Let’s boldly assume you somehow go there. Space travel is a thrilling and difficult junket, like an expedition to Everest. Good people have died going there and died coming back. The trip up and down involves crushing acceleration and many jolts.
The time you spend in outer space will change your blood and hormone levels, and your bones and muscles will slowly waste away. A three-month stay is optimal; six months is pushing it. You’re going to need to get in shape and remember to pack light.
With that understood, let’s settle in. Built over the course of ten years by a wide variety of contractors—–and still a work in progress—–the ISS is a hodgepodge trailer camp graced with quite a lot of Russian design. It features two basic living elements: big round tubes, trucked up there in the American Space Shuttle, and smaller knobby tubes, fired up on other people’s rockets. All these pods have been snapped together, mostly end to end, or, as you’ll say on the station, "fore and aft."
There are no proper floors nor ceilings, because there isn’t gravity like we know it on Earth, just the free-fall feeling of space. This lack of directional pull is the central design fact, and it affects everything, including you. It will take at least three days to learn to move properly, mastering gentle gliding to and from various handholds. You don’t want to zoom around circus-style, as the station has many hard, protruding metal surfaces. The place is also festooned with cables: sewer, electrical, electronic, and your new best friends—since they help you keep still—elastic bungee cords.
All portable items must be either tied to the walls or stuck to your body. This fact accounts for the design of your new pants, space life’s primary contribution to futuristic fashion. Your space pants have thick Velcro strips across the thighs so you can stick your favorite toys to your legs and fly around barnacled with notepads, pens, and cameras. Ditch your shoes—you’ll nearly never be standing on anything. You’ll need, however, warm socks since your feet will lack proper blood flow and will always be cold.
The sun rises or sets through the portholes 16 times a day. Because the sunlight in outer space is cruelly bright you’ll need a baseball hat and some sunglasses. You might also opt for an open-collar golf shirt in an unnatural color, usually decorated with some nifty astro-industrial logo—–a tech college or European space agency.
Your new clothes don’t have gravity to cause them to drape or cling to your body, so they give you the hearty look of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Much the same goes for your floating hair. Meanwhile the blood rushes out of your hands and feet to pool in your chest and your face. You get a ruddy, pumpkin-headed look as your sinuses stuff up with fluid, hindering your sense of smell. As long as you lack gravity, you will stay that way.
You now live in a totally airtight, multiwindowed terrarium, about the size of a Boeing 767. Your surroundings have the general look and feel of an aircraft fuselage, except with a full-time live-in crew. The color scheme is bright aviation white, accented with the metallic blue handholds, chrome mesh cabling, and glittering gold cable connectors. Bright national flags and punchy-looking mission badges and stickers decorate the bulkheads, along with lots of duct tape and sticky notes, on which are written operational tips for all the hardware.
The station is loud: Air fans and sewage lines compete with the clicks, pops, and whirs from an onboard arsenal of knobby, dial-clustered scientific equipment. Occasionally some tiny piece of space junk whacks into the space station; you can get accustomed to the rest of the noise, but that’s one you don’t want to hear.
The galley consists of just a microwave, and you’ll have to look after yourself. Thanks to ten years of visits by Russians, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, and their friends, there’s a veritable global food court of micro-wavable delights stowed aboard. Cosmonaut chow—–jellied fish and borscht—–is in especially lavish supply.
None of it is fresh, but it’s easily as good as the food on most airlines. Soup and coffee come in squeezable bags, because liquids left alone in microgravity turn into wobbling water balloons. Crunchy food requires care as crumbly bits fly off at high velocity and end up stuck to the air filters.
Then there’s the gym area, where you will be spending a mandatory two and a half hours every day working out to keep your bones and muscles from dwindling away. There you’ll find a nifty treadmill equipped with springs and dampeners to keep the entire ISS from vibrating with each step you take, a high-tech bicycle with straps to hold both you and the bike stationary, and a bungee-cord contraption that lets you get in some upper-body work. There are no weights because, well, everyone and everything is weightless.
