Ever wonder what really goes on inside the International Space Station (ISS)? Are the professionals who spend months orbiting the planet one big happy family, or is the real story something more along the lines of a reality TV show? According to an interview published today, the conditions aboard the ISS can sometimes seem more like an episode of "Big Brother."
The new commander of the ISS, Col. Gennady Padalka, told Russia's Novaya Gazeta recently that decisions made by bureaucrats were harming the morale of the cosmonauts and astronauts inhabiting the science platform.
Padalka and his crewmates, Flight Engineer Michael Barratt and Participant Charles Simonyi, blasted off for the ISS last Thursday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and boarded the space station on Saturday from their Soyuz capsule to begin ISS Expedition 19, whose six-month mission will be to prepare the facility for future six-member crews. Simonyi, a civilian who became wealthy for developing office-productivity software for Microsoft Corp., will enjoy a weeklong stay as a "space tourist" (his second visit) before returning with the two remaining members of Expedition 18.
With a crew of six now living in the ISS temporarily, Padalka's remarks about the morale of the station's inhabitants takes on greater significance. Padalka, 50, who is now serving his third stint aboard the ISS, told the Russian newspaper that officials from Russia, the United States, and partner countries have been insisting that their cosmonauts and astronauts keep separate personal routines divided by nationality during their months-long stays, including such minor inconveniences as prohibiting the sharing of food and even toilet facilities. He said the prohibitions date back to 2003, after the loss of NASA's space shuttle Columbia, when the Russian space agency began charging its international partners for the resources used by their astronauts, and the other nations responded in kind.
"What is going on has an adverse effect on our work," Padalka noted, as reported in an article today from the Associated Press.
"Cosmonauts are above the ongoing squabble, no matter what officials decide," said Padalka. "We are grown-up, well-educated, and good-mannered people and can use our own brains to create [a] normal relationship. It's politicians and bureaucrats who can't reach agreement, not us, cosmonauts and astronauts."
Padalka cited a conflict over whether he could use the American exercise equipment during the current mission as an example.
"They told me: 'Yes, you can.' Then they said no," Padalka was quoted as saying. "Then they hold consultations, and they approve it again. And now, right before the flight, it turns out again that the answer is negative."
"They also recommend us to only use national toilets," he added.
Padalka also had a few choice words to say about Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, noting that the equipment the former Soviet Union contributed to the ISS was technologically inferior to that designed by the other national partners. He said that the Russian portion of the space station is "built on technologies dating back to the mid-1980s."
A spokesperson for Roscosmos declined to comment to the AP on the Padalka interview.
While the Russians have scrambled for funding for their space program in recent years, by offering visits to the ISS for cash to space tourists like Simonyi, for example, the U.S. space agency has not. So this could not explain why NASA was so stingy in refusing to let cosmonauts use its gym gear.
If countries like the United States are so picky about letting other space travelers touch their stuff, then Padalka has a legitimate gripe. And maybe it's time to mount a few more cameras inside the space station and turn what they record into a new TV series, which could generate tons of money for all concerned.
We could call it "The Biggest Losers in Outer Space."