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 4 of 4)
Still, after nearly four years of joint operations, important differences remain unresolved. Russian and American space doctors are still negotiating, for example, the best method to synchronize the sleep cycles of station crews with those of visiting crews so that all can work effectively together. While the flight surgeons debate which circadian shift protocol to follow—all at once (Russian) or gradually (American)—the station crews have had to endure some fairly disruptive sleep schedules.
The Expedition Two crew, already tired from long hours packing up a just-departed Progress in April 2001, were scheduled to move their Soyuz lifeboat to another docking port to prepare for space shuttle Endeavour’s arrival. Moscow’s flight plan called for the station crew to turn in at noon, wake up in the early evening, then work clear through the following day. But “it’s virtually impossible to go to sleep at noon,” says Voss. “We tried to, but you just can’t. So we wound up staying up all day and then all night.”
After a drawn-out series of hatch closings and pressure checks in preparation for the Soyuz undocking, Voss says, his crewmates were exhausted. “We were in the FGB [Zarya], waiting for the final ‘Go’ to close that last hatch to go into the Soyuz, just the three of us, sitting there talking,” he recalls. “And the next thing I knew, I woke up, and all three of us had fallen asleep.” The Soyuz switch went ahead without any problems, but in their debriefing the crewmates highlighted the incident as “the most unsafe thing” they did on the station. What’s more, says Voss, who until recently was a senior operations manager for the station in Houston, “They still do bad sleep shifts…. They’ve not fixed that problem.”
In nearly four years of orbiting Earth, station crews have had a unique perspective on the new century’s horrors—terrorist attacks and wars, as well as the February 2003 destruction of space shuttle Columbia and its crew. The Columbia accident, which happened midway through the Expedition Six crew’s tour, was a wrenching experience for the three men living on the station—Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit, and Nikolai Budarin. Yet life resumed in space, just as it did in Houston. After watching uplinked video of the memorial service, the astronauts rang the ship’s bell seven times in honor of their friends. “We spent 15 or 20 minutes in silence, and then we moved on,” Bowersox recounted later during an in-orbit press conference. “We needed to unload our Progress...we pulled out the fresh fruit, the oranges, the mail we got from home, and it gave us quite a lift after the memorial service.”
The Columbia accident has forced new difficulties on the international station partners. The station suddenly was missing its main supply ship, and perhaps inevitably, NASA and the Russian Space Agency sparred over which should bear the costs for additional Progress cargo flights. The discussions are still going on.
With the shuttles grounded, all but a few of the scientific investigations planned for the station are in limbo. Nearly half of the lab’s experiment racks are empty, and no major research equipment will arrive until shuttle flights resume. Even with a restored shuttle pipeline, it will be years before enough lab space and crew time are available to undertake the full research program intended for the station.
Meanwhile, the station astronauts continue their own informal experiment in living. If and when the crew size is expanded, more structured psychological studies will be able to explore the dynamics of large, multinational crews. Dan Bursch worries that we haven’t yet found the magic number: “Three is a challenge for a long-duration crew. Five or six would help ease any personality conflicts.” Sergei Krikalev agrees. “That’s why we are flying a test bed. I think the smart thing to do would be to test different crew sizes in orbit now…. Then we can say which is better.”
It’s one of the many unfinished experiments on the station—and for astronauts hoping to one day live on the moon or Mars, perhaps the most important of all.