In a cramped and isolated environment like a space station, leisure activities are extra important for maintaining mental health.
This time last year, Drew Feustel was weightless, floating from room to room on the International Space Station. When he looked out a window, the view was stunning. There was Earth, resplendent and gleaming against the inky darkness of space. There, beneath silky tufts of white clouds, was the rest of humanity.
But even in this rarefied environment, Feustel sometimes turned his attention to a pastime familiar to us earthbound workers—plowing through every single season of a hit television show.
When Feustel and I sat down for a recent interview, the disposable cup of coffee I had set down on the conference-room table in front of us caught his eye. He laughed. The cup, he said, reminded him of something that happened on Game of Thrones.
Fans know what I’m talking about. During a scene in this week’s episode, the fourth in the highly anticipated final season of the HBO series, viewers noticed something that clearly did not belong in Westeros: a disposable coffee cup, complete with a cardboard sleeve, right there on the banquet table in front of Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, as she shot knowing looks at Jon Snow, the reluctant King in the North.
Feustel, it turns out, watched seven seasons while he was on the International Space Station.
“People said it might be interesting, and it seems pretty popular down here,” Feustel said. “So I took the time to try to get caught up on all the episodes and see what all the fuss about—and enjoyed it.”
This caught me off guard. I’d met with Feustel to talk about his work as an astronaut for NASA, like whether he felt nervous repairing the Hubble telescope, with nothing but a spacesuit between him and the vacuum of space. What spacewalking feels like, and whether he’s had any close calls. How he adjusted to Earth again after six months, and whether his eyeballs became a little squished, a weird but common phenomenon in people who spend a long time in space, where fluid in the skull, freed from gravity, floats and pushes against the back of the eye. You know, otherworldly stuff, not meme-worthy continuity errors.
Sure, it felt like everyone on the planet was talking about Game of Thrones this week, but Feustel isn’t exactly everyone else. In the United States, astronauts are treated like celebrities, even national treasures. Feustel looked the part, dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit with mission patches embroidered across the chest and shoulders, including the NASA’s instantly recognizable logo. It was easy to forget that Feustel, like all astronauts, is just a regular guy, and that astronauts do regular-people things, like binge-watch TV shows. They just do it in space.
It’s not only Game of Thrones. Astronauts watch all kinds of entertainment on the ISS, from TV shows and films to sporting events and cable news, usually on their laptops. (Feustel’s favorite was car races, like Formula One.) On Saturday nights, the crew might watch a movie together on a 65-inch screen that wasinstalled in 2015. Earlier this week, they watched Star Wars in honor of May 4, the unofficial holiday of the franchise. The station is stocked with DVDs, and astronauts can request more in regular cargo deliveries, if there’s room. But most of the media is beamed up as digital files.
“Space-station crew members request whatever programming they would like to see, and mission control arranges for those television shows to be uplinked to them on their [laptops],” explains Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson. “The connection is quick. Essentially the delay is not any different than the TV broadcast in your house.”
This doesn’t mean astronauts are sitting around the space station watching sitcoms until their fingers are caked in Cheeto dust and the screen goes black and asks, rather judgmentally, “Are you still watching?” Astronaut days are packed. They work regular weekday hours, and spend Saturdays doing housekeeping chores like vacuuming. They work out for two hours every day so that their muscles and bones, relieved of the responsibility of bearing their weight, don’t atrophy. Exercise is primetime for entertainment consumption; astronauts can watch something on small screens while on the treadmill or stationary bike.
Unlike for many of us, binging TV shows is actually crucial to astronauts’ mental health. Any leisure activity is, really. Board games, music, movies—these provide comfort and distraction in a pretty challenging environment. International Space Station is slightly bigger than a six-bedroom house. For six months, astronauts sleep strapped into their beds, bathe with water from plastic pouches, and eat freeze-dried food. There are no sounds of nature, no wind in their hair, no sunlight to warm their skin. And they hang out with the same people, day in and day out.
“We don’t have that many places to go. There’s only so many modules you can float into to get away or experience something different,” Feustel said. “We see the same walls every day unless we go outside for a spacewalk, which is pretty rare. When you’re six people separated from 7 billion people, you like to have things in space that keep you connected to Earth.”
For most of spaceflight history, astronauts have been roughing it in cramped quarters and dangerous conditions. Movies like Apollo 13 portrayed space exploration as a high-stakes, nail-biting endeavor. At times that’s still true—an empty SpaceX spacecraft designed to someday carry astronauts blew up just last month—but these days most space travel is more routine. The International Space Station is a spaceship, but it’s also a home. Astronauts are spending more time on the station than ever before. The longer they’re cooped up, the more important maintaining their wellbeing becomes. You can bet a spaceship bound for Mars will come fully stocked with enough hours of entertainment to keep space travelers from strangling each other during the seven-month trip there.
Feustel, who returned to Earth in October, hasn’t watched the latest Thrones season. He doesn’t subscribe to HBO, and mission control can’t help with that. Feustel won’t get to see the random cup on the banquet table; HBO producers digitally erased the interloper from the scene a few days after it aired. But at least when Feustel sits down to watch, he won’t have to strap himself down so he doesn’t float away.
“Hopefully, I’ll get caught up,” he said.