronautica 67, nos. 5–6, (2010): 561–71.
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