If you think Russia and the US have put the Cold War behind them, think again. Onboard the International Space Station (ISS), hundreds of miles above the Earth, you only need to answer the call of nature to find it is alive and well.
“You have to have permission for the Russian guys to use this toilet and the US guys to use the Russian one,” explains Kathryn Bolt, chief training officer for the ISS and my guide to the world’s only full-sized model of the space station.
Housed at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre, the ISS mock-up is around the size of a football pitch. This impressive complex of tubular modules is used to familiarise astronauts with the layout of the station, its operation and what to do when something goes wrong. The sections are fitted out with the same equipment the six crewmembers use in space, from the computers and exercise equipment to the cooking facilities and, of course, the toilets.
The two identical ones on the ISS consist of a combination of a nozzle, tubes and vacuum pumps. When one breaks down, as happened in 2009, it can lead to a major diplomatic incident.
It is just one of the quirks of sharing a flat 350km (220 miles) above the Earth that American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko will face when they begin a year-long stint onboard the craft in 2015. The pair are some of the world’s most experienced space farers and their marathon mission is designed to help us understand the effects of long duration space flight – essential before any future expedition to Mars.
But just spending an hour inside the ISS mock-up in Houston gives me a sense of how big a challenge communal living in space really is. Anyone who’s ever shared a house with friends will know it’s not long before petty squabbles break out over who’s left the washing up or stolen your milk. On Earth, you can step outside until things cool down. On the ISS, the options to “get away from it all” are limited.
Clamouring inside through one of the hatches, it is immediately apparent how cluttered the station is. The walls are lined with storage racks, equipment and instrument panels. Laptops jut out from the sides and cables snake through the narrow passageways between modules.
Moving through the sections, it is clear that interior decor wasn’t a major priority for the ISS designers. The walls of the US, European and Japanese sections are predominantly white with occasional splashes of beige. The Russian sections are lined with what appear to be brown carpet tiles. “It’s the Russian style,” says Bolt, diplomatically.
We peer into the crew’s bedrooms, which amount to little more than a narrow padded wardrobe. The bed – a sleeping bag – is attached to the wall and there’s just about room for a lamp and laptop. When you shut the doors, it’s like being stuck in an aircraft restroom.
“This is their private quarters,” explains Bolt. “If they get claustrophobic they can always open the doors.”
For an astronaut living on the ISS, these tiny padded cupboards they get to call their own must be the most valuable area on board. I imagine them crawling in and closing the door behind them when their fellow crew members get too much.
Personal relationships are not the only thing that crew members need to worry during their stay. Personal hygiene is also a concern and something the trainers do their best to address. “They have to wear the same clothes for a week and reuse the same gym clothes,” says Bolt. Although they do get to change their underwear every 3-4 days. There’s no washing machine and neither is there a shower – astronauts have to wash themselves with soapy sponges. Powerful air scrubbers are designed to refresh the air and prevent the build-up of microbes – a problem that plagued the Mir space station.
The crew will also be in trouble if they don’t keep up their daily exercise regime. Otherwise muscles waste away and they will be in no fit state to return to Earth. “This is the machine that saves their muscles,” says Bolt as she shows me a fearsome looking contraption: the Exercise Resistive Device. “The crew loves it, they can work out their legs, arms; they can do everything with this machine.”
This arrangement of weights and pulleys is positioned above the cupola, the station’s observation dome, making it the best view of any gym in the world: the view above the world. “They can open the shutters,” says Bolt, “and as they’re exercising they can look out of the windows to the Earth below.”
But moving a mass around in microgravity can bring problems – even causing the entire ISS to move. “We’ve had a few astronauts getting too much of a rhythm on their weights and suddenly there’s a vibration across the whole station,” says Bolt, who also works in mission control. “There’re sensors everywhere and we monitor that on the ground and we’re like ‘what’s going on!’ That’s something we have to watch for.”
The sensors are there to spot any threats or potential problems with the station. After all, if there is a problem, the crew is on its own to cope with it. As a result, a large part of Bolt’s job is to simulate emergencies in the training facility – including dealing with fire or collision with space debris. From a console outside, Bolt can activate alarms, turn off the lights or even fill the modules with smoke. “Every emergency training response has the crew come to the Russian segment first, this is the gathering point” she explains. “This is where they have communications, they have computers and they have the Soyuz spacecraft.”
These spacecraft are the one item that will always be shared, no matter what. The two Soyuz spacecraft are the station’s lifeboats and the way home if something goes catastrophically wrong.
The obvious problem with this arrangement is if there’s a fire or leak in the Russian section. “Everything is here to get them home so they are trained to fight the fire first,” says Bolt. “They have to grab the Russian fire extinguishers and put the fire out.”
If they don’t, there’s no way back.