The First 1,000 Days

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

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LAST JULY, JUST OUTSIDE THE COSMONAUT TRAINING center in suburban Moscow, I enjoyed dinner and a few beers with a group of Japanese and American astronauts, most of them bound for the International Space Station. Walking back to our duplex just after sunset, a few of us kept an eye out for two colleagues who would soon pass 220 miles overhead. Gazing above the darkening birch forest, we first spotted the constellation Cygnus. A moment later, the familiar stars of the Northern Cross were joined by the bright beacon of the space station, tracking east across the sky. Ed Lu and Yuri Malenchenko, the seventh crew to live aboard the outpost, were likely ending another long workday. They, along with my dinner companions and the thousands of people who have built the space station, believe it will be the key to sending human explorers into deep space.

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Will it? Midway through its sixth year in orbit, the space station remains in a frustrating holding pattern. While its construction has gone more smoothly than NASA and Russian engineers had dared to hope, the project’s constant political and budgetary woes have made its eventual success seem doubtful. For the astronaut residents, though, it has been a different story—of learning to live in space rather than just visit there, while coping with a sometimes testy partnership between two very different cultures. No one said it would be easy, and it hasn’t been. Yet the station has chalked up modest successes, most of them unknown to the public.

Since the first three-man crew moved in, on November 2, 2000, 22 people, all Americans and Russians, have completed tours ranging from 117 to 181 days. The current residents, referred to as Expedition Nine, are Mike Fincke and Gennady Padalka; until the space shuttles resume flying, the station will be staffed by just two people at a time.

Even with three on boar d, the astronauts don’t lack for elbow room. The four pressurized modules (the Zvezda living quarters, Zarya stowage module, Unity docking node, and Destiny laboratory) plus a couple of closet-size airlocks offer a total of about 15,000 cubic feet of living space, equivalent to a three-bedroom house. Compared to the cramped shuttle, the station has an expansive feel, with work and living areas stretching half a football field from Zvezda to the aft end of Destiny. Says Don Pettit of Expedition Six, “You can go all day long and not even see anyone.”

Visiting the station during a shuttle construction flight in February 2001, I was surprised by how large and how comfortable it was. When my crew snaked through the airlock tunnel from Atlantis, my first impression was of hovering in the bright and airy foyer of a new home. The Zvezda module held two sleeping compartments where commander Bill Shepherd and Sergei Krikalev bunked just across from each other. At the time, Yuri Gidzenko was forced to sleep strapped to the wall forward in the Zarya cargo module, but since then Destiny has been outfitted with a cozy, prefab sleeping compartment, popular with its tenants. Shepherd and Krikalev had personalized their cubicles with family snapshots and other mementos, and someone had affixed an icon of the Madonna and Child above the portal to the Soyuz lifeboat.

Sharing tight quarters for weeks on end, crew members have learned to preserve one of the scarcest commodities aboard a spacecraft: privacy. The Zarya module, for example, with its long central passageway, made a good “shower room” on Expedition Two, but in space, you can’t simply shut the door. A closed hatch on Zarya could have impeded passage to a Soyuz escape vehicle on the other side. Susan Helms, who spent nearly six months as Expedition Two’s lone female, says her crew worked out a solution: A Zarya hatch swung partially closed meant “Knock before entering,” enabling her to bathe or wash her hair on Friday nights free of intrusions.

The station crews’ mealtime customs have also evolved. On Expedition Four, Dan Bursch recalls that Commander Yuri Onufrienko set the tone for the two more casual Americans: “Yuri kind of expected us to be there,” he says. What time did they all float in to dinner? “Usually it was when Yuri wanted to eat.” The Russians generally take the social aspects of dining more seriously than Americans, who on busy shuttle flights grab food on the run and eat separately. The Russian style has prevailed on the station. Zvezda was launched in 2000 without its wardroom table, but the first crew decided not to wait for its arrival on a Russian Progress supply craft. Using sheet metal from an empty cargo box, Krikalev and crew designed and built the table from scratch. Soon he and his companions were breaking bread Russian-style. For Susan Helms, Friday night conversations around the dinner table with crewmates Jim Voss and Yuri Usachev were one of the highlights of her stay on the station. She likens them to sitting around a captain’s table on an earlier century’s sailing ship. Helms recalls Voss, after a meal near the end of their stay, lamenting: “I don’t want this part of it to end.”

A station astronaut’s life unfolds in long weeks of routine maintenance and science work. Every day after rising (morning in Moscow, roughly midnight in Houston), the astronauts clean up, share a quick breakfast, and spend 10 hours on the job in free fall. Crews take a break for lunch and devote at least 90 minutes daily to exercise. After dinner, they mix housekeeping chores with relaxation: e-mail, calls to home, and perhaps some music, reading, or photography. Saturday and Sunday are half workdays, with sometimes a special meal or movie together.

The routine is—or was, until last year’s Columbia accident—interrupted at irregular intervals by shuttles and Progress craft arriving with new station hardware and supplies, as well as planned spacewalks and unscheduled repairs.

The pace of work has varied. The Expedition One crew members had their hands full from the start, since they had to open the station and set up many of its systems. Compared to his 15 months on the Russian station Mir, says Krikalev, “the workload was pretty high, but it was expected. We knew…we were going to be busier than on average missions.” I saw this during my week-long visit in 2001. After a long day of spacewalking or outfitting the lab’s interior, I would drift off, exhausted, to my sleeping bag on Atlantis. But as I floated down through the docking tunnel, I could see Shep, Sergei, and Yuri still at work. The three were lucky to get five or six hours of sleep a night. Add in the chore of unpacking and packing the shuttle and the strain of receiving guests, and our hosts must have felt a sense of relief as they watched us pull away in Atlantis. Expedition Four’s Dan Bursch echoes a sentiment many station astronauts feel about visitors: “We were glad to see them arrive, and happier to see them leave.”

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