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The First 1,000 Days

Ghost alarms, foul odors, and a tourist season? Life aboard the International Space Station.

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Though the second expedition crew, which arrived in March 2001, didn’t have as many setup chores, they immediately faced an annoying problem: The alarm software for the newly attached lab, which monitors the station’s critical systems, was trigger-happy. Before launch, its fault detection limits had been set too narrowly. The result was a random stream of caution and warning alarms—“false 99.9 percent of the time,” Voss recalls. On the first night, a fire klaxon jarred the astronauts out of their bunks, and repetitive alarms proved so annoying that for a time, one person had to sleep by the computer to quickly silence the noise. The crew soon grew skeptical of all alarms, which by the end of the mission totaled more than 900.

There also have been malfunctions with potentially serious consequences. During Expedition Four, the station temporarily spun out of control. Commander Yuri Onufrienko and flight engineers Carl Walz and Dan Bursch were aboard on February 4, 2002, when one of the Zvezda module’s computers failed, which stopped the flow of pointing information from Russian attitude sensors. Blinded, the U.S. guidance computers lost their ability to command attitude, and the station began to drift slowly out of orbital alignment. That meant that the solar arrays, no longer facing the sun, would stop producing power. Walz remembers the matter-of-fact call from astronaut Mario Runco in mission control: “You guys are going to lose attitude control. We’d like you to work the power-down steps.”

Wow, here we go, thought Walz as he and his crewmates waded into the emergency procedures. They began cutting off electricity to experiments and non-essential systems, and shutting down ventilation fans and all but one light in each module. Communication was lost as the S-band antenna lost track of its relay satellite. “We were sitting in this darkened tube, waiting for instructions,” Walz recalls. The three got out their flashlights and worked the procedures while waiting for a pass over a Russian ground communications site. Walz remembers thinking, How are we going to get out of this? He floated around the darkened station toting his flashlight and, of all things, a wrench. “I felt like I needed to carry a tool, something to make me feel I was doing something useful,” he says.

By now, the station had rolled about 150 degrees off its normal attitude, and the giant solar arrays were no longer catching sunlight. But Walz drew confidence from his Russian commander. “Yuri had been through this drill before on Mir,” he says. Eventually, he and Bursch worked out with Houston a way to get the solar arrays pointing properly. “Dan called out the sun’s position by looking out the lab window,” Walz says, “and I was able to use a laptop to swivel the arrays into sunshine.” Once the station batteries were recharged, ground controllers restarted the Zvezda computers and regained attitude control. The episode had lasted seven hours.

Such systems failures, though infrequent, would be impossible to overcome without the control centers looking over their shoulders, say the station astronauts. During the Zvezda failure, recalls Walz, “[mission control] essentially ran the vehicle, and we were their hands.” On such occasions, Susan Helms’ crew jokingly referred to themselves as “meat servos.” But it was more common, Helms says, and far more satisfying, for the crewmates to come up with their own solutions in the course of day-to-day work.

The first crews, particularly Expedition One, were in radio contact with mission control only 10 to 20 percent of the time, mostly via Russian ground stations. That had some advantages, according to Krikalev. Being able to talk to the ground any time he wanted was good, he says, but “having the ground able to talk to you anytime they want to is not very desirable.” Space station work can require intense concentration; controllers have since learned not to interrupt crews for a routine shift change of console operators.

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.”

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