If you want more data on life support than you know what to do with, try reading this NASA pdf document. Otherwise, read on.
For some great notes on spacecraft life support, read Rick Robinson's Rocketpunk Manifesto essay.
As a very rough rule of thumb: one human will need an amount of mass/volume equal to his berthing space for three months of consumables (water, air, food). This was figured with data from submarines, ISS, and Biosphere II. Of course this can be reduced a bit with hydroponics and a closed ecological system. This also makes an attractive option out of freezing one's passengers in cryogenic suspended animation.
Eric Rozier has an on-line calculator that will assist with calculating consumables.
Ken Burnsides and Eric Henry found the following information.
Assume that each person has a reserve of 10 liters of water, and somewhere between 0.1 and 0.25 liters of water per day to make up for reclamation losses. (Eric used 0.1, Ken used 0.25 mostly due to having worked in a sewage treatment plant)
There are two methods of cracking CO2 into C and O2: low energy and high energy.
Low energy requires prohibitive amounts of biomass in plants. Data from Biosphere II indicate roughly seven tons of plant life per person per day, with a need for roughly 4 days for a complete plant aspiration cycle, so call it 25 to 30 tons of plant per crewman. With an average density of 0.5, each ton of greenhouse takes up about 2 cubic meters (m3).
High energy methods take up much less space, but (as the name implies) requires inconveniently large amounts of energy. It also results in lots of messy by-products and waste heat. Practically, it is easier to flush the CO2 instead of cracking it, and instead bringing along an extra supply of water to crack for oxygen. Water is universally useful with a multitude of handy applications, and takes less energy to crack than CO2.
For future Mars missions, it has been suggested that the life support system should utilize the Sabatier Reaction. This takes in CO2 and hydrogen, and produces water and methane. The water can split by electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen, with the oxygen used for breathing and the hydrogen used for another batch of CO2. Unfortunately the methane accumulates, and its production eventually uses up all the hydrogen. The reaction does require one atmosphere of pressure, a temperature of about 300°, and a catalyst of nickel or ruthenium on alumina.
According to NASA, each astronaut consumes approximately 0.8 kilograms (0.560 cubic meters) of oxygen per day. As a point of reference, a SCUBA tank is pressurized to about 250 bar i.e., 250 times atmospheric pressure. At that pressure, one person day of oxygen takes up about 0.00224 cubic meters.
Stored as liquid oxygen, 0.8 kilograms would take up about 0.0007 cubic meters. This requires extra mass for the cryogenic equipment to keep the oxygen liquid, but the volume savings are impressive.
So as far as pure oxygen goes, you take 0.8 kg for one person-day of oxygen, muliply it by the number of crewbeings on the ship, and then muliply it by the number of days in a standard mission (i.e., desired "endurance time" or time between supply stops) to discover the total oxygen mass requirement. Repeat with the volume figure for the total oxygen volume requirement.You'd be wise to add an additional reserve of about 25% to take account of pressurization of the hull, loss due to various mishaps, and general military paranoia.
However, this is just pure oxygen. This is insanely dangerous to use as the ship's atmosphere, the accident that killed the Apollo 1 crew proved that. In practice one uses a "breathing mix" of oxygen and another gas.
The Space Shuttle uses a 79% nitrogen/21% oxygen mix at atmospheric pressure (14.7 psi or 760 mm Hg). The shuttle space suits use 4.3 psi of pure oxygen, which means they have to prebreath pure oxygen while suiting up, or the bends will strike. Setting up the optimal breathable atmosphere is complicated.
For emergency use, it would be wise to pack away a few Oxygen Candles. These are composed of a compound of sodium chlorate and iron. When ignited, they smolder at about 600°C, producing iron oxide (rust), sodium chloride (salt), and approximately 6.5 man-hours of oxygen per kilogram of candle. Molecular Product's Chlorate Candle 33 masses 12.2 kilos, cylindrical can dimensions of 16 cm diameter x 29 height, burns for 50 minutes, and produces 3400 liters of oxygen.
For food, Eric and Ken ran numbers from the USS Wyoming.
