Rus­sian Ter­ri­tory

What have the world’s first space­far­ers brought to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion? Pa­tience.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY ANA­TOLY ZAK

“A BIG HELLO from all on board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion!” cos­mo­naut Mak­sim Su­raev greeted his coun­try in Oc­to­ber 2009 when he launched the first Rus­sian-lan­guage blog from space. For the first time cos­mo­nauts were speak­ing di­rectly to the Earth­bound (NASA had got­ten astro­nauts on Twit­ter a few months ear­lier), and the blog was a re­fresh­ing coun­ter­point to com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the Rus­sian Fed­eral Space Agency (Roscos­mos), which of­fer lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about what the cos­mo­nauts are do­ing. Su­raev’s suc­ces­sors have con­tin­ued the blog and, de­spite some in­evitable self-cen­sor­ship and po­lit­i­cal correctness, have fi­nally of­fered a small peek into life on the Rus­sian side of the space sta­tion.

Although the part­ner space agen­cies—in the United States, Rus­sia, Europe, Ja­pan, and Canada— work hard to por­tray the sta­tion as a har­mo­nious home with­out borders, where astro­nauts and cos­mo­nauts seam­lessly co­op­er­ate on a com­mon goal, Western­ers re­ally only see the ac­tiv­i­ties on the U.S. side. The daily life of cos­mo­nauts has stayed mostly hid­den. Even ar­chi­tec­turally, it is a di­vided sta­tion: On one side of the long, seg­mented truss is the U.S. seg­ment with the Euro­pean and Ja­panese lab­o­ra­to­ries at­tached; on the other side, at the far end of the Rus­sian­built, U.s.-bought stor­age and propul­sion mod­ule Zarya (Sunrise), is the Rus­sian mod­ule Zvezda (Star).

Zvezda pro­vides liv­ing quar­ters for the Rus­sian crew and works as a space tug for the en­tire out­post, steer­ing it, as nec­es­sary, away from space junk and com­pen­sat­ing for the con­stant drag of the up­per at­mos­phere. It also pro­vides a pow­er­ful life-sup­port sys­tem that works in tan­dem with the sys­tem in­side the U.S. lab, Des­tiny.

In­side their Zvezda home, the cos­mo­nauts have turned the mod­ule’s aft bulk­head into a wall of honor on which they put photos and me­men­tos. A care­ful stu­dent of Rus­sian cul­ture could mon­i­tor cer­tain po­lit­i­cal moves by watch­ing the chang­ing im­ages on the wall, which serves as a back­drop for crew photos and cer­e­mo­nial broad­casts. The Soviet-era Sa­lyut and Mir sta­tions had sim­i­lar walls, and nat­u­rally this prom­i­nent spot was of­ten adorned with por­traits of Vladimir Lenin and other Com­mu­nist lead­ers. Sharp-tongued space engi­neers dubbed this spot “iconos­ta­sis,” re­fer­ring to a wall in Rus­sian ortho­dox cathe­drals where icons of the saints are dis­played. The nick­name has turned out to be prophetic.

For more than a decade, the wall on the post-cold War Zvezda fea­tured po­lit­i­cally neu­tral photos of Sergei Korolev, the founder of the Soviet space pro­gram, and Yuri Ga­garin. Around the time Rus­sia an­nexed the Ukrainian ter­ri­tory of Crimea in March 2014, the wall had been un­der­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion. The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church, which has long had a broad in­flu­ence on the coun­try, in­clud­ing space­far­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, quickly spoke out as one of the most ar­dent sup­port­ers of the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive and na­tion­al­ist poli­cies adopted by the Krem­lin. In 2014, Crimean-born cos­mo­naut An­ton Shkaplerov, now a sym­bol of the Rus­sian space pro­gram, made a widely ad­ver­tised visit to his home­land be­fore his flight to the sta­tion. Upon his ar­rival at the sta­tion in Novem­ber, photos of Shkaplerov and his crew­mates showed a back­drop of Ortho­dox icons and cru­ci­fixes—korolev and Ga­garin had been moved quite lit­er­ally out of the pic­ture.

