“You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete, but they want to make sure you’re healthy enough to do your job,” says Massimino. “I was in the best shape of my life before my two flights.”In the week leading up to a launch, NASA keeps its astronauts in quarantine to avoid sending any germs to orbit. The ISS is sealed, so a sick astronaut could quickly turn the world’s most advanced laboratory into a petri dish.
Once in space, NASA astronauts are expected to exercise for two hours a day, six days a week on the ISS. But designing a zero-gravity gym was no small engineering challenging, says Massimino. You can’t just hit the bench press and pump iron, because in microgravity you can lift “600 pounds with the tip of your finger.”
It’s a far cry from the spacious beds we have on Earth, but it’s still better than the shared sleeping compartment on the space shuttle, which Mike Massimino , a former NASA astronaut, describes as “a big slumber party.” The trick, Massimino says, was to remember to strap your sleeping bag to the wall so your body wouldn’t drift around during the night.
So NASA developed special resistance-training devices that simulate weight lifting and hold an astronaut in place as they run on the treadmill or take a spin on the stationary bike. “We have astronauts coming back in better shape than when they left sometimes,” he adds.
If an astronaut does fall ill while on the space station, there’s always at least two fellow astronauts who are trained as medical officers, which Massimino says is not so different from becoming an EMT. In the event of an accident, a robust first-aid kit on the space station has enough medical supplies to treat minor wounds. But a major invasive surgery just isn’t practical. “If someone needed that, they would deorbit” and be taken home, the astronaut explains. “It’s easier to do that.”
So far, no medical incident has warranted deorbiting an astronaut. But as NASA fleshes out its plans to establish permanent, off-world bases on the moon and Mars, it will have to grapple with the prospect of performing serious medical procedures out there. For now, though, Massimino says astronauts can rest easy knowing they have access to some of the best medical treatments money can buy—even when they’re hundreds of miles away from Earth.
For more about staying fit in orbit and some pro tips for puking in microgravity, check out the video above.
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