The 20 Most Unsettling Things That Astronauts Have Experienced In Outer Space

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Depending on how you count them, more than 560 people have traveled into space since the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first-ever orbit of Earth in 1961. And in that almost 70-year period space travelers have seen many strange things – some of which defy explanation. These brave souls have also had their fair share of experiences that would give anybody the chills. So read on to find out about 20 extraordinarily creepy phenomena.

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20. Snakes in space

Dr. Story Musgrave was no ordinary astronaut back in the day. For a start, he has six academic degrees and is the highest qualified man to have entered space. Six, it seems, is a favored number for the man, since he’s also had six space flights – one of the few astronauts to achieve that feat. But what’s truly fascinating about Musgrave is what he’s claimed to have seen when he was in space.

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In a 1994 interview still available on YouTube, Musgrave says, “On two of my missions – and I still don’t have an answer – I have seen a snake out there. Six, seven, eight feet long. It is rubbery because it has internal waves in it, and it follows you for a rather long time. The more you fly in space, the more you see an incredible amount of things out there, and that sort of thing brings to you, really, a certainty that other living creatures are out there.” And you can make of that what you will.

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19. The gray space station that turned orange

Former Italian Air Force pilot Samantha Cristoforetti was the first from her nation to journey into space. Fittingly for an Italian, she was also the first astronaut to brew an espresso in space. In November 2014 she was on board the Soyuz TMA-15M with two colleagues bound for the International Space Station. And it was as her ship approached the station that she reportedly spotted something extremely weird.

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If you look at photographs of the Space Station, you’ll see that it’s predominantly a silvery gray color. But Cristoforetti saw something altogether different. To her, the station was a vivid orange color. As she wrote in a blog post, “The enormous solar panels were inundated with a blaze of orange light – vivid, warm, almost alien.” Yet this was a mystery that was later solved. It’s a rarely seen phenomenon, but when the sun hits the space station’s solar panels in a particular way, an orange hue is cast over the structure.

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18. Space makes you taller

It sounds unlikely, but it turns out to be true: astronauts who spend time on the orbiting International Space Station end up taller than when they left Earth. NASA reckons that a six-month spell on the Space Station results, on average, in a three percent height gain. However, an astronaut’s height increase disappears once he or she gets back home.

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One astronaut appeared to break all records when it came to height gain. In a January 2018 tweet, Japanese national Norishige Kanai announced that he had gained around three and a half inches after just three weeks on the Space Station. That really would have been something. But shortly afterward, he sheepishly withdrew his claim; blaming a measuring error, he corrected the amount of his height gain to less than an inch.

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17. Ghostly green light

Back in 1963 Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. became one of the first Americans to venture into space. He was part of Project Mercury – the first series of manned U.S. space flights. The astronaut was propelled into space on a solo mission aboard the Faith 7 spaceship. Ascending to a maximum height of 165.9 miles, Cooper circled the Earth 22 times in 34 hours. It was an outstanding achievement for its time.

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But when Cooper got back to Earth, it wasn’t what he’d done that brought him notoriety. Rather, it was what he said he’d seen while in space. He reportedly claimed to have observed a circular object emitting green light speeding towards his ship. Fortunately, it didn’t make any contact. But what was it? To this day, the apparition remains unexplained.

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16. Knock, knock – who’s there?

In 2003 Yang Liwei became the first astronaut to travel into space under the auspices of the Chinese space program. A former fighter pilot, Yang was selected as a prospective astronaut in 1998 and, after years of training, finally got his chance to blast off into space aboard a Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. Blasted into space by a Long March 2F rocket in October 2003, he succeeded in orbiting the Earth 14 times.

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But something strange happened during Yang’s flight. In a 2016 article the BBC quoted him as saying that he heard “someone knocking the body of the spaceship just as knocking an iron bucket with a wooden hammer.” Apparently, this sound “neither came from outside nor inside the spaceship.” Yang even peeked out of his capsule window – but saw nothing. And it’s all the more mysterious since, because of the physical properties of space, the only sound that you should hear in it is silence.

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15. Alien bacteria?

A Russian cosmonaut made a startling claim about something he’d found in space in 2017. Anton Shkaplerov made his announcement after his second visit to the International Space Station. And what he said caused quite a stir in the world of space travel – although NASA remained tight-lipped in response.

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Shkaplerov told the Russian news agency TASS in November 2017 that bacteria discovered on the exterior of the Space Station was of extraterrestrial origin. He explained, “And now it turns out that somehow these swabs reveal bacteria that were absent during the launch of the ISS module. That is, they have come from outer space and settled along the external surface.” Sounds more than a little scary – but thankfully the Russian added that the bacteria posed no danger.

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14. It’s all in the genes

Identical twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly have spent lifetimes duplicating each other’s achievements. Both were captains in the U.S. Navy, for instance, and both have spent time on the International Space Station. But when NASA conducted an experiment that involved monitoring the twins’ DNA while Scott was aboard the Space Station and Mark was on Earth, the results were extraordinary.