Down­sized and De­ferred

As blue­prints were be­ing drawn for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, the Rus­sian plan was to as­sem­ble sev­eral re­search labs to at­tach to Zarya and Zvezda, but those labs haven’t ma­te­ri­al­ized. In 2010, when NASA and the Western press de­clared the con­struc­tion of the space sta­tion com­plete, they ig­nored the near-em­bry­onic state of the Rus­sian ter­ri­tory. The de­lay of the mod­ules, which fea­tured ad­di­tional so­lar pan­els, com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear, and life sup­port and other sys­tems, has cre­ated a grow­ing de­pen­dence on NASA, and Roscos­mos barters with them for elec­tric­ity and what­ever else its crew needs.

While an­swer­ing online reader ques­tions for the Moscow-based mag­a­zine Novosti Kos­monatiki, cos­mo­naut Sergei Ryazan­sky ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem: “Our share in num­bers [of sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments] is ob­vi­ously less than we wanted. We can ar­gue about the sci­en­tific value of ex­per­i­ments con­ducted by our [non-rus­sian] col­leagues, but their equip­ment and its de­ploy­ment is thought out and or­ga­nized much bet­ter. On Mir we had spe­cial­ized sci­en­tific mod­ules and the en­tire spec­trum of sci­en­tific re­search, but the ISS, in this re­spect, is in much worse shape.”

Nor do Rus­sian cos­mo­nauts par­tic­i­pate in non-rus­sian sci­en­tific pro­grams. “Crews work to­gether dur­ing the flight on­board Soyuz and dur­ing emer­gency prac­tice drills,” Ryazan­sky ex­plained.

“The rest of the time, ev­ery­body works ac­cord­ing to their plans and sched­ules. Of course, we try to get to­gether for din­ners, when we dis­cuss cur­rent af­fairs, and to watch TV shows and movies, but un­for­tu­nately, not ev­ery day.”

Rus­sian engi­neers have to rely on in­ge­nu­ity to pro­vide sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments on the cheap, or as they call it, na kolenke, mean­ing “on your lap.” In Fe­bru­ary 2006, a used space­suit was re­pur­posed to cre­ate a ham ra­dio satel­lite. Engi­neers placed a ra­dio trans­mit­ter in­side the suit, mounted an­ten­nas on the hel­met, and ran a ca­ble through a sleeve to con­nect the var­i­ous com­po­nents. The cos­mo­nauts then tossed the suit out dur­ing a space­walk. When another suit was ready for dis­posal in 2011, they did it again. Another un­ortho­dox science experiment in­volved test­ing re­ac­tion times in space by play­ing Tetris, a com­puter game as pop­u­lar in the United States as it is in Rus­sia, where it was in­vented. There may be no spe­cial­ized labs on the Rus­sian side, but what Zvezda does have is sev­eral port­holes that make an ex­cel­lent Earth-view­ing sta­tion. With­out much science to con­duct, the cos­mo­nauts have had time to pro­duce an ever-grow­ing cat­a­log of photos from space. Crews on both sides head into Zvezda to snap land­scapes, watch vol­canic erup­tions, and even ob­serve rocket launches head­ing their way. Look­ing down at Mount El­brus, a moun­tain in the Western Cau­ca­sus, cos­mo­naut Feodor Yurchikhin was so en­tranced that af­ter he re­turned from or­bit, he climbed the 18,000-foot peak.

With the view and not much else to do, the cos­mo­nauts have tried to turn ob­ser­va­tion time into a prac­ti­cal ac­tiv­ity. Oleg Novit­sky has blogged about the enor­mous en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age re­sult­ing from oil ex­plo­ration in the Caspian re­gion—so per­va­sive it was vis­i­ble from space. Cos­mo­nauts have also re­port­edly caught tankers wash­ing their toxic guts into the ocean, while one Rus­sian pro­mo­tional movie claimed that af­ter the erup­tion of Ice­land’s Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull vol­cano, which par­a­lyzed air travel in Europe in 2010, cos­mo­nauts helped to es­tab­lish the bound­aries of the gi­ant ash cloud. Rus­sian crews have also tried to guide fish­ing ves­sels to­ward their catch and have re­ported plank­ton sight­ings to the Rus­sian fish­ing min­istry. Of course, satel­lites have long per­formed these kinds of ob­ser­va­tions, so mak­ing them from the space sta­tion is mostly a way to make the best of the cos­mo­nauts’ time.

