How long do we spend in space?

Fresh off the heels of the most recent space movie (The Martian, go see it), I got curious about the kind of data NASA has available for the public. Turns out there’s a lot up for grabs on the NASA website!

The data I found was about Russian and American extravehicular activities (EVAs) from 1965 to 2013. Basically, how much time do our astronauts and cosmonauts typically spend outside? Before doing this I had no idea how long. Turns out it’s pretty long—the median value is almost 6 hours!

In the spirit of starting a new space race, I present some findings broken down by country.

First up: US-led missions tend to be longer than Russian-led ones do.

Don't worry... this is a histogram, not a stacked bar chart. Aggregated since the 60's, the US-of-A tends to spend more time in space than Russia does.
Don’t worry, this is a histogram, not a stacked bar chart. Aggregated since the 60’s, the US-of-A tends to spend more time in space than Russia does.

In addition to having longer EVAs, it looks like the USA runs a lot more of them too. And it seems to have been this way pretty consistently all along.

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Here we have (1) the previous histogram broken down by decade, and (2) the changing length of EVAs over time, smoothed with a quadratic function. The Russian missions came close in the 90s but lost momentum heading into the ’00s.

Breaking down that earlier histogram by date is really cool! You can see the Russians (then Soviets) getting really big about space in the 1980s. Their space momentum (no friction in space, hehe) even carried them through a rocky 1990s, when they were dealing with the fallout from the end of the Cold War and the fall of the USSR. They dropped the ball big-time after the turn of the century though. Maybe their space center had a hard time with Y2K.

The ruins of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a Soviet shuttle program discontinued in 1993.
The ruins of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a Soviet shuttle program discontinued in 1993.

Soviet decline notwithstanding, the US space program really gets going in the 90s. You can see a huge spike in the number of EVAs around that time–maybe coinciding with the ISS launch in 1998? It is strange to see the length of EVAs plateau around then, though. You might think that the ISS would be a great excuse to spend more time outside. Then again, maybe we got more efficient, or maybe there’s only so long someone can work in space before they start to get sloppy. We might be seeing a natural ceiling effect there.

Lastly, in the spirit of astronaut idolatry (hey Buzz, call me), I selected the most prolific spacemen and spacewomen (yep, a grand total of one woman made the cut, check the upper left corner) and plotted them on a chart. You’ll see number of missions on the x-axis and average length of those missions on the y. You’ll also see it split by Country. Booyah.

Russians: more but shorter; USA: fewer but longer.
Russians: more but shorter; USA: fewer but longer.

A pretty cool pattern emerged. The most prolific individual spacefarers are cosmo-, not astro-. The Russian missions were likely working from a smaller pool of people than the American ones. You’ll notice again that the Russian missions tend to be shorter: even the most prolific cosmonauts don’t spend much time outside. This effect is probably the result of most of these heavy-hitting cosmonauts coming from Russia’s 1980s/1990s space heyday, when missions tended to be shorter in general.

Oh, and see Vladimir Solovyov and Leonid Kizim? Eight missions, about 4 hours each? These guys spent 287 days together on the Solyut 7, a Soviet space station, and went on all of their missions together (and therefore had the same average mission time). Leonid has unfortunately passed away and his feelings can’t be hurt, so I subtracted 5 minutes from his average time so that the two of them wouldn’t overlap. Sorry Leo!

Want more data visualization? Check out my previous posts at: https://vizthis.wordpress.com/

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