Do kids still dream of being astronauts? Nearly 50 years since man first landed on the moon, I guess we all thought space travel would be a lot more common by now.

The truth is, however, despite the efforts of projects like Richard’s Branson’s Virgin Galactic aimed at paying customers, it is still very hard to get off this planet. Only some 550 people have managed it and just 24 have made it out of low Earth orbit. Still fewer, just 12, have walked on the moon.

The fact is, you have to be highly qualified and train long and hard to join the elite ranks of space men and women. Is it worth it? Let’s hear from the astronauts themselves.

“It was hard, it was exciting, it was scary, it was indescribable. And yes, I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

US astronaut Marsha Ivins

Marsha Ivins lets her hair hang up in zero-gravity

American astronaut Marsha Ivins flew on 5 space shuttle missions and spent a total of 55 days in space. In a piece in Wired magazine she gave a visceral insight of what it’s like to ride a rocket into orbit, live life in zero-gravity and return with a bump to Earth.

Perhaps the greatest treasure trove of astronauts’ reports is held by NASA in the Astronaut Journals section of its archive. Here you can find accounts of astronaut training, space shuttle missions and time spent on the International Space Station (ISS).

From the NASA Austronaut Journals, US flight engineer Sandra Magnus describes what is called a night pass over the Earth viewed from the International Space Station.

Flight engineer Sandra Magnus at work in an ISS laboratory.

I am going to try to paint a picture in words of what I saw. Close your eyes and imagine yourself here on ISS with me looking out of the docking compartment window. You are positioned so the Earth is passing by below and you can see the horizon as well with the night sky behind it. Here is what you see:

It is completely night. There are thunderstorms across Africa and lightning is everywhere; bright flashes are going cloud to cloud illuminating the clouds as it arcs from one to the other. It is a private fireworks show. The storm is large and very spread out and at any moment you see 4 or 5 flashes occurring at one time, each one only lasting a moment. The colors range from something orange-ish to blue-white. Some are more like balls of light while others have that characteristic streak shape that you can observe on Earth. It goes on for several minutes.

Occasionally a city goes by with lights shining brightly against the backdrop of flashing pulses of light. The cities come in all shapes, sizes and colors and light patterns. Some cities have clouds over them and all that can be seen is a haze of light. For the cities with clear skies, street patterns are apparent – outlined by streetlights. Some cities have very bright orange lights that stand out as beacons. The thunderstorms have finally passed by but still the Earth remains illuminated as the ISS continues to fly over densely populated areas. Population centers are easy to see at night; there are cities all around. Coastlines go by and you can tell because of the outline in city lights.

This image taken from the ISS in 2016 shows a night pass over Italy, the snow-covered Alps and the Mediterranean Sea

The night sky, the heavens, though is what really catches the eye. Even though the Earth’s horizon is dark, light provided by the clouds and the city lights reflecting off of the clouds, provides enough illumination to discern the difference between the Earth and space. The night sky is inky black against the night horizon of the Earth. In the night sky, though, sparkle uncounted points of light, some white, some red, some orange, all of different sizes. They are everywhere.

The Milky Way is clearly evident. It rises up from behind the Earth like a glowing white path leading off into the distance, inviting you to follow. The stars surrounded the Earth and wrap around her horizon – a blanket of light illustrating that we are not alone. You are swimming in a sea of beautiful lights that can only be seen in the dark. As you gaze at the multitude of points glittering in the night, it is hard to imagine that each one is a world or worlds or stars like our sun. They are so remote and seem so tiny. The vastness of space is truly evident as you watch the Earth turn slowly beneath. It is awe inspiring and overwhelming all at once and oh, so beautiful!

The illumination on the Earth changes depending on whether the Station flies over a city or not, but the inky dark curtain of the night sky remains and the twinkling stars do not change. There are so many. Every now and then it is possible to see a satellite in the distance; a blinking red light moving faster than an airplane and in a higher orbit. They pass by quickly.

You stay at the window spell-bound as you pass by in the night. For that is what the ISS is doing – it is passing through the night, unaffected and untouched, merely observing the play of darkness across the planet. As the terminator approaches the Station catches the sun’s rays first. That is how you know that you approach the dawn. The solar arrays start to glow faintly red, then orange, then bright white as they capture the first light of the sun coming up over the horizon. It is still dark below, even darker, and the night sky, with its twinkling diamonds, disappears as the brightness of the sun reflecting off of the arrays completely erases any other views.

Thus, right before dawn there is total black and as you look out the window it is as if neither the Earth nor the heavens are there. You just exist, floating in an endless sea of black with one bright light, the sun, illuminating the way. Nothing beyond the light exists. It only lasts a moment, though, as the sun rises higher over the nearing horizon. The Earth starts to pick up some of the rays at last and reappears out of the darkness awash in a faint gray color. Drawing closer you can notice that any high clouds in the atmosphere glow orange or red as they too find the morning sun.

It is possible to see the terminator as you cross it. The grey of dawn gives way to the bright blues and whites of day that are so distinctive of our water planet. Looking back in the direction from whence you came, the darkness of night is still noticeable. Only looking forward does the day shine clearly. Soon the night is gone as the Space Station continues on its never-ending trek across the planet. The heavens are now just a dark velvety curtain against the brilliant colors of Earth. No stars are visible. They are there, though, waiting for the night which will come in another 45 minutes or so, to show themselves again.

Major Tom makes a comeback

Colonel Chris Hadfield puts his tomato juggling skills to good use.

Most recently, one of the greatest communicators from space has been the Canadian astronaut with the magnificent moustache, Colonel Chris Hadfield. The first Canadian to do a space walk, Hadfield pushed space to the top of the social media agenda in 2013 with his regular Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube posts from the International Space Station.

To date, Hadfield’s rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity has been viewed 36 million times on YouTube. Even David Bowie himself loved that video but Hadfield had a lot more than that to share. His videos on the Canadian Space Agency YouTube channel cover everything from brushing your teeth in zero-gravity to a description of what happens to each of your five senses on the space station.

Not happy with the idea of Major Tom not making it back, Hadfield revised the song’s lyrics with the help of his son.