150 man crew, 90 day cruise, 31,500 kg of food (9,000 kg frozen, 18,000 kg dry, 4,500 kg fresh). This is about 2.3 kg of food per man per day.
Frozen meat has a density of about 0.35 and 0.4 (which Ken determined experimentally with a kilo of frozen meat in a 2 liter pitcher in his sink). Frozen veggies were less, so split the difference and use 0.375. 9,000 kg takes up 24,000 liters.
Fresh foods have a density of roughly 0.25, due to air packed around the food by the packaging. 4,500 kg takes up 18,000 liters.
Dry and canned goods range from densities of 0.25 for flour and bread and 1.0 for canned goods. Split the difference and use 0.5. 18,000 kilos takes up 36,000 liters.
Total volume is 78,000 liters, or 78 cubic meters of food (1000 liters = 1 m3). Assume that we're off on our calculations and round up to 80 m3 as a reserve.
Storage, including refrigeration wastage is usually three times the space, but the Navy has a tradition of doing things in amazingly tight quarters. So we will merely double it, for 160 m3 to store our food.
Add about 1000 liters of water (water for 150 crew for 90 days, plus a reserve) which of course masses 1000 kg.
Add about 3,500 liters of compressed air (0.2 liters per person per day for 90 days, plus a reserve for general pressurization and a 20% safety margin) which masses 1050 kg.
Together air and water add about 5 m3.
There are alternate figures on life support in this pdf document. It specifies the daily requirements of consumables per person as: 0.83 kg Oxygen, 0.62 kg freeze dried food (which would increase to 2.48 kg when the water was added), 3.56 kg water for drinking and food preparation, and 26.0 kg water for hygiene, flushing, laundry, dishes, and related matters. Note that the value for hygiene water is somewhat dependent on technology - if you have sonic showers and the like the requirements may be less.
William Seney notes that the NC State document specify oxygen consumption figures differ considerably from Eric and Ken's estimate. If we assume their value should be 48L per HOUR instead of per DAY (1.38 kg / day) it is much closer.
When the body uses glucose the reaction is:
C6H12O6 + 6 O2 => 6 CO2 + 6 H2O
so a slight excess of water is produced. According to the NC State document this works out to about 0.39L per person per day, which may be enough to replace losses.
For a real Spartan bare-minimum cruise, you can probably use a figure of one m3 per person per day. But this would not be recommended for a cruise of longer than 20 to 30 days. Morale will suffer.
The bare-minimum of consumables mass looks like 0.98 kg water, 2.3 kg food, and 0.0576 kg air per person per day. About 3.3 kg total, round it up to 4. People actually need 2.72 kg of water, but since food is 75% water, it contains an additional 1.72 kgs.
Our 90 day cruise now has about 165 m3 of bare essentials. Put in niceties like better cooking gear, spare clothing, toilet paper, video games, soda, luxury goods, and you are probably getting close to 240 m3. That will fit in a sphere 8 meters in diameter (about 25 feet).
A useful accounting device is the "man-day" or "person-day". If your ship has 30 person-days of food and oxygen, it can support: 30 persons for 1 day (30 / 30 = 1), 15 persons for 2 days (30 / 15 = 2), 3 persons for 10 days (30 / 3 = 10), or one person for 30 days (30 / 1 = 30). By the same math, a ship with 30 person-days of supplies facing a 10 day mission could support 3 persons (30 / 10 = 3).
So if the exploration ship Arrow-Back becomes marooned in the trackless wastes of unexplored space and is listed as having 20 person-weeks of life support, it makes it really easy for Mr. Selfish to do the arithmetic and figure that he will survive for twenty weeks instead of one if he murders the other 19 crew members. More democratically, if the rescue ship will arrive in 8 days (1.14 weeks), one can calculate that the supplies will stretch for an extra day with 17 crew members (20 / 1.14 = 17.5, round down to 17). The crew draws straws, and the unlucky two who get the short straws have the opportunity to heroically sacrifice themselves so that the rest of the crew may live.
If the spacecraft has no artificial gravity, you'd better include lots of spices and hot sauce. As the body's internal fluids change their balance, crewmembers will get the equivalent of stuffy noses. This will decrease the sense of taste. Food will taste bland like it does when you have a head cold, and for the same reason.
