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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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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.

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.

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