Spaceflight Now: Space Station/STS-98

Alpha astronauts busy but comfortable on station

Posted: January, 24, 2001

Despite a relentless work schedule, the Alpha astronauts say life on board the international space station is improving and while they miss the comforts of home, all three crew members say they would be happy to extend their stay if necessary.

An artist's concept of the international space station with the Progress cargo ship redocked to the bottom of the Zarya module. Photo: NASA SEE THE FULL SCREEN VERSION
But some problems remain, including high noise levels from the station's air conditioning system and poor communications with the ground.

"The biggest problem we have had is communications," commander William Shepherd told an interviewer today. "Our pipe to the ground has been kind of narrow and not that reliable. And that really impedes both sides - the crew on board and the teams on the ground - from talking as we need to work things out.

"We have got to have more communications and they have to be better."

Shepherd and his two cosmonaut crewmates - Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko - began their mission with launch Oct. 31. They currently communicate with Russian ground stations when flying within line of sight. They also can use an S-band radio link through NASA's Tracking and Data Relay System satellites.

But communications can be sporadic at best and television from the station is restricted to laptop computer video conferencing.

A high-speed Ku-band communications link will be established later this year, after attachment of the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, next month and installation of additional gear in early March.

In the meantime, life aboard the station is "very much like the Russian Mir space station," Shepherd said. "For me, it's pretty much like being on a ship or submarine. It's probably a little bit better.

"We certainly have more room than what I'm used to on the shuttle, and that's quite a change. It is cramped, but the space is pretty well laid out and it's very liveable."

Commander Shepherd at his hand-built table aboard the space station. Photo: NASA
The crew keeps in touch with family and friends via email "and we have a ham radio on board and we can talk to friends and families that way," Shepherd said. "We have scheduled conferences about every week with folks on the ground, particularly spouses and friends. It's certainly adequate."

But the station is a fairly noisy place to live and work, primarily due to the vehicle's air conditioning system, prompting the crew to wear earplugs or earphones for sleep.

"It's probably a little bit more (noisy) than we would like, (but) it's better than when we started," Shepherd said. "I'd like to see the noise level come down, but we're certainly in an environment right now that we think we can stay in effectively for some period of time.

"Yuri spends a lot of time (near one of the air conditioning units) because that's where his personal computer is. He's wearing earphones a lot. We're all wearing them at night because the machinery here makes some intermittent clicks and clacks as it cycles around. We sleep a little better with our earplugs in."

Shepherd said he has been most surprised by "how normal it gets to feel" living aboard the space station and spending months in orbit.

"You don't have really much sense that you are in space physically except for the fact that everything's floating around," he said. "The food's good, the water's good, the air is good. We're getting plenty of exercise and my feeling is we could probably keep doing this for a while. That is what was surprising to me."

The crew's intense work schedule has gotten quite a bit of attention in the media. Shepherd said the workload remains high, but the crew and ground controllers have lowered their expectations and the pace has settled down to a more realistic level.

Yuri Gidzenko operates computers in the Zvezda module's Central Post area. Photo: NASA
"The schedule started out very ambitious, there were a lot of expectations about how things were going to go," Shepherd said. "Some of those were not very good. But planning and how the pieces have been put together are definitely getting better. The good news is for the guys and gals who follow us, it will be better."

But it has been frustrating nonetheless.

"For me, the most frustrating thing has been to try and do our best to people's expectations on the ground," he said. "Everybody wants to get things done with every good intent but sometimes we just can't make it happen the way that we foresaw before we launched. That's been the most frustrating thing."

Even so, he said the crew is trying its best to avoid arguments with ground controllers to make sure an "us-versus-them" attitude does not develop.

"That's easily a natural part of the environment and we're trying to preclude starting a food fight, if you will," Shepherd said. "We're trying to exercise patience with the ground, we know there are a lot of things that maybe could go better.

"But we try not to be too critical because in the long run, all that won't matter. What matters is we have people up in space, space station is working and we're making progress building the station. And that's what's important."

Working through their 84th day aboard the station, all three crew members said they are getting along well in space and have no problems living together in such tight quarters.

Sergei Krikalev inside the service module. Photo: NASA
"I think we're getting to know each other better and better as a crew," Shepherd said. "We're getting along really well, we're working as a team. We've had a lot of practice, we had four years before we got up here to work on it. Actually, if they sent us some more fuel, we'll keep this thing going for a while, I think we're doing well."

"I completely agree with that," Krikalev added.

Shepherd and his crewmates originally expected to return to Earth in late February. But their stay aboard the station has been extended to mid March because of delays getting the shuttle Atlantis off the ground on the Destiny installation mission.

And what if additional delays are ordered?

"I think you have to approach it from the standpoint of you get home when you get home," Shepherd said today. "Yuri and I are military folks and we've been in this kind of arrangement for some time. Sergei has got a lot of experience flying in space (and) he's probably the expert on flight delays, having done two increments back-to-back on the Mir.

"So I think it's something we have been conditioned to. We don't expect big delays, but certainly we're mentally prepared to deal with it."

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