You'll need more space if you want to include hydroponics for fresh veggies. Roughly 800 liters of hydroponics per person per 'green meal' per week. This also helps CO2 scrubbing and crew moral. About 20 m3 per 25 men, or 120 m3 for our 150 man crew. 3 green meals per week takes about 600 m3.
In THE MILLENNIAL PROJECT, Marshall Savage sings the praises of Spirulina algae. However, you'd best take the following with a grain of salt. There is often a long distance between the ideal and the real.
Anyway, Spirulina is apparently almost the perfect food, nutritional wise. A pity it tastes like green slime (though Savage maintains that genetic engineering can change the flavor). Spirulina is highly digestible since it contains no cellulose. It is 65% protein by weight and contains all eight essential amino acids in quantities equivalent to meat and milk. It also has almost all the vitamins, with the glaring exception of vitamin C (I guess rocketmen will become "limeys" again). It is also a little sparse on carbohydrates. Savage calculates that it will be possible to achieve production rates of 100 grams (dry weight) of algae per liter of water per day. It breaks down 6 liters of algae water per person, supplying both food and oxygen, while consuming sunlight (or grow-lights), CO2 and sewage. 6 liters of algae water will produce 600 grams of "food" (540 grams is 2500 calories, an average daily food requirement), 600 liters of oxygen, and consume 720 liters of CO2 and an unspecified amount of nutrient salts extracted from sewage. Since food is generally 75% water, 600 grams of dry food will convert into about 2.4 kg of moist food, which compares favorably with the 2.3 kg on the USS Wyoming.
NASA commissioned a study (PDF file) back in 1988 to determine how difficult it would be to cultivate Spirulina as part of a closed ecological life support system.
Dr. John Schilling mentions a possible pitfall:
There are other things you have to be mindful of when cultivating Spirulina. From the Swedish Medical Center:
SF writers with an evil turn of mind will see some interesting plot possibilites in these facts. The ship's food supply could become contaminated by an incompetent repair of the algae system utilizing lead pipes, an algae culture supplier with poor quality control, or deliberate sabotage.
The advantage of algae is that it can theoretically form a closed ecological cycle. This means that 6 liters of algae water, one human, some equipment, and sunlight can keep the human supplied with food and oxygen forever. Theoretically, of course. 0.006 m3 per person compared to 90 m3 per person is a strong argument for lots of green slime dinners for enlisted Solar Guard rocketmen. (Astro once said "I've been eating those synthetic concentrates so long my stomach thinks I've been turned into a test tube") Of course the Biosphere II fiasco shows how far we are from actually achieving a closed ecological cycle. Don't forget the 0.25 liters of water per person per day to make up for reclamation losses.
William Seney points out that as a luxury, some of the algae can be diverted to feed fish such as carp, catfish or tilapia for an occasional treat.
And you'd better keep the algae tanks far from the atomic drive. The last thing you want is for the little green darlings to mutate into something you can't eat. Or worse: something that is really inefficient at producing oxygen.
Christopher Huff begs to differ:
There were some figures in a report on a cruder life-support set up written in 1953. This used Chlorella algae, which isn't quite as good as Spirulina since it has an indigestible cellulose cell wall. The figures assume a Chlorella culture density of 55 grams per liter of water and a daily yield of 2.5 grams per liter. Savage's 100 grams per liter sounds a little optimistic, and 2.5 sounds a little pessimistic. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
At a yield of 2.5 g/l, to provide one rocketeer with 500 grams of food (instead of Savage's 600 grams) will require 200 liters of algae culture.
Urine is passed through an absorption tube to remove excess salt (which would kill the algae) but retaining urea and other nitrogen compounds the algae needs. Faeces are irradiated with ultraviolet to kill all bacteria and added to the urine. This is fed to the main algae tank along with pressurized carbon dioxide (previously removed from the air with calcium oxide). A pump sends a flow of algae culture to the growth trays under filtered sunlight. The culture then passes through a centrifugal separator on its way back to the main tank. The separator performs two functions:  removing excess gas to maintain a pressure equilibrium with the carbon dioxide injection and  periodically harvesting algae for food. Harvest will occur once a day, extracting 500 grams of algae from nine liters of culture per person. The pump will be controlled such that the algae on the average will experience two minutes of sunlight then three minutes in the darkness of the main tank before it starts the cycle anew.