The Rus­sians have had their stel­lar look­out post from the be­gin­ning—long be­fore the U.S. cupola ar­rived. How­ever, there is a glar­ing in­ad­e­quacy in the views from both van­tages, one that is felt more keenly by the Rus­sians. When a stu­dent from Rus­sia’s Yaku­tiya re­gion—a ter­ri­tory big­ger than Ar­gentina— asked cos­mo­naut Alek­sandr Misurkin to take pho­to­graphs of the far eastern re­pub­lic, Misurkin had to ad­mit that he couldn’t see it be­cause the space sta­tion’s path is too far south. In fact, cos­mo­nauts can’t view the vast ma­jor­ity of Rus­sia—the sta­tion’s or­bital path is in­clined 51.6 de­grees from the equa­tor, a com­pro­mise that al­lows sta­tion part­ners to send space­craft to the sta­tion from their re­spec­tive launch sites. Most of Rus­sia is lo­cated at higher lat­i­tudes, and this ge­og­ra­phy is one of the lead­ing mo­ti­va­tors be­hind the decades-long cru­sade for the coun­try to launch a fu­ture space sta­tion into a more ap­pro­pri­ate high-lat­i­tude or­bit.

One of the cos­mo­nauts’ fa­vorite ac­tiv­i­ties—and one that brings them about as close to science as they’ve got­ten—is grow­ing plants. Go­ing all the way back to the days of the Sa­lyut and Mir space sta­tions, in-or­bit gar­den­ing was con­sid­ered to be not just an experiment but an im­por­tant way to raise the morale of cos­mo­nauts packed for long pe­ri­ods in a tin can. (Those who have tried to care for a pot­ted plant in a closet-size New York apart­ment will un­der­stand.)

Dur­ing their stay in 2009, Mak­sim Su­raev and Ro­man Ro­ma­nenko man­aged to grow both wheat and salad greens. De­spite a strict pro­hi­bi­tion, they could not re­sist test­ing their space-grown pro­duce. “Can you imag­ine,” Su­raev wrote, “this green thing is grow­ing out there, while two big cos­mo­nauts just sit there and can’t touch it!” He con­fessed later on his blog, “In the end, we de­cided that no harm

would come if we tried a lit­tle piece. We chewed on it and got re­ally sad, be­cause the grass turned out to be ab­so­lutely taste­less!”

But in Space Sta­tion Rus­sia, even these low-bud­get ex­per­i­ments are in­ter­mit­tent at best. “Un­for­tu­nately, we are do­ing noth­ing at this point,” re­sponded Feodor Yurchikhin to one of his blog fol­low­ers in 2010. “The Amer­i­cans pre­pare to launch a plant experiment on the U.S. seg­ment, but it is quiet on our side…. We will come up with some­thing new, I am sure.”

Just be­cause they’re not do­ing much science doesn’t mean the cos­mo­nauts are idle. They play a num­ber of roles: movers, elec­tri­cians, plum­bers, and trash haulers. Ac­cord­ing to Sergei Ryazan­sky, Amer­i­cans keep the U.S. seg­ment in shape by re­plac­ing bro­ken parts, but the Rus­sian phi­los­o­phy is to fix as much as pos­si­ble. Al­most ev­ery day some of the count­less high-tech gear—on a space sta­tion, even the toi­lets are high-tech—re­quires a re­pair. Alarms go off fre­quently; even though most are false and an an­noy­ance to the crew, the cause can take days to in­ves­ti­gate. At one point, ev­ery time some­body ap­proached the toi­let on the Zvezda, a warn­ing light went on.

A big part of the main­te­nance rou­tine is clean­ing and main­tain­ing the life-sup­port sys­tem on Zvezda. A spe­cial cool­ing and dry­ing unit sucks in the sta­tion’s air to get rid of ex­ces­sive hu­mid­ity, and the crew needs to empty the sys­tem pe­ri­od­i­cally with a man­ual pump. Some­times, the de­hu­mid­i­fier is un­able to cope, and the cos­mo­nauts have to float around the sta­tion with tow­els to wipe off the me­tal pan­els. The unit that sep­a­rates oxy­gen from wa­ter re­quires con­stant tin­ker­ing, as did the U.s.-built tread­mill that was housed in­side Zvezda, the only one aboard the sta­tion un­til the COL­BERT tread­mill was in­stalled in the Tran­quil­ity node in 2009. The Rus­sians fi­nally got their own unit re­placed in 2013.