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Scott arrived back on Earth in March 2016 after 340 days on the Space Station. Yet the results of NASA’s monitoring of him and his brother showed that Scott’s DNA was now markedly different. British newspaper The Daily Telegraph quoted Scott’s reaction: “What? My DNA changed by seven percent. Who knew?! I no longer have to call Mark my identical twin brother anymore.” NASA’s work on understanding what happens to the human body – and its DNA – in space continues.

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13. Clouds of smoke

In 2004 Russian news website Pravda.ru published some eye-catching claims from the cosmonaut Vladimir Kovalyonok. He had spent a total of 217 days in space – including time aboard Soviet Union space stations. The astronaut told the news website, “When I was working at the Salyut orbital station, I saw something strange in a porthole one day. The object was the size of a finger. I was surprised to see it was an orbiting object. It was hard to determine the size and the speed of an object in space.”

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Kovalyonok continued, “That is why I cannot say exactly [what] size it actually was. [My colleague] Savinykh prepared to take a picture of it, but the UFO suddenly exploded. Only clouds of smoke were left. The object split into two interconnected pieces. It was reminiscent of a dumbbell.” And Kovalyonok was certain of what he’d seen, adding, “It was probably a UFO, but it was definitely not mysticism – two people watched it at the same time.”

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12. Mysteries of space fire

One thing that turns out to be different when you’re in space is fire. Light one in Earth’s atmosphere and the process involves hot gases rising from the flames and pulling in oxygen – while exuding the fire’s products. But that’s not what happens when you’re on board a spaceship such as the International Space Station. And for the past decade NASA has been running a program called the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX) aboard the Space Station.

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FLEX researcher Dan Dietrich told the Space.com website in 2011, “In space, molecular diffusion draws oxygen to the flame and combustion products away from the flame at a rate 100 times slower than the buoyant flow on Earth.” Fire has a lower temperature aboard the Space Station and burning the gasoline component heptane produces a weird sphere-shaped flame. Yet scientists say they have much more to learn about fire processes in space.

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11. Was it a UFO?

The Soviet Union’s space program selected Musa Manarov as a cosmonaut in 1978. However, he had to wait another nine years for his chance to get into space. His big day came in 1987 when he flew aboard the Soyuz TM-4 to the Soviet’s MIR space station. Classed as a flight engineer, Manarov spent almost 366 days in space. In 1990 he returned to space for a mission lasting 175 days on MIR. On that first mission, Manarov and his colleague Vladimir Titov also became the first men to spend a year in space.

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But there was a factor apart from a year in space that distinguished Manarov. During his second mission in 1991, you see, Manarov was filming the docking of a spaceship that had traveled to MIR. On camera, he caught a strange object, and you can still see the film online today. The cosmonaut was quoted in Shane McMinn’s 2016 book Conspiracies and Solar Secrets as saying, “It is possible that it was a kind of UFO. We can’t say with any certainty what it was.”

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10. Strange rays

As far back as the first manned flight to the Moon by Apollo 11 in 1969, astronauts have described weird phenomenon. In fact, the two members of the Apollo 11 crew who landed on the Moon – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – both reported strange visuals. These took the form of flashes of light, and what was especially odd was the fact that the flashes were visible even when the astronauts had their eyes shut.

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Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Others also reported this unexplained phenomenon – including crew members of Apollo 12 and Apollo 13. NASA scientists decided they just had to investigate these strange lights, so in later spaceflights researchers conducted experiments to pin down the causes. And it turned out that what the astronauts had seen were cosmic rays penetrating their eyeballs. These rays are high-energy, sub-atomic particles, and we don’t see them on Earth because our atmosphere absorbs them.

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9. What did this astronaut see?

Not only is Christopher Cassidy an astronaut, but he’s also a U.S. Navy SEAL. So he’s a man of formidable qualities. He first ventured into space aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2009, when the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station. On that 16-day mission, Cassidy became the 500th astronaut in space, and he performed three walks there. But it was on his second mission into space in 2013 that he hit world headlines.

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Cassidy said that he’d seen an unidentified object floating past the station when he’d looked through one of the International Space Station’s portholes. He’d reported this weird apparition to Mission Control, too. It was a puzzle – but not for long. In August 2013 NASA reported, “That object has been identified by Russian flight controllers as an antenna cover from the Zvezda service module.” Even so, there are still those convinced that Cassidy had seen a UFO.

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8. Astronauts get a free facelift

Of course, no one in their right mind would go to all the trouble of becoming an astronaut to save on the costs of a facelift. But it turns out that something resembling cosmetic surgery is a natural consequence of spending time in space. Though the process that causes this has some notable downsides, according to Marsha Ivins. The astronaut flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1990 on an 11-day mission.

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Speaking to the Wired website in 2014, Ivins described one of the stranger things that can happen to an astronaut’s body. She said, “Without gravity, bodily fluids move toward your head. It’s a great facelift.” However, there’s another consequence. Ivans added, “As that fluid shifts north, you get an enormous headache.” Fortunately, these symptoms are soon relieved by having a good long pee. So, ultimately, the facelift – and thankfully the headache – are transient.

