In a darkened room, deep within the high-security perimeter of Redstone Arsenal, a US army base in Huntsville, Alabama, eight men and women sit behind concave banks of computer monitors, streams of data reflecting across their faces.
One of the women will occasionally speak into her headset, although she speaks so quietly it is difficult to make out more than a few words.
Along the wall in front of them, screens display images of the Earth, graphs, timelines and – as we watch – an astronaut’s backside as he floats through a hatch 400 kilometres above the planet.
The control room is used to monitor the effects of long-duration missions on astronauts (Credit: Nasa/Science Photo Library)
Staffed round the clock, this is Nasa’s Payload Operations Integration Center – the control hub for all the science experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). Here, every working minute of the orbiting astronauts’ days are accounted for, monitored and – if necessary – adjusted. Houston may get all the glory but this little-known control room, part of the Marshall Space Flight Center, is the hub of space station science.
“We are the go-betweens,” says payload communications manager Sam Shine. “We are the interface between the scientists and the crew on board the space station.”
In fact Shine is one of the few people on Earth – along with the Capcom (Capsule Communicator) in Houston – able to talk directly to the crew on the ISS, looking after them as they work through their daily science routines.
“It’s very tricky,” says Shine. “We have language barriers, we have time zone differences – sometimes trying to work with an Italian principal investigator and get the information they need up to, perhaps, a German crew member can be a bit tricky.”
Since its completion in 2011, the $100bn (£64.5bn) ISS has been all about the science. The walls, ceiling and floor of its US, Russian, European and Japanese laboratories are crammed with experiments, and astronauts spend an increasing amount of time as orbiting research technicians.
The crew are monitored while working to make sure they don't misplace vital equipment (Credit: Nasa/Science Photo Library)
“If you name a discipline of science, we are probably doing that kind of experiment on board,” says Shine. Studies in this unique microgravity research lab range from investigating plant growth to understanding the properties of liquid metals.
Much of the science overseen from the control room in Alabama is concerned with studying the effects of space on the astronauts themselves, such as the bone and muscle wastage they experience. This is essential research if humans are ever to leave their home world for any length of time.
When living in space, is comfort food good for you?
Scientists are also studying the psychological challenges of living away from Earth in an isolated metal box, eating reconstituted meals, drinking recycled urine, with only work colleagues for company.
One of the most intriguing of these experiments – Astro Palate – has been devised by food and nutrition scientists at the University of Minnesota. Among other things, it seeks to understand how food can be used to reduce stress. In other words, when living for a long time in space, is comfort food good for you?
“We may have astronauts do a task they don’t enjoy such as vacuuming the space station,” says Shine. “We then have them take a survey to see how they feel about it, then let them eat some comfort food – perhaps chocolate pudding – and take another survey.”
Comfort food like chocolate pudding can be a powerfully persuasive tool (Credit: Getty Images)
“We’re starting to understand ways of making our crews feel at home as they’re in space for longer and longer durations,” she adds.
Another study involves astronauts keeping journals of their life on board the station – an attempt to get honest accounts of their feelings, stresses, tensions or homesickness. Because only the researcher compiling the results of the project reads them, the hope is that the crew are more likely to be candid.
The fourth month of the mission is when the crew is most likely to want to come home
“One of the most interesting findings is that the fourth month of the mission is when the crew is most likely to want to come home,” says Shine. “They’re getting tired of being on the space station and they want to see their families.”
As most missions to the ISS are now between six months and a year in duration, Nasa may therefore want to consider sending up some more chocolate pudding.
Lost in space
To help cope with the daily frustrations of living on board a cluttered orbiting laboratory, the Alabama team is even responsible for the astronauts’ lost property. It is the job of the Stowage Officer to keep track of every item on the ISS. Shine describes it as “one of the hardest jobs in the space programme”.
Sometimes astronauts don’t put their things away, just like us here on Earth
“Sometimes astronauts don’t put their things away, just like us down here on Earth,” says Shine. “They’ll call down looking for a wrench or something and it’s not where we thought it was, so it’s the job of the stowage officer to go back through the history of where it was last seen and locate it.”
It is the space equivalent of losing your keys and trying to remember where you last had them. The problem is that if you put down your spaceship keys, there is a good chance they will float off somewhere else.
“We’re looking over the astronauts’ shoulders so if we see something float away we’ll let the crew know,” says Shine. “A lot of the time we find things collected in vents.”
It’s always been the case that behind every astronaut there are thousands – if not tens of thousands – of support staff. The difference today, as we enter an era of longer duration missions, is that they are just as likely to be an expert on comfort food or space station storage as a rocket scientist.