Un­bolt It, Un­pack It, Don’t Lose It

Rus­sia’s Progress cargo ships are fix­tures on the sta­tion—at least one ve­hi­cle is al­ways docked. It ar­rives as a sup­ply ship, serves as a tug­boat to move the sta­tion when needed, and leaves as a garbage truck, filled with sta­tion refuse, to burn up on reen­try. When it ar­rives, the ship is usu­ally stocked about half with Rus­sian sup­plies and half with goods for the U.S. crew and other part­ners. Ac­cord­ing to Su­raev: “We, un­like the Amer­i­cans and Ja­panese, at­tach cargo se­ri­ously, like for a nu­clear war. I can’t say why. G-loads are not re­ally big at launch… and our part­ners long ago switched from bolts and frames to Vel­cro. On their

side, it is one, two, and ev­ery­thing is out. But on our side, it looks like the sys­tems we had [in the 1960s] are still there. In weight­less­ness, to un­screw a bolt that some big guy had tight­ened up on the ground is not that easy.”

Find­ing places on the sta­tion to store cargo has be­come an art in it­self, in­volv­ing the use of an elab­o­rate track­ing sys­tem. “I moved my slip­pers un­der the couch—data­base needs to be up­dated,” Su­raev once joked. Rus­sians look with some envy at the Amer­i­cans, who rely on ground con­trol to do most of the cat­a­loging.

The Amer­i­cans have al­ways had been able to re­turn cargo to Earth rel­a­tively easily on the space shut­tle and now on Spacex’s Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean for retrieval. But any heavy ob­jects the cos­mo­nauts bring to the sta­tion have to stay there or be sent to burn up with the Progress. Mass lim­its on the de­part­ing Soyuz ves­sels have been strictly en­forced since a ship de­part­ing from Mir in 1994 col­lided with the sta­tion; the cause was traced to unau­tho­rized cargo that shifted the capsule’s cen­ter of grav­ity. The only sou­venirs Rus­sian crews can bring home must be tiny enough to tuck un­der the seat on the cramped Soyuz space­craft. When Ryazan­sky came home last year, he man­aged to squeeze in a de­cal of the Moscow State Univer­sity, his alma mater.

Blind and Deaf

It’s not just the Western public that doesn’t see or hear much about the cos­mo­nauts; Rus­sia keeps its own cit­i­zens largely in the dark as well. Cos­mo­nauts have had to de­fend the lack of trans­parency to blog­gers who de­mand the Rus­sian equiv­a­lent of NASA TV, which has broad­cast live footage from the sta­tion con­tin­u­ously since con­struc­tion of the U.S. side was com­pleted. “Un­for­tu­nately, com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­pa­bil­i­ties do not af­ford the de­ploy­ment of video cam­eras in the [Zvezda] Ser­vice Mod­ule,” Oleg Kon­dratiev wrote in re­sponse to one of the queries, but, he as­sured the reader, “Even with­out video, the Rus­sian cos­mo­nauts are as busy with work as their Amer­i­can col­leagues.” Tech­ni­cal is­sues aside, some cos­mo­nauts are clearly not in­ter­ested in liv­ing in a glass house. “Thanks, but [we] don’t need this,” Feodor Yurchikhin re­sponded.

If Rus­sian cit­i­zens ever get a line into the sta­tion, they might want to keep the sound off. The Rus­sian seg­ment is per­me­ated with an ever-present buzz that, un­til re­cently, could reach as high as 67 deci­bels—a smidge qui­eter than a vac­uum cleaner—ac­cord­ing to Pavel Vino­gradov, who spent two tours on board, in 2006 and, as com­man­der, 2013. The main source of this nui­sance: the ven­ti­la­tors, which work non­stop to force air cir­cu­la­tion in the weight­less en­vi­ron­ment. Ac­cord­ing to Oleg Kononeko, when it came to liv­ing in space, the noise was the most dif­fi­cult thing to get used to. (Cos­mo­naut Ana­toly Ivan­ishin tried to sleep with head­phones, which suc­ceeded only in sup­press­ing the sound of his wakeup calls.) In 2013 new ven­ti­la­tors were fi­nally in­stalled that, well, “made our seg­ment a bit qui­eter,” said Yurchikhin.

