There was probably a point in your childhood when you proudly declared to anyone who would listen, “I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up.” But unless you earned an advanced engineering degree, passed all the rigorous training tests, happen to have superhuman eyesight, and managed to make it through the flight simulator without puking, that didn’t actually happen.
Although you may not be a spaceman or spacewoman today, you can channel some of that NASA spirit by learning from astronauts’ insanely unconventional, small space lifestyle. The secrets of the International Space Station (ISS) — where crew members from all over the world live for several months at a time — can teach us a lot about how to live in small spaces.
Here are eight of the best small space living ideas derived from articles and videos about ISS, and how you can apply them to your gravity-bound apartment.
1. Streamline your sleeping arrangements.
If you think your bedroom is tiny, get ready for a culture shock. Astronauts do not have real rooms where they can doze in peace. They also don’t have any mattresses, memory foam, or plush pillows to their name. Instead, each one is issued a small sleeping pod with a sleeping bag, which is tied to the wall so it doesn’t float away.
This might seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but it actually makes sense in space. Since you’re in zero gravity, sleeping standing up in a bag doesn’t feel any different from lying down horizontally on a surface. As Internet-famous astronaut Chris Hadfield explains in the video above, you can relax every muscle in your body until you zonk yourself out. Provided you’ve already changed into your PJs, of course.
Now, you can’t pull off this scheme on Earth without some serious back pain. But you can apply this minimalist approach to your own situation:
- Skip the bulky headboards and go for a no-frills frame. Or find a space-saving bed that comes with built-in storage, so you maximize the space.
- Mount shelves above your bed or next to it on the adjacent walls.
- Use your window sill as a nightstand.
- Add bed risers.
These are just a few ideas to get you started, but you will find about 50 more in our list of insanely clever bedroom storage hacks.
2. Downsize your medicine cabinet.
Going to the bathroom is crazy complicated in outer space. As you can see in the above video tour, ISS has a specialty toilet and plenty of different papers and wipes to help astronauts do their business.
But the “bathroom” is cramped to say the least, and doesn’t include a sink or shower — let alone a medicine cabinet. So instead, the astronauts are reduced to a small toiletries kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, combs, brushes, deodorant, and razors. Plus the specially-made-for-space shampoos that require no rinsing and very little water at all.
They can use those products in the “hygiene corner,” seen in the video below. Be grateful you don’t have to clip your fingernails over a grate, like European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti:
We’re not suggesting you ditch your shower, but you can learn a thing or two from this basic setup.
First things first, clean up your medicine cabinet. Go through it and throw out any empty toothpaste tubes, snapped hair ties, or expired mascara. Then get smart about how you’re using your space.
Install an organizer with sliding shelves under the sink. Suction cup your shampoo to the shower wall. Or make a magnetic board for all your makeup. You’ll find those creative tips and more in our collections of 42 brilliant bathroom storage hacks and 16 amazing beauty storage ideas.
3. Learn to exercise in close quarters.
Astronauts are not allowed to be lazy. Exercise is a required part of their daily routine, and for good reason. When you’re constantly floating around rather than walking between rooms, you’re not really engaging your muscles. That kind of inactivity makes them weaken, and can lead to muscle and bone loss.
To stay fit, crew members work out on a very special treadmill called the Colbert treadmill. It’s named after Stephen Colbert because, if you’ll recall, he encouraged Colbert Report viewers to flood NASA’s naming poll in 2009.
This piece of equipment does not have any sort of handle or frame for astronauts to grip. In order to run in the weightless environment, they must strap themselves into a harness before firing up the machine. You can watch astronaut Karen Nyberg run on it in the video above.
But that’s not all. The ISS has two other pieces of exercise equipment: the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) and Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System (CEVIS).
In less scientific terms, the ARED is a weight-lifting machine and the CEVIS is an exercise bike. Watch the ARED in action:
If astronauts managed to sneak three fitness machines onboard a cramped space station, you can store some exercise gear at home, too.
If even the skinniest machine is too large for your apartment, invest in a set of kettlebells for your weight-training needs and a simple exercise mat so you can follow aerobic routines on your TV. Then slide them under your bed or into a closet when they’re not in use.
If you’re big on yoga, Etsy is a goldmine for mat holders and racks. You can also invest in a rolling exercise equipment cart. Or build a custom cabinet to suit your needs.
4. Get smart about grocery shopping.
Probably the most fascinating part of life on the ISS is … space food. You know all about astronaut ice cream and Tang, but that stuff is just the beginning.
In order to keep the crew fed for long periods of time and keep liquids under control, NASA and its international counterparts have to seriously manipulate their meals. In some cases, that means removing all water from the food to conserve weight and make the food rehydratable.
