Life in Space: Email from the ISS

Originally published in 

For our December/January 2010 The Future issue, we asked science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to pen a piece describing The Future of Space Living. In addition to taking us on a step-by-step tour of what we’d experience—and what we’d need to pack—for a visit to the International Space Station (ISS), he also emailed NASA astronaut Nicole Stott from his home in Italy and received a reply back while she was floating in space aboard the ISS.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, mission specialist and flight engineer<br /><br />Courtesy of NASA
Astronaut Nicole Stott, mission specialist and flight engineerCourtesy of NASA

In her correspondence with Sterling, Stott describes the life in orbit from the nitty-gritty technical setups, family-style mealtimes (which sometimes include Italian sausage, Brie, pate, and even lump crabmeat), the smell of space (“a mild version of the smell of an overheating car engine”), and the module to which she most wants to give a fresh coat of paint.

More information from astronaut Nicole Stott:

“Dwelling” on the space station is primarily about adapting to zero gravity. Floating, flying is way cool and opens up all different kinds of opportunities for how you use your space. Your whole volume is usable space. It really is a “3D” way of life. Any surface can be the floor or ceiling or up or down or the wall.

Having said that, the interesting thing is that ANY surface can be the floor or ceiling or up or down or the wall. So we do some things to give everyone (including the support team on the ground) a common reference to work with. One of the primary things is a location coding system: In each module we have designated the deck, port, starboard, and overhead surfaces (and then there are lower and lower levels of codes to designate very specific locations). We have other signage telling us which way to our escape vehicles and which way to another module. Mostly this is in place in case of an emergency, but it also gives us good general, spatial reference too.

One of the real blessings we have up here is the ability to communicate with our ground teams in mission control, and most importantly with our family and friends. We don’t have the Internet (yet), but we do receive email uplinks several times a day. We communicate with mission control primarily through space-to-ground radio. All of our communication with the ground is dependent on satellite coverage, which fortunately is pretty continuous throughout the day. The main tool we have for communicating with our family friends (aside from email) is an IP phone. This is one way dialing—it’s only set up for us to initiate the calls, so no one can call us this way. We also have weekly videoconferences with our families. For crews on long duration space flights, this has been a real gift to help families maintain regular contact.

“Hidden surprises” Aside from the surprises I find from living here every day that continue to prove to me that everything about this experience is even better than expected, there are the unexpected things you find out about your crewmates or previous crews or the station. For example, one of my crewmates was moving some equipment around to stow something and he found a card in an envelope taped to the back of the equipment. Turns out this was a card that was put on the equipment on the ground several years ago before the equipment flew. The intention was that the crewmember on board at the time it was delivered would find it as a nice surprise. Unfortunately she didn’t, but we’ll deliver it to her when we get home. There is a keyboard and a guitar up here—if I ever had some free time I might be able to learn to play the guitar again. There are some talented people in the astronaut office: some are painters, some are photographers, some like to write, some build model ships.

The room in your house you wish you could remodel
For us it’s Node 1. Node 1 is one of the early US modules.  It’s called a “node” because it’s really a module that allows the connection of other modules. Node 1 has the US Lab on its forward side, the FGB on its aft side, the Airlock on its starboard side, and soon to have another node off the port side, Node 3, “Harmony,” which will also have a beautiful panoramic window module attached to it called the Cupola. Now, Node 1 is really a great space EXCEPT it’s painted in this “soothing” salmon, orangey pink color. Think there was some psych study behind this. A simple paint job would do it wonders.

Our gym Cardio and resistive exercise is very important to us up here, because in zero-g, our bodies will quickly lose both bone and muscle mass, which is not such a great thing when you go home to the gravity of Earth. So we have two hours of exercise on our schedule every day. We have some great equipment up here: a bike, a resistive exercise device, and, now, two treadmills. This equipment is spread across the station: bike in the US Lab, one treadmill in the Service Module, the other in the Node 2, and the resistive exercise device in Node 1. We all are committed to using this equipment and staying in shape. The new treadmill is temporarily installed between two of our sleep quarters in Node 2. This makes me laugh because I always think of the pieces of exercise equipment I’ve had at home before—usually set up in my bedroom—that just become another place to hang my clothes. None of that going on up here!  ;)

Like our electricity, water is one of the other things where we are self-sufficient. We still get water delivered to us from the space shuttle or other cargo vehicles, but we are not dependent on it.  We now have a system that takes our waste water (condensate, urine, humidity) and processes it into clean drinking water. And yes, it tastes great. This is one of many examples of systems actively working on board the space station that can also be applied to improving life on Earth.

Stowage Think of your worst closet nightmare. We have very limited space for stowing stuff. So, we have to be creative in the way we stow things to try to be the most efficient with our space and to maintain safe and comfortable surroundings.  We now have a six-person crew living and working on the station, and we need to have the supplies to not only support the crew, but also to maintain the systems for the years to come. Like the exposed cable runs, bags of stuff also become a part of our decor. And speaking of the things that enhance the decor, since being able to keep something in one place is so important (because if you let it go it’s probably gone only to maybe be found sometime later) the other things you will see a lot of everywhere around the station are Velcro, bungees, and foot restraints.

Artwork We don’t have a lot of extra personal things up on the “walls” because we want to try to keep the station in good shape for years (there’s so much stuff on the walls already). So what we lack in decorative items on our walls, we more than make up for with the incredible views through our windows. I am in awe of how indescribably beautiful our planet is. Every day there is a new, beautiful, amazing surprise when I look out the window. So I think of the Earth views and the views of space as our artwork on our walls. Would be great if there was a window in every module!

Adaptation It has been interesting to see how quickly our bodies adapt to a new environment. Flying and floating to get around become second nature and at some point we even forget that on Earth we have to walk to get from one place to another. (And the floating/flying never gets boring—even though we’re used to it, it still is so much fun to “hang from the ceiling” or do a roll or somersault on your way somewhere.) In addition to the way our bodies adapt, there are also interesting reactions to the way our bodies interact with the zero-g environment that we can feel if we pay attention. One of the most interesting to me is that while I’m still and floating I can feel the reaction, or maybe better described as a motion through my body, from something as slight as my heart beat.  My heart beats and I can actually feel like the space station is moving around me because of it, when in fact it’s really my whole body gently moving in response to it and not the station motion at all. 

To see more images of the International Space Station and of Nicole Stott in space, please view our slideshow.

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