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Image: Leroy Chiao NASA astronaut

7. A line of mysterious lights

Chinese-American Leroy Chiao is a veteran of no less than four space missions. The first three involved launching into the stars aboard the Space Shuttle. On his fourth mission, though, he flew aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz TMA-5 to be the commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station. That mission in 2004 and 2005 saw Chiao spend more than six months away from Earth. And it was while he was on the International Space Station that Chiao saw something extraordinary.

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Speaking to HuffPost in 2014, Chiao described just what he’d observed, “I saw some lights that seemed to be in a line, and it was almost like an upside-down check mark, and I saw them fly by and thought it was awfully strange.” What did he see? Chiao was cautious in his analysis. He said, “I’m skeptical of claims that we’ve been visited by aliens… but I don’t rule it out 100 percent. I have an open mind, and I do believe there’s other life in the universe.”

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6. Space music

Apollo 10 was the final reconnaissance mission in May 1969 before Apollo 9 took the first men to the Moon the following July. The ship – with John Young, Eugene Cernana and Thomas Stafford aboard – orbited the Moon and tested the Lunar Module without actually landing it. But it was as they orbited the Moon that these astronauts experienced a bizarre phenomenon.

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As their spaceship flew around to the dark side of the Moon – where there was no radio contact with Mission Control – the crew heard something entirely unexpected in their headsets: music. This sound took the form of an eerie whistling. And, apparently spooked by this unearthly sound, NASA kept the noise secret for nearly half a century – until 2016. Then the space agency released recordings of the music that had also been heard on other missions. NASA says all the sounds amounted to were radio interference.

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5. Disappearing legs

We humans, of course, have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live comfortably on the surface of our planet. We are not designed to venture into space, even though our over-sized brains have allowed us to create the technology to do so. The result is that our bodies tend to do some weird things when we do venture out of Earth’s atmosphere. And one of the weirdest involves an astronaut’s legs. That’s because in space they can shrink.

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As NASA notes on its website, “On Earth, our lower body and legs carry our weight. This helps keep our bones and muscles strong. In space, astronauts float. They do not use their legs much. Their lower backs begin to lose strength. Their leg muscles do too. The bones begin to get weak and thin.” And that explains why you often see pictures of astronauts exercising onboard orbiting space stations. With prolonged periods in space, they must work out to maintain their physical strength.

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4. Space fireflies

As the first U.S. citizen to orbit the Earth, John Glenn is one of the best known of American astronauts. Glenn took off on his historic flight aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. In a flight that lasted just a few minutes short of five hours, Glenn succeeded in orbiting Earth three times before splashing down in the Atlantic. This flight was a tremendous achievement of course – but it also created a strange puzzle.

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While he was up in space, Glenn noticed a peculiar phenomenon through the widow of his ship. It seems that unidentified specks of light were floating around the spacecraft – rather like tiny stars. Glenn referred to the mystery particles as “fireflies.” Mission Control worried that the spaceship was malfunctioning or that Glenn might be hallucinating. It was only later during the next American spaceflight in May 1962 that NASA identified the phenomenon as harmless droplets of condensation from the spaceships.

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3. Insomnia in space

One of the strange things that astronauts experience while they are in space is a complete suspension of the normal time parameters that we live with on Earth. For although the times may vary, every day there is daybreak and nightfall wherever you are on the planet – except for the most northerly and southerly regions. And that helps to keep our body clocks functioning efficiently.

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But in space, as you orbit the Earth, the sun goes down and then rises again every 90 minutes. This phenomenon, combined with the visual disruption of cosmic rays, can make regular sleep patterns difficult to maintain. To keep a sense of structured time, then, astronauts abide by something called Coordinated Universal Time. Simply, they do their best to simulate the regular day patterns of us Earth-bound humans.

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2. A beer can in space?

James McDivitt made his first foray into space as commander of the Gemini 4 mission with his co-pilot Ed White in June 1965. The two astronauts orbited the Earth 66 times in a flight that lasted for four days. His second and final flight was on Apollo 9, which tested various systems and equipment in preparation for the manned Moon landing of Apollo 11. But it was on the Gemini 4 flight that McDivitt witnessed something singular.

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In 1999 McDivitt related his experience to the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. The astronaut recalled, “Ed was asleep, and I was doing something in the spacecraft. I looked outside, just glanced up, and there was something out there. It had a geometrical shape similar to a beer can or a pop can, and with a little thing maybe like a pencil or something sticking out of it.” Later, McDivitt was able to identify what he’d seen from photos he took at the time. However, he decided it was nothing more than distorted reflections in the porthole glass.

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1. The clumsy astronaut

We’ve heard about various curious physical manifestations that astronauts experience when they travel in space. But this one relates to what happens to them when they return to the home planet. After a spell in space, you see, people tend to find that their physical co-ordination can be noticeably impaired. That might partly be because they’ve forgotten that objects on Earth don’t float as they do in space.

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Speaking to Wired in 2014, astronaut Marsha Ivins described the actual physical explanation for decreased co-ordination after a space trip. She explained, “Your balance is off, and you have to relearn how to move in a gravity field. If I turned my head, I would fall over. Muscles you haven’t used in weeks have to reengage to help you do everyday stuff like walk, stand and hold things. It can take days or weeks to get your Earth legs back.”

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