The First 1,000 Days
Ghost alarms, foul odors, and a tourist season? Life aboard the International Space Station.
- By Thomas D. Jones
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
(Page 3 of 4)
As more communication pathways have come online, contact with the ground is now available as much as 90 percent of the time. Peggy Whitson of Expedition Five “ended up just chatting anytime I felt like it, anytime I needed to. In the end I think I ended up being closer to my ground team because I involved them more.” With near-seamless coverage, even nonverbal communication became possible. Whitson remembers a day when she and Valery Korzun, immersed in repairing a balky air scrubber in the lab, had wormed their way so deeply behind an equipment rack that their microphone was out of reach. Houston, watching via satellite TV, could see only Whitson’s feet sticking out from behind the refrigerator-size rack. Capcom (capsule communicator) Charlie Hobaugh, reading off repair instructions, radioed, “Peggy, I realize you’re busy right now. If you copy, just wiggle your right toe.” Whitson heard and obeyed. Hobaugh hit the mike button again, and “I could hear the whole [control room] laughing,” she recalls.
The cross-cultural aspect of the International Space Station has perhaps been the most difficult, often requiring diplomacy and patience. At first, when most of the hardware was Russian, Moscow was the lead control center. Houston was supposed to assume that role with the February 2001 launch of the Destiny lab, but “the shift never officially took place,” says Jim Voss. “It just gradually evolved over many months.” Station flight director Andy Algate thinks NASA bowed to Russian sensitivity over losing the most visible symbol of their once preeminent role in station operations. It wasn’t until months later, he says, that NASA’s station program manager, Tommy Holloway, finally wrote a letter to Moscow stating that the handover had occurred. Even today, NASA goes out of its way to avoid using the term “lead control center.”
Nothing has strained the U.S.-Russian partnership like the very public dispute over sending tourists to the space station. In early 2001 the Russian space agency announced that American millionaire Dennis Tito would visit the station on a Soyuz taxi flight. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, citing safety and operational concerns, made it clear that Tito was not welcome aboard the station. That led to an embarrassing incident in which Tito and his Soyuz crewmates were denied entry to the training facilities in Houston. Reporters began asking Helms, Voss, and Usachev questions about the controversy while the three were on board the station. Voss recalls his disgust with the whole spectacle. “They asked us if we were not going to open the hatch when [the Russians] got tourists up against NASA’s wishes. What do you say in a case like that? Of course we were going to open the hatch,” he says.
Goldin ultimately relented, but once Tito came on board, things were just as awkward. Moscow scheduled a joint press conference, but NASA ordered Helms and Voss not to participate. “That made it very difficult,” recalls Voss, “because we had to tell [Usachev] that we could not do it.” The American astronauts also were forced to ask Tito to stay out of the U.S. modules. “Putting us in a spot like that was upsetting to all of us,” says Voss. “But we weren’t upset with each other. I was angry with NASA.”
Because of his limited ability to speak Russian, Tito had been unable to converse much with his cosmonaut crewmates during his once-in-a-lifetime trip to orbit. “He had just gone through this amazing launch experience two days earlier,” recalls Helms, “and he couldn’t tell anyone about it. He was gushing when he showed up, and it was really fun to see him so excited.”
Carl Walz, who was on board when South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth came calling in April 2002, says the station makes a poor hotel for tourists. “When you have extra people in general, there’s less room, and your life support system has to work harder,” he says. Since everyone has to exercise daily, “you can build up locally heavy [carbon dioxide] concentrations…. If you were the third guy [to exercise], they [the visiting crew] had probably used up all the [oxygen]!” Helms adds, “I think that space tourism is a fantastic idea…. [But] there should be the equivalent of tourist destinations, much like you have diving tourist destinations now.”
Tensions over Tito’s visit merely highlight what every space station astronaut knows from daily experience: In essence, the station is run as two distinct enclaves, with Houston and Moscow ruling over their respective spheres of influence. NASA originally envisioned that the crew members—speaking English as the agreed official language—would be equally expert on all station systems, no matter which partner had built them. Actual practice has fallen short of that ideal. Everyone speaks Russian to Moscow and English to Houston, and Moscow typically assigns work on the Russian segments—Zvezda and Zarya—to cosmonauts, while NASA astronauts look after the U.S. modules.
Astronauts and flight directors have come to agree that this makes operational sense, although the realities of spaceflight often muddy the division of labor. After a spacewalk in February 2002, Carl Walz and Dan Bursch fired up a regenerator in the station’s airlock to renew a pair of air scrubber cartridges. As a small oven heated the spacesuit canisters to strip them of carbon dioxide, a strong odor flooded the airlock and Unity node. Walz and Bursch hurriedly shut down the unit and sealed the airlock off from the rest of the station. All three crew members reported slight headaches, and for the next two days they holed up in Zvezda while flight controllers filtered the U.S. segment’s air supply. Engineers traced the problem to unsealed inlet caps on the old scrubbers, which had absorbed enough moisture to produce a bumper crop of mildew. The bake-out then produced what Walz called a world-class whiff of “moldy locker room.” Operations were restricted for only 48 hours, but the aftereffects of the incident lingered far longer, reminding both centers of how inextricably the two segments were linked.