A fresh batch of urine and faeces is added immediately after algae harvest, to give the algae twenty four hours to consume it. So by next harvest there is no human excretions contaminating the food (you hope).
Now for the answer you've been waiting for. Dr. Bowman estimates that the equipment will mass approximately 50 kg, plus 200 kg per man for algae culture. Since the equipment is such a small fraction of the total, mass savings depend upon getting the algae yield higher than 2.5 g/l. Such as Savage's 100 g/l Spirulina with 6 kg per man of algae culture.
Dr. Bowman points out that when one compares an algae system with merely stocking crates of food, the break-even point occurs at a mission of 145 days (about five months). Below this time it takes less mass to bring crates of food, as the mission duration rises above 145 days the algae tanks get more and more attractive.
You can find more interesting reading on the topic of life support here.
In NASA jargon, a closed environment life support system based on algae is called a "yoghurt box", one based on hydroponic leafy plants is called a "salad machine", and one based on a fish farm is called a "sushi maker".
How much does the equipment mass? Savage is a little sparse on details there. Waste products from the astronaut's septic tanks are run through a "Supercritical water oxidation" unit that burns everything into simple oxidized chemicals (like carbon dioxide, water, and nitrous oxide) and some mineral ash. The appropriate chemicals are fed to the Spirulina., which multiplies in meters of transparent tubes run under filtered sunlight. Filtered because raw sunlight in outer space is quite deadly to algae, and it isn't too healthy for humans either. Anyway I could find no figures on the mass of a SWO unit or the rest.
How does the SWO unit work?
There is more information on SWO units here. The first reference describes a facility with a volume of just over 20 cubic metres that can process 7.5L per minute, more than enough for a crew of 300. (30L/person/day - 20 hours a day). Thanks to William Seney for these link.
General Atomics has some developed some SWO units for waste disposal.
Other SF novels have suggested vats of yeast or tissue cultures of meat ("carniculture") to supplement food supplies. But unless they can re-cycle wastes from the crew, it seems more efficient to just carry more boxed food. Currently scientist can only grow tissue cultures as a single sheet of cells, making them thicker will require figuring out how to make them grow blood vessels to nourish all the cells. But some technicians figure that they can grow lots of meat cell sheets, then laminate the sheet layers together to approximate a slab of meat.
If you are trying a closed cycle with tissue cultures, you will have to deal with the problem of the Food Chain. Typically each higher level of the pyramid has one-tenth the biomass of the one below, for reasons you can read about in the link. What this means is that you will have to feed ten meals worth of algae to the meat tissue culture in order to produce one meal worth of meat. Even on Terra, this is the reason why meat is more expensive than vegetables.
Obviously the food chain effect also applies to diverting some of the algae to fatten up some fish as a special meal.
"Chicken Little" is a chicken breast meat tissue culture.
A shmoo is a fictional cartoon creature created by Al Capp, they first appeared in his classic comic strip Li'l Abner in 1948. Shmoos were prolific, required no food (only air), are delicious and nutritious, have no bones or other waste, and are eager to be eaten. (Ironically, they are the greatest menance to humanity ever known. Not because they are bad, but because they are good.)
Oddly enough, shmoos share many common traits with one-celled yeast. Yeast even looks a little like a shmoo. When a yeast cell senses the mating pheromone, it initiate polarized growth towards the mating partner, creating the characteristic outline of a shmoo. The process is called "shmooing", which shows that biologists have a sense of humor. As to the matter of the deliciousness of yeast, see the exerpt from Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus below.
This brings up the question of how to use a toilet in free fall. I'm not going to go into the distasteful details, suffice it to say that "there ain't no graceful way".
Naoto Kimura mentioned that "Oh-gee Whiz" would be a good brandname for space toilet.
Bath and showers are very difficult in free fall. The crew will probably be reduced to sponge-baths or maybe a shower while zipped up in a bag. In Robert Silverberg's 1968 novel World's Fair 1992 he mentions "sonic showers" which use sound waves to remove dirt with no water required. And in Andre Norton's space novels, the bathing room is called the "fresher".
