How Do Shuttle Astronauts Take the Day Off?

They fly, they dance, they talk to the President.

ByABC News
May 20, 2009, 1:15 PM

May 20, 2009 — -- So what do you do if you're the astronauts of the space shuttle Atlantis, and they give you the day off?

The astronauts have been going full tilt since their launch on May 11. They did five exhausting spacewalks to work on the Hubble Space Telescope. They only released it Tuesday morning.

Wednesday, the tenth day of the flight, they were supposed to rest. But not really.

The truth is, you still work in space, even when you're not supposed to. The Atlantis astronauts still had to configure power systems, keep an eye on the controls, and exercise (not optional, since the heart and legs quickly weaken in weightlessness).

"Most of the days off end up being catch-up for things they fell behind on in the timeline," said Dan Barry, a former astronaut who flew three shuttle missions.

They did a staged ship-to-ship call with the three men on board the International Space Station, flying thousands of miles away in a different orbit. "Spaceflight is great, isn't it?" said Atlantis' commander, Scott Altman, during the conversation.

They also spent an hour talking to reporters in a very-long-distance news conference. And -- just another day in space -- they took a call from President Obama.

"I think you're just providing a wonderful example of the commitment to exploration that represents America and, you know, the space program generally," said the President.

But when they can get real time off, everything changes.

"On my first flight I was glued to the window," said Dr. Barry. "The colors of the Earth, you'll never see in a picture. The blues, the textures, the white of the clouds, the sheer blackness of space -- a camera can't capture that."

Barry's second flight was to the International Space Station, which is far more spacious than the shuttle cabin.

"On the shuttle you can float," he said. "On the space station, you can fly.

"You've been in the simulator, so the place is very familiar to you. So you're not in a new place, you have magic powers."

NASA realized, as long ago as the 1970s, that tired astronauts are inefficient astronauts. One three-man crew on Skylab, America's first space station in 1973, got so annoyed with mission control's unceasing requests for more experiments that they went on strike for a day, sleeping in, taking pictures out the window, and only answering the most urgent calls from Houston.

Ever since, down time has been built into flight plans.

The Atlantis crew has been shooting "crew choice video" -- home movies of themselves in the cabin. In one sequence, transmitted last night, the camera drifts lazily toward the shuttle's airlock -- and astronaut Drew Feustel floats into view, upside down from the camera's point of view.