After one of the 16 sunsets, you go to sleep in a stiff private tent about the size of a phone booth. It’s quiet and dark in there, so the racket and the constant sunrises won’t bother you. Your suite looks pretty small, but it feels roomy, since you have no need to lie down. You can also latch yourself to a wall in a sleeping bag; the crew will see you, but no one snores in space.
Naturally, you’ll want to space walk. Of course, nobody can literally venture "into outer space," because you will die in two minutes without air, as well as freeze. To leave the station, you have to camp cramped inside an airlock for many hours, as the nitrogen boils out of your blood, deep-sea-diver style. The airlock is boring and quite claustrophobic. Then there’s your space suit, which is best understood as a micro-spacecraft complete with onboard propulsion and life-support systems.
You’ll be outside the ISS for six hours, tops. It’s an incredible experience—but after the time in the airlock you probably won’t want to repeat it. Space walking is, however, the real deal in space living. It’s the best way to see and feel the station as an entity—as the huge multiwinged construction it is. Compared to life inside, the station feels much different from the exterior.
It looks like some monster space moth, a techno-marvel with camera eyes, radio ears, and grappling arms. The long round tubes where you live are just a fraction of it. The rest consists mostly of naked trusses that hold huge solar panels, which glow so brightly they can be seen from Earth with the naked eye.
It’s just you and your hissing space suit out in the Carl Sagan cosmos, an awesome empty blackness pierced with harsh untwinkling stars. It’s marvelous and scary, but nobody wants to dwell out there. You’ll much prefer life back inside the capsules, where there are interesting international experts to socialize with, along with some air, warmth, music, and food.
Social life in the station is polite, professional, diplomatic, and very dutiful. There’s a lot going on in this floating crowd of foreign strangers, and little of it involves dreamily staring out the portholes—–at least after the first week. Drinking is nigh unheard-of; smoking a catastrophe. No one ever has sex.
Space visitors have created their own unique language, which is 50 years old and consists mostly of acronyms. A simple space heater becomes the ITCS—–for "internal thermal control system." The ground-control crew also speaks the language, and they set all the schedules. There’s some scientific work involving materials science and biology, but much of station life involves the station itself: dozens of complex, fragile systems that must be kept running so you don’t smother, freeze, or tumble wildly out of control.
There’s a great deal of computer housework, so you and your new friends are commonly tethered to a station wall, pecking at the keys of Velcroed notebook computers. There’s a lot of scrubbing, because any kind of body dirt or damp floats off and congeals in the station’s quiet corners.
Supply ships arrive from Russia, Japan, and Europe, and they have to be docked, unloaded by hand, and reloaded with trash, which the station generates in copious amounts. Heaps of supplies have turned the ISS into a space attic. Simply finding gear, digging it out of bags and boxes, assembling it, disassembling it, and lashing it back down is very time-consuming.
You have to test your own health: blood tests, spit tests, urine tests, and psychological tests to assure that you haven’t drifted into some spacey frame of mind that might endanger the mission. The Russian psychological tests are especially peculiar.
Life in space is beautiful and sublime. Completely sane people train cheerfully for years, undergoing every kind of trial and indignity for the bare chance to do it. Ironically, the most beautiful thing up there, all veterans agree, is Earth. The second-most beautiful are the people, a technical elite in excellent health and a generally good-looking, congenial bunch. The rest is hardware. It’s frail, dangerous, expensive, unique, and impressive, but, at the end of the day, just hardware.
The station is getting old. It has a rough life in the harsh glare of space. It’s the freakiest construction project that the human race has ever built. It cost about a hundred billion dollars, and there has never been anything like it. It’s also destined to be flung out of the sky in small pieces around the year 2016, unless somebody solves its midlife real-estate crisis.
There are no trees nor flowers nor animals. There is no wind nor rain. There are no children. In fact, no little kid has ever been in space. Without children, there’s no future. So the ISS isn’t the future. Not by itself. It’s what it is: a station in space.
Bruce Sterling is a science fiction novelist dividing his time among the surprisingly similar cities of Austin, Belgrade and Turin.