5000 Days on ISS: From Expedition 1 to Who Knows When

International Space Station on December 9, 2000

The first resident crew of astronauts entered the International Space Station on November 2, 2000. As of Saturday, July 12th, 2014, astronauts will have lived on-board the station in low Earth orbit for 5000 days.  The first crew on-board the ISS was comprised of one NASA astronaut, Commander Bill Shepherd, and two Cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko.

I was a late addition to the Expedition 1 training team, assigned as the lead Environmental Control and Life Support Systems Instructor roughly six months before the crew was scheduled to liftoff aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome.  My predecessor on that assignment had burned out from the grueling effort to get to that point and left the job to work elsewhere.  At that point, our group management was in a bind.  Over the previous six months, everyone with experience and in-depth knowledge of ISS life support systems had left.  They turned to me, with only a year on the job and less than 2 years out of college, and asked me to do my best and finish up the crew’s training.

The crew knew way more than I did at that moment and could have likely trained themselves.  Expedition 1 had started their training four and a half years prior to that point.  Bill Shepherd knew as much about every nut, bolt, and circuit board on that vehicle as any one person could.  While the crew was first starting their ISS training, I was in the office of a cross-cultural psychology professor who was telling me that if I ever actually applied myself, I could do great things.

I was given the task of putting together an overview of the ISS life support systems and some simulation cases to refresh the crew’s knowledge of those systems and ensure they knew everything they needed to know prior to launch.  The Station Training Lead and senior integration instructor on the training team were nervous about me.  If the crew felt like I was wasting their time, at best, they wouldn’t hesitate to get up and leave the session and go do something they felt was more worthwhile.  At worst, they would chew me up and spit me out like the insignificant little turd that I was.  I had been told to make sure I had my act together.

I had learned as much as I could about those life support systems.  I had read software requirement specifications documents, architecture description documents, interface control documents, subsystem summary sheets, training manuals, schematics, I had practiced in the simulators, and had even walked through the actual ISS Lab module at KSC when the module was being tested.  I had soaked in as much as I could.

From left to right: Yuri Gidzenko, Bill Shepherd, and Sergei Krikalev

The moment of truth came.  The Station Training Lead held her breath.  I laid out a blank table and asked them to tell me every sensor on-board that could measure the air pressure on-board the ISS.  They quickly rattled off the cabin pressure sensors and the handheld vacuum manometer the Russians used.  I pressed for another one, looking for them to identify a portable pressure sensor that could be attached to a hatch to measure the air pressure on the other side.  Sergei objected to this. He started arguing with me about the function of the device.  That’s when Bill Shepherd turned to Sergei, told him to stop being a lawyer, and everyone smiled and laughed.  The pressure went out of the room and the training leads realized that I would survive the day.

We spent the next few hours reviewing every last piece of life support equipment on-board and then went through a few simulation scenarios to make sure the crew was ready to respond to a few potential malfunctions.  Later I would realize that our focus for their training was completely wrong.  We were spending way too much time focused on software which the mission control team in Houston would take primary responsibility to recover.  Our instructor team would spend the better part of the next two years completely redeveloping that training flow.

A friend asked me if I thought we would reach 10,000 days of crews living on-board ISS.  To do that, we will need to keep a crew on-board ISS until Monday, March 20, 2028.  The odds of that happening are probably pretty slim.  NASA has agreed to extend the life of the ISS to 2024, but we have yet to reach agreement with our International Partners on that.  Some at the agency have started looking at extending the life of the vehicle for four additional years to 2028, but the reality is the agency doesn’t have the funding to fly the ISS and do some other human exploration program to another destination in the Solar system.  If we want to go to an asteroid, or back to the Moon, or to Mars or the moons of Mars, we’re going to be required to stop flying ISS and pour all of our money into that program.  ISS will go away before then, unless our government decides to markedly increase the amount we invest in space exploration.

For the moment, we’ll continue to fly ISS and bore holes in the sky.  ISS continues to evolve in look and capability and the next few years are crucial to not only its success but the success of our future programs as we try to ensure the viability of US commercial cargo vehicles and return the country’s ability to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit via our Commercial Crew Program.  In addition, ISS will continue to be used as a test bed for new technologies, including advanced life support equipment,  advanced propulsion, plant-life experiments, animal experiments, and an ever-growing host of human experiments that will prepare us to someday go to those destinations that we can currently only set foot on in the realms of our imaginations.

All images courtesy of NASA.