Nov 28, 2000

Far-out Housekeeping on the ISS





Life in space is a daring adventure, but somebody still has to cook dinner and take out the trash. Science@NASA interviews two astronauts about the thrill and routine of daily life in orbit.


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November 29, 2000 -- It's open for business! And even though the construction crews aren't done yet, the International Space Station's first occupants have moved in and set up housekeeping. If all goes as planned, the arrival of Expedition 1 in orbit earlier this month signaled the beginning of a new era. From now on, there will always be humans in space.


Living in space is a daunting adventure with plenty of derring-do and glamour. Hollywood spacefarers rarely have to take out the trash or clean the kitchen (when was the last time you saw Captain Jean-Luc Picard struggling with the twisty-tie on a garbage bag?). But, what about real-life astronauts? Are there chores to do on the ISS? In a recent interview with Science@NASA, Dr. Edward Lu and Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Burbank -- two astronauts who helped build the space station - discussed the excitement and the day-to-day routine of life in orbit.

"We were a construction team to help assemble the space station and deliver supplies," explained Lu about their mission on STS-106 last September. "We delivered hardware, water, and other consumables for the occupants to use. We also made the electrical connections between two of the station modules previously assembled in orbit. And, we also delivered the first scientific hardware to Station, a protein crystal growth experiment."

STS-106 was Lu's second time in space, but only the first for Burbank.

"Space really is the most hostile environment humans have ever tried to live in," said Burbank. "You depend on the Station and the people on the ground for everything you need to survive. It is complicated and everything has to work!" It's a risky adventure with very little margin for error, but, said the astronauts, the thrill of being there is something that neither would give up.



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So what is it like being there for months or years at a time? For example, what does the ISS crew eat, and how is it cooked?


All food is delivered by the American space shuttle or Russian Progress vehicle. The crew helps select the foods they want from a wide-ranging menu.

Left: The biggest challenge at mealtime for astronauts: catching your food! In this image Astronaut Loren Shriver (STS-46) demonstrates how objects act in free-fall while enjoying a snack of candy coated peanuts. Residents of the ISS have more nutritious choices, too, including fresh fruits shuttled from Earth.

According to Vicki Kloeris, Subsystem Manager for Shuttle and Space Station Food at the Johnson Space Center, food aboard Space Station will come in several forms. "Most of the food will be processed and packaged in pouches or cans. Some will be dehydrated and the astronauts add hot water and eat. Some will be in pouches and cans and you simply heat and eat. A small amount will be fresh food delivered by the Shuttle and Progress."

The fresh food will include fruits and veggies, but nothing that requires refrigeration.

"All of the food will be stored at room temperature. There will be a small refrigerator on board ISS, but power management requirements may not allow its continuous use," said Kloeris.

"I'm sure the crew will enjoy the fresh apples and other fruit and foods whenever the delivery truck arrives!" said Burbank.

ISS will contain more than one oven when it is fully operational. In the early stages, food is being cooked using either a small food warmer built by the Russians or a US built portable food warmer, about the size of a suitcase. Both are convection/conduction ovens rather than microwave. Later stages of ISS may have a microwave oven, but that is not finalized, according to Kloeris.




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Information gained from the experiences of the Russian MIR space station crews indicates that isolation is one of the biggest problems a long duration crew will face. To prevent this on ISS, the crew members will be encouraged to phone home. And while working on ISS will not exactly be like spending a couple of weeks away from home on business in the Big Apple or the Windy City, sailors traveling around the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries were more isolated than the ISS crew will be.

"Each crew member will have a video telephone call from home each week," said Burbank. "And the crew will be receiving and sending daily e-mail messages to and from family and friends. No one should feel isolated from home and family."


A recent Science@NASA story about water recycling on the ISS covered the great lengths that ISS designers are taking to minimize how much water and other consumables must be launched from Earth. Water recycling efficiencies of greater than 95% are the goal.

But other wastes cannot be recycled so efficiently, particularly solid waste from food containers, experiments, empty fuel containers, and other ISS activities. So: Who takes out the trash?

Again, Progress and Shuttle come to the rescue. Every arrival of Shuttle brings fresh supplies. And when it leaves, it becomes the world's most expensive trash hauler! Bags and containers of sealed trash will be brought back to Earth.

More exciting, perhaps, is how the Russian Progress disposes of trash. Again, when it arrives, it brings fresh supplies (but no crews, since it is just a supply vehicle). And when the fresh supplies are unloaded, the trash bags are piled in and Progress is sealed. After it disconnects from ISS, it is placed into a lower orbit and makes a controlled reentry during which it and the trash are incinerated over the ocean.


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Right: Members of the STS-106 crew, including Lu & Burbank, snapped this picture of the ISS from the space shuttle Atlantis in Sept., 2000. [more information]



Crews will be busy during their tours of duty on ISS. But all work and no play… So what constitutes relaxation and recreation for the men and women living aboard ISS?

A significant portion of non-working time will be taken up in a stiff regimen of exercise and physical activity. Again, information from MIR and previous other long duration flights shows that significant physical degradation of the human body occurs in space. "The human body was really designed to function in one-G," said Burbank. " Our bones, cardiovascular systems, muscle tissue and organs all change in zero-G. And the longer you stay, the more significant the changes become. " The good news is that the changes are reversible after return to the Earth. And, even better news is that an active program of strenuous exercise in space can reduce the changes.

But what are the individual crew members doing when they are not sleeping, working, or exercising? "Crew members will be allowed to take a certain amount of personal gear up with them," said Lu. "So things like checkers or chess sets, CDs and tape players, and the like are allowed. You can listen to your favorite music if you like. DVD movies will also be available for viewing."

So it's not exactly like home! And you can't take an evening walk outside to watch the sunset. But the "sailors" on ISS will have it better than those intrepid explorers that left Europe in the 15th century looking for new lands, or the Polynesian sailors that charted and settled the vast Pacific Ocean, or the Asian explorers and settlers who walked the land bridge from Siberia into Alaska and opened two new continents for their people.


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Above: Astronauts Edward Lu and Daniel Burbank pose by a model of the completed International Space Station at the conclusion of their interview with Science@NASA.

They do, however, share two important traits. First, they are the vanguard of their respective civilizations doing what they believe will improve the well being of their people.

And second, they all had to forge ahead and ignore the shrill voices behind them warning that "Beyond this point, there be dragons!"




Web Links

Water on the Space Station -- The first Science@NASA article in this series about the practical challenges of extended living in space. This article looks at how water will be conserved and recycled on the Space Station -- including the crew's own urine!

Breathing easy on the Space Station -- The second Science@NASA article in this series about the practical challenges of extended living in space. The systems and methods used to ensure safe, breathable air for the crew are examined in this article.

Microscopic stowaways on the Space Station -- The third Science@NASA article in this series about the practical challenges of extended living in space. 

International Space Station -- NASA's Web page for the International Space Station

Advanced Life Support Web Page -- from the Johnson Space Flight Center

Environmental Control and Life Support Systems -- describes the life support systems being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center


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