Space Boredom Busters: Movies, Music, Jokes

Before the International Space Station went into orbit, flight controllers in Mission Control only worked during space shuttle missions, which lasted, at most, two weeks.

But now, because of the space station, the job is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year operation. When a hurricane threatens the Johnson Space Center, Mission Control moves to a motel in the Texas Hill Country, but it doesn't close down.

So yes, it can get a tad tedious monitoring the station for those in Mission Control, and the entertainment options are somewhat limited for station crew as well. Sure, it's fun to be weightless and bounce around turning somersaults, and the view of Earth is great. But the astronauts and cosmonauts are living in a space the size of a three-bedroom home.

They get out a few times for spacewalks. And once or twice during a mission, a space shuttle crew comes calling with goodies from home and fresh conversation.

How do the astronauts and flight controllers fight the boredom? Since the first mission on the space station, movies have been big.

During his time on the station, astronaut Bill Shepherd kept a journal and noted how the crew spent its free time.

"We had some dinner and watch part of 'Frequency.' (Strange movie, although not as strange as 'Usual Suspects,' which we saw last night.)"

Crews also play games. Clay Anderson is nearing the end of his six-month tour of duty on the space station, and the flight controllers are getting used to his sense of humor. He likes to toss out jokes to Mission Control just before his bedtime.

"What's the difference between roast beef and pea soup?"

"What's at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?"

Anderson occasionally stumps everyone on duty, but the group has a pretty good Internet connection and can use Google for quick research.

Flight director Rick LaBrode says his team is always poised for action before each challenge from Anderson.

"We have four or five people ready at their computers, each taking a question," LaBrode said.

Since Anderson is the first astronaut from Nebraska, he has taken the time during the mission, Expedition 15, to educate Mission Control about his home state.

Can you rank these Nebraska cities in order of population?
Fremont. Fullerton. Fort Robinson. Flats. Franklin.

Kirk Shireman, deputy program manager for the space station, admits that, because of Anderson's quizzes, he now knows more about Nebraska than he thought possible. He believes it's important to keep everyone laughing and especially critical when his team is working around-the-clock every day of the year.

The key to keeping people from getting burned out, according to Shireman, is to change things often.

"We are going 24 hours a day and it can be very tiring, so we change the shifts, and let people try different things," he said. "Having the crew onboard the space station telling jokes, and having you guess about songs and movies helps."

Shireman remembers that when astronaut Michael Lopez Alegria was on a spacewalk, he was still playing the movie line game. He doesn't remember the line, but he remembers the movie -- "Caddyshack."

Peggy Whitson will command the space station for the next six months, and because of her time as a crew member on the space station four years ago, she knows it can be tough duty.

"I do think the mental challenge of being there for long periods of time can be more difficult for some than others," Whitson said. "I enjoyed it. I was there for six months before, and it felt like a month and a half, two months tops because it just flew by for me.

"But I know that's not always the case for some people, and recognizing that my attitude as a commander and my perception and how I project that to my crew is really important as the commander on the station."

Whitson instituted movie night on the space station during her first mission and loved the challenge of creating a feast from the dehydrated food in the pantry to make it a special night for the crew.

Dan Tani, who just joined her crew, isn't worried about getting bored.

"We bring a ton of music. ... We load up whatever your music jukebox program is, and photos and we have movies on [the] station," Tani said. "They ship us TV shows, so we can watch our favorite TV shows. They use TiVo and process the files and you can watch them a day later."

Astronaut Suni Williams spent six months earlier this year on the station. She made the most of her time in orbit; she managed to run the Boston Marathon on a treadmill on the space station and followed her beloved Red Sox closely.

She told ABC News that she just pretended she was on a long camping trip.

Williams also played several games with Mission Control. She would toss out song lyrics and make flight controllers guess the song.

She also kept a log of the places over which the shuttle flew.

Cool places we flew over:

  • South America, Peru, Brazil and saw the rain forests. Very dark vegetation.

  • Israel and up to the Euphrates River in Iraq (I think).

Interesting space recipes:

  • Baked cheese, Russian dish made of Tvorg. It is slightly sweet, and I ate it with "cowberry" sauce. Sort of like cranberry sauce. Tasted sort of like cheesecake with fruit on top.

But for Anderson, everything comes back to Nebraska.

What made the following cities famous?
Scottsbluff. Sidney. Schuyler. Shickley.