In other cases, that means applying ionizing radiation to the food to keep it from spoiling. The food also has to be slim and lightweight so the crew can stockpile. That’s why most of the containers you see Chris Hadfield handling in the video above look like Capri Sun pouches.
So what lessons can we glean from the ISS kitchen?
Well for one, you probably shouldn’t be buying in bulk. If you have a large family, it’s a necessity. And if you actually have a garage, go for it. But that 30-pack of paper towels is a major space suck that’s hard to justify. Try to stick to the stuff you need in the immediate future, and leave hoarding to these people on A&E.
Shed unnecessary extra packaging, like the boxes your teabags come in, to make spare room in your cabinet. Mount a magnetic strip on the wall for your knives, or a set of hooks for coffee mugs like Monica from Friends. And when in doubt, turn to this list of kitchen storage hacks for more tiny home living tips.
5. Optimize your library.
What does an astronaut do in his/her downtime?
Well, they have plenty of movies to watch to keep themselves entertained. They can catch up with loved ones by calling home through the software on their laptops. They can also turn to the locker filled with paperback books on the ISS to stimulate their minds.
One locker for all their books? That’s a pretty tidy book storage system. You could probably use help organizing your own collection of novels, but you don’t need to acquire a locker to pull this off.
First, consider what books belong in the library donation bin. Know all the recipes in your cookbooks by heart? Have useless old college textbooks collecting dust on your floor? These are prime candidates for the pile. Here are a few more things to consider when deciding what books to keep.
After you’ve downsized your collection, consider where you’re storing your favorite books. You don’t have to buy a bulky freestanding case for them. Instead, get creative with headboards, hallways, and high-perimeter shelving.
If all else fails, you can always go digital with an e-reader.
6. Purge your closet.
There is no place for fashion divas/divos in astronomy. Crew members on the ISS are allowed only a few basic clothes for their stay.
As NASA explains, astronauts typically get about one pair of shorts and one T-shirt for every three days of exercising. Work shirts and pants (or shorts) have to last longer; those are changed every 10 days. Underwear and socks are swapped every other day. There’s also a two-sweater allotment, and Polartec socks for chilly nights.
Astronauts repeat their outfits for as long as they can. But eventually, clothes get dirty and there’s no way to wash them onboard. So when they hit the point of no return, dirty clothes are shot into space with the rest of the ISS garbage.
Luckily, you have access to a washing machine and, hopefully, a closet of your own. Don’t have a closet? Here’s how to live without one.
Either way, you could certainly stand to clear out some clothing. Go with Marie Kondo’s trendy KonMari method of organizing. Consider each item individually, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If it does, it can stay. If it doesn’t, mark it for donation or a garage sale.
7. Ditch the alarm clock.
Alarm clocks are nowhere to be found aboard the ISS. So how do astronauts wake up? Thanks to an assist from the crew back home.
Every morning, the NASA staff on Earth pipes music into the PA system. The track is dedicated to a different astronaut each day, and it’s chosen by a family member or colleague. For instance, one astronaut’s wife selected “Macho Man” for him the morning after a difficult spacewalk.
You can also clear some space on your dresser or bedside table by eliminating alarm clocks from your life. The simplest alternative is to set an alarm on your phone. But if you’d rather not be roused by one of your iPhone’s token tones, you have other options.
If you have Sonos, you can set up an alarm through that wireless system. Just go to Menu, then Alarms, then New Alarm. There you can choose a time, track, volume, and frequency. Just don’t forget to set it for your bedroom, rather than the kitchen or patio. Here’s a guide from Sonos in case you get lost.
Prefer not to rely on any hardware?
You can train yourself to wake up naturally. No really, it’s possible!
You’ll need to track your sleep patterns and then gently wean yourself off an alarm by setting a softer tone and forgoing the snooze button. Here’s how. With practice, you can do it.
8. Or leave the space stuff to the astronauts, and store your stuff in MakeSpace.
There’s a reason only an elite few go to space. Living above Earth is hard work. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get your kitchen to the streamlined standards of ISS. Instead, effortlesly store your spare stuff in MakeSpace.
Simply schedule a pickup and we’ll pick up your appliances, furniture, and paperback novels so you have more space in your home to do whatever you want with.
After we’ve collected your things, we’ll transport them to our secure temperature-controlled storage facility. We’ll also create an online photo catalog of your stuff so you always know what you have in storage.
The best part: When you want something back from storage, simply log into your MakeSpace account, select the item’s photo, and we’ll deliver it to you.
We may not be on the moon yet, but we are in four cities.
Top image via Wikimedia/Michael Edward Fossum