The First 1,000 Days

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, playing with a water droplet last October, arrived and departed on a Soyuz. NASA

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