Lunch­box Trad­ing

One big perk of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion on the sta­tion is the ad­vance­ment of the space food fron­tier. Astro­nauts and cos­mo­nauts regularly gather on both sides of the sta­tion to share meals and barter food items. Roscos­mos’ con­tri­bu­tion to the food ra­tions is the unique as­sort­ment of canned del­i­ca­cies from tra­di­tional Rus­sian cui­sine. Perlovka (pearl bar­ley por­ridge) and tushonka (meat stew), dishes fa­mil­iar to the Rus­sian mil­i­tary vet­er­ans since World War II,

found new pop­u­lar­ity among the res­i­dents of the sta­tion. Cos­mo­naut Alek­sandr Samokutyaev says his Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts were big fans of Rus­sian cot­tage cheese.

The cos­mo­nauts, mean­while, have few com­plaints about shar­ing meals with a coun­try that flies up real frozen ice cream (not the freeze-dried stuff made for gift shops), as the U.S. did in 2012. Ryazan­sky has also spo­ken fondly of the great va­ri­ety of Amer­i­can pas­tries. “We should say,” he clar­i­fied, “our food is bet­ter than the Amer­i­cans’…. De­spite the va­ri­ety, ev­ery­thing is al­ready spiced. But in ours, if you wish you can make it spicy; if you want, you can make it sour. Amer­i­can ra­tions have great desserts and veg­gies; how­ever, they lack fish. Our Rus­sian food has great fish dishes.” The cos­mo­nauts’ cui­sine ben­e­fits when Euro­pean and Ja­panese crew ar­rive. Both agen­cies brought unique fla­vors from their culi­nary her­itages—in­clud­ing the one thing the cos­mo­nauts re­ally wanted. “Ja­panese ra­tions have great fish,” Ryazan­sky wrote.

Ev­ery new cargo ship comes with fresh pro­duce, fill­ing the stale air on the sta­tion with the aroma of ap­ples and or­anges. De­prived of strong fla­vors in their pack­aged food, cos­mo­nauts of­ten craved the most tra­di­tional Rus­sian condi­ment: fresh gar­lic. Mis­sion con­trol took the re­quest se­ri­ously. “They sent us so much that even if you eat one for break­fast, lunch, and din­ner, we still had plenty left to oil our­selves all over our bod­ies for a nice sleep,” Su­raev joked on his blog.

An­nex­a­tion on the Ground; Sec­ces­sion in Or­bit

In 2014, some Rus­sian politi­cians, rid­ing the swelling wave of na­tion­al­ism fol­low­ing the Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and an­gered by the U.S. con­dem­na­tion, called for an end to Roscos­mos’ co­op­er­a­tion with NASA. They sug­gested that Roscos­mos de­tach the Rus­sian seg­ment from the space sta­tion as early as 2018. Roscos­mos of­fi­cials ex­plained to hawk­ish politi­cians in the Krem­lin that all of the key hard­ware needed to break off would not make it to the launch­pad be­fore 2020.

Roscos­mos of­fi­cials have said they in­tend to launch the egre­giously de­layed Mul­ti­pur­pose Lab­o­ra­tory Mod­ule by 2017 (10 years af­ter the orig­i­nally an­nounced launch date), a node con­nec­tor mod­ule in 2018, and a science and power mod­ule called Nem-1—which is still in early stages of de­vel­op­ment—by 2020. In that op­ti­mistic sce­nario, the Rus­sian side would be com­pleted just four years be­fore the en­tire sta­tion is de­com­mis­sioned in 2024. (Rus­sia’s ul­ti­mate plan is to de­tach these last mod­ules around 2024 and con­tinue to op­er­ate them as a new space sta­tion.) By early this year, cooler heads in Moscow pre­vailed, and Roscos­mos an­nounced its in­ten­tion to con­tinue co­op­er­a­tion with NASA all the way to the sta­tion’s cur­rently planned end. With the po­lit­i­cal un­rest churn­ing on the ground, the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion re­mains one of the few ar­eas where the U.S. and Rus­sia can em­brace a part­ner­ship.

Cos­mo­naut Mak­sim Su­raev, palling around with two empty space­suits, was the first Rus­sian to blog from space, giv­ing cit­i­zens a look into or­bital go­ings-on.

Feodor Yurchikhin looks out from a Soyuz capsule that brought three crew to the sta­tion in June 2010. The flight to and from Earth is about the only time the Rus­sian and Amer­i­can crews work to­gether.

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