People who have gone camping are familiar with how surprisingly difficult it is to keep clean in the absence of running water. As do city-folk living in houses near a water main break who have to make do without tap water for a few days. You tend to take for granted the luxury of accessing unlimited amounts of water out of the faucet. In the space environment, water is strictly limited, and what water there is performs poorly as a cleansing agent in free fall.
On a Soviet space station, Tanya freshens up.
Keeping the habitat module clean is also a challenge. Water is limited, water does not clean things very well in free fall, and the limited atmosphere prevents one from using any alternate cleanser that it toxic or has a disagreeable odor.
And as mentioned elsewhere, any free floating garbage tends to accumulate on the air-intake vents. The vents on the Skylab space station quickly became quite disgusting with random bits of rotting food and dust particles.
The ability to put crew members to sleep for months at a time would be an awfully convenient thing to have. Such crew members would use air and food at a much reduced rate and would not be prey to interplanetary cabin fever or space cafard.
Hibernation or "cold-sleep" would mimic what bears and squirrels do in the winter. The crewmember would sleep and breath slowly. Food would be administered by an intravenous pump or the body's internal fat could be used. The crew member still ages, abet at a slighly slower rate.
Suspended animation, cryo-freeze, or cryogenic suspension is more extreme. The crewmember is frozen solid in liquid nitrogen. They do not breath, eat, nor age. Special techniques must be used to prevent the ice in the body's cells from freezing into tiny jagged knives shredding the organs. This is naturally more dangerous than mere hibernation. It is generally used for slower-than-light interstellar exploration, or to put a crewmember with an acute medical condition into stasis if the ship cannot arrive at a hospital for some months.
Hibernation was shown in the movies Alien, 2001, and 2010. In William Tedford's Silent Galaxy AKA Battlefields of Silence, interplanetary fighter pilots would sometimes find themselves out of fuel and on trajectories that would take years to return to a spot where they could be rescued. They would use hibernation to stretch their consumables and to sleep the time away.
Poul Anderson noted that there is probably a limit to how long a human will remain viable in cryogenic suspension (in other words they have a shelf-life). Naturally occuring radioactive atoms in the body will cause damage. In a non-suspended person such damage is repaired, but in a suspended person it just accumulates. He's talking about this damage happening over suspensions lasting several hundred years, during interstellar trips. This may require one to periodically thaw out crew members and keep them awake for long enough to heal the damage before re-freezing them.
Hibernation and suspension is often encountered in SF novels where large numbers of people have to be shipped, e.g., troop carriers, slave ships, and undesirable persons shipped off as involuntary colonists to some miserable planetary colony. Some passenger liners will have accomodations of First-class, Second-class, and Freeze-class (instead of Steerage). There is often a chance of mortality associated with hibernation and suspension. In some of the crasser passenger ships there will sometimes be a betting pool, placing bets on the number of freeze-class passengers who don't make it.
Meteors are probably nothing to worry about. On average a spacecraft will have to wait for a couple of million years to be hit by a meteor larger than a grain of sand. But if you insist, there are a couple of precautions one can take.
For larger ones, use radar. It is surprisingly simple. For complicated reasons that I'm sure you can figure out for yourself, a meteor on a collision course will maintain a constant bearing (it's a geometric matter of similar triangles). So if the radar sees an object whose bearing doesn't change, but whose range is decreasing, it knows that You Have A Problem. (This happens on Earth as well. If you are racing a freight train to cross an intersection, and the image of the front of the train stays on one spot on your windshield, you know that you and the engine will reach the intersection simultaneously. This example was from Heinlein's ROCKET SHIP GALILEO.)
(Ken Burnside used this concept in his starship combat game Attack Vector: Tactical. From the point-of-view of the target, the incoming missile will hit if it stays on one bearing and does not move laterally. So a game aid called a ShellStar is used to detect the presence of lateral motion.)
The solution is simple as well, burn the engine a second or two in any direction (That was from Heinlein's SPACE CADET). One can make an hard-wired link between the radar and the engines, but it might be a good idea to have it sound an alarm first. This will give the crew a second to grab a hand-hold. You did install hand-holds on all the walls, didn't you? And require the crew to strap themselves into their bunks while sleeping.
What if the meteor hits the ship and punctures the hull? An instrument called a Manometer will register a sudden loss of pressure and trigger an alarm. Life support will start high-pressure flood of oxygen, and release some bubbles. The bubbles will rush to the breach, pointing them out to the crew. The crew will grab an emergency hull patch (thoughtfully affixed near all external hull walls) and seal the breach. A more advanced alternative to bubbles are "plug-ups" or "tag-alongs". These are plastic bubbles full of helium and liquid sealing plastic. The helium is enough to give them neutral buoyancy, so they have no strong tendency to rise or sink. They fly to the breach, pop, and plug it with quick setting goo. Much to the relief of the crew caught in the same room with the breach when the automatic bulkheads slammed shut.
Now you have some breathing space to break out the arc welder and apply a proper patch.
The emergency hull patches are metal discs. They look like saucepan covers with a rubber flange around the edge. They will handle a breach up to six inches in diameter. Never slap them over the breach, place it on the hull next to the breach and slide it over. Once over the breach, air pressure will hold it in place until you can make more permanent repairs.
Assuming Terra-normal pressure and density inside, and zero pressure outside, the effective speed of the air whistling out the breach works out to a smidgen under 400 m/sec. Veteran rocketeers, vacationing on Terra, tend to have a momentary panic if they feel the wind. Their instincts tell them there is a hull breach.
∂m/∂t = A * sqrt( 2 * P * rho )
- ∂m/∂t = the rate (mass per unit time) at which air leaks into vacuum
- A = Area of the hole it's leaking through
- P = Pressure inside the room far from the hole
- rho = density inside the room far from the hole
More simply, assuming Terra-normal pressure and density,
whooshTime = ( gaspFactor * vol) / holeArea
- gaspFactor = 1.4 for 80% pressure, 4.3 for 50% pressure, 29 for 1% pressure.
- whooshTime = time for cabin pressure to drop to specified fraction of
- initial value (seconds)
- vol = volume of air in the cabin (yards3)
- holeArea = area of the breach (inch2)
(equation from GURPS:Lensman)
So if a posh passenger cabin of 20 cubic yards has a one square inch hole blown in the bulkhead by a wayward meteor, the inhabitants have an entire 86 seconds (about a minute and a half) before the atmospheric pressure drops to one-half.
Somebody in a space suit doesn't have that kind of time. The suit has a volume of approximately 0.03 cubic yards. A hole a quarter inch in diameter has a hole area of 0.05 square inches. As long as the suit's air tanks can keep up the loss the pressure won't drop. But once the tanks are empty, the pressure will drop by one-half in a mere 2.4 seconds.
Does this mean that crewpeople in a combat spacecraft will do their fighting in space suits? Probably not, for the same reason that crewpeople in combat submarines do not do their fighting while wearing scuba gear. The gear is bulky, confining, and tiring to wear. They will not wear it even though in both cases the vessel is surrounded by stuff you cannot breath.
Instead, the ship's pressurized inhabitable section will be divided into individual sections by bulkheads, and the connecting airtight hatches will be shut. The air pressure might be lowered a bit.
You can see why some spacecraft opt for an internal atmosphere with lower than Terra-normal pressure, increasing the percentage of oxygen to compensate. The lower the pressure, the slower the air will escape through a meteor hole. NASA uses Terra-normal pressure (14.7 psi) inside the Space Shuttle, but only 0.29 pressure (4.5 psi) with pure oxygen in the space suits. According to NASA, an astronaut wearing a Shuttle space suit can survive 22 minutes with a 1/8" hole.
This does raise a new problem. There is a chance that the high-oxygen atmosphere will allow a meteor to ignite a fire inside the suit. There isn't a lot of research on this, but NASA seems to think that the main hazard is a fire enlarging the diameter of the breach, not an astronaut-shaped ball of flame.
The increased fire risk is one reason why NASA isn't fond of low-pressure/high oxygen atmospheres in the spacecraft proper. There are other problems as well, the impossibility of air-cooling electronic components and the risk of long-term health problems being two.Setting up the optimal breathable atmosphere is complicated.
A more annoying than serious problem with low pressure atmospheres is the fact that they preclude hot beverages and soups. It is impossible to heat water to a temperature higher than the local boiling point. And the lower the pressure, the lower the boiling point. You may have seen references to this in the directions on certain packaged foods, the "high altitude" directions. The temperature can be increased if one uses a pressure cooker, but safety inspectors might ask if it is worth having a potentially explosive device onboard a spacecraft just so you can have hot coffee.
Decompression sickness (also known as DCS, divers' disease, the bends or caisson disease) is one of the more hideous dangers of living in space.
It occurs when a person has been breathing an atmosphere containing inert gases (generally nitrogen or helium) and they move into an environment with lower pressure. This is commonly when they put on a soft space suit or the room suffers an explosive decompression.
It has all sorts of nasty effects, ranging from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death. The large joints can suffer deep pain from mild to excruciating. Skin can itch, feel like tiny insects are crawling all over, mottling or marbling, swell, and/or suffer pitting edema. The brain can have sudden mood or behavior changes, confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, seizures, and unconsciousness. The legs can become paralyzed. Headache, fatigue, malaise, loss of balance, vertigo, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, hearing loss, shortness of breath, and urinary or fecal incontinence: the list just goes on and on.
Why does it happen? Well, imagine a can of your favorite carbonated soda beverage. Shake it up, and nothing happens. But when you open it, the soda explodes into foam and sprays everywhere. When you open the container of shaken soda, you lower the pressure on the soda fluid. This allows all the dissolved carbon dioxide in the soda to un-dissolve, creating zillions of carbon dioxide bubbles, forming a foam.
Now imagine that the carbon dioxide is nitrogen, the drink is the poor astronaut's blood in their circulatory system, and the foam is the deadly arterial gas embolisms. That's what causes the bends.
Please note that sometimes the bends can occur if one moves from one habitat to another that has the same pressure, but a different ratio of breathing mix (the technical term is "Isobaric counterdiffusion"). Spacecraft of different nations or models could use different breathing mixes, beware. In fact, rival astromilitaries might deliberately utilize odd-ball breathing mixes, to make life difficult for enemy boarding parties invading their ships.
The bends can be prevented by slow decompression, and by prebreathing. Or by breathing an atmosphere containing no inert gases. Slow decompression works great for deep-sea divers but NASA does not favor it for space flight. An atmosphere with no inert gases (pure oxygen) is an insane fire risk. NASA does not allow a pure oxygen atmosphere in spacecraft and space stations, but will allow it in space suit (in a desperate attempt to lower the suit pressure to the point where the astronaut can move their limbs instead of being trapped into a posture like a star-fish).
So NASA astronauts do a lot of prebreathing. This flushes nitrogen out of the blood stream. NASA uses Terra-normal pressure (14.7 psi) inside the Space Shuttle, but only 0.29 pressure (4.5 psi) with pure oxygen in the space suits. The prebreathing is officially called the In Suit Light Exercise (ISLE) Prebreath Protocol, and unofficially called the "Slow Motion Hokey Pokey".
The astronaut(s) enter the airlock, and the airlock pressure is reduced to 10.2 psi. They breath pure oxygen through masks for 60 minutes (because the air in the airlock contains nitrogen). They then put on their space suits and do an EMU purge (i.e., flush out all the airlock-air that got into the suit while they were putting it on, to get rid of stray nitrogen). The air inside their suits is now also pure oxygen. The airlock pressure is then brought back up to the normal 14.7 psi. They then do 100 minutes of in-suit prebreath. Of those 100 minutes, 50 of them are light-exercise minutes and 50 of them are resting minutes. "Light exercise" is defined as: flex your knees for 4 minutes, rest 1 minute, repeat until 50 minutes has passed. Thus "Slow Motion Hokey Pokey". Now they are ready to open the airlock and step into space.
The innovation was the 50 minutes of exercise. Without it, the entire protocol takes twelve hours instead of one hour and fifty minutes.
If the habitat module's pressure was 12 psi an astronaut could use an 8 psi space suit with no prebreathing required (a pity such suits are currently beyond the state of the art), and for a 4.5 psi suit the prebreathing time would be cut in half.
In case of emergency, when there is no time for prebreathing, NASA helpfully directs the astronauts to gulp aspirin, so they can work in spite of the agonizing pain
Please note that most of the problem is due to the fact that soft space suits have a lower atmospheric pressure than the habitat module. So this can be avoided by using a hard space suit or space pod.
A NASA technician said "If you treat vacuum as you would poison gas you won't go far wrong.
And anybody who's seen 2001 A Space Odyssey knows that a human exposed to vacuum isn't going to pop like a balloon. Dr. Geoffrey Landis has an analysis here. Executive Summary: You would survive about a ninety seconds, you wouldn't explode, you would remain conscious for about ten seconds. So in an emergency a crew member can join the Vacuum Breather's Club, just like David Bowman. But be careful of sunburn. There are some more links on the topic of explosive decompression here
On a related note, forced ventilation in the spacecraft's lifesystem is not optional. In free fall, the warm exhaled carbon dioxide will not rise away from your face. It will just collect in a cloud around your head until you pass out or suffocate. In Arthur C. Clarke's ISLANDS IN THE SKY the apprentices play a practical joke on the main character using this fact and a common match. In the image above the blue dome shaped flame is an actual candle burning in free fall. All of the atmospheric controls will be on the life support deck.
And yes, on Skylab, the area around the the air vent got pretty disgusting quite quickly, as all the floating food particles and assorted dirt from the entire space station got sucked in. In some SF novels the slang name for the air vents is "The Lost and Found Department."
Unpleasant odors in the air is a problem, but there is not much one can do about it. After all, you can't just open up a window to let in some fresh air, not in the vacuum of space. NASA carefully screens all materials, sealants, foods, and everything else to ensure that they do not emit noticeable odor in the pressurized habitat sections of spacecraft and space stations. Such odors can quickly become overpowering in such tight quarters.
The space environment is so inconvenient for human beings. There is so much that one has to bring along to keep them alive.
Life Support has to supply each crew member daily with 0.0576 kilograms of air, about 0.98 kilograms of water, and about 2.3 kilograms of (wet) food (less if you are recycling). Some kind of artificial gravity or a medical way to keep the bones and muscles from wasting away. Protection from the deadly radiation from solar storms and the ship's power plant and propulsion system. Protection from the temperature extremes in the space environment. Protection from acceleration. Medical support. And then there are the psychological factors.
Recently I was allowed the rare privilege of submitting questions to NASA astronaut Captain Stephen G. Bowen a couple of questions about life in the space environment.
Several SF novels point out the dangers inherent in cooping up people in a tin can surrounded by vacuum for months at a time. They will be prey to "space cafard" (i.e., deep space cabin fever, what the French Foreign Legion called "the beetle"). The only solutions seem to be [a] put them in the suspended animation freezer, [b] drug them, or [c] keep them busy, busy, busy! (a bi---, er, ah complaining spacer is a happy spacer) The first officer can assign some worthless busy-work, like a once daily nose to stern ship inspection for micro-meteor holes. One might think that the same problem would be faced by the crew on a military submarine, but as it turns out the analogy is inexact. Christopher Weuve says:
A more constructive approach (for officers) is a huge stockpile of study-spools and daily home-work in such topics as higher mathematics, astronavigation, and nuclear physics. Plus other non-space related subjects just to keep the mind flexible. There will also be an active schedule of cross-training, e.g., the astrogator learning how to maintain an atomic drive unit. You never know when knowledge of a job outside of your specialty could prove vital in an emergency.
And the sergeant in charge of the enlisted men will have to know when to turn a blind eye to the home-made moonshine "still" hidden on Z deck and the floating poker and dice games. Gambling and rocket-juice will combat boredom. As will other forms of recreation.
In the anime Planetes, they recognize the fact that having male and female crew members cooped up in close quarters for weeks at a time can cause certain tensions. When stocking a spacecraft for a mission, one officially required item is a selection of erotic magazines. This allows the crew members to take care of the problem in solitary fashion.
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