International Space Station Is About To Get Crowded, And It's Running Out Of Beds | WAMC

International Space Station Is About To Get Crowded, And It's Running Out Of Beds

Apr 22, 2021
Originally published on April 22, 2021 8:17 am

The International Space Station might be bigger than a football field, but it's equipped with just seven permanent sleeping pods, each about the size of a phone booth. NASA has to get creative for those rare times when there are more people than beds.

When the four new crew members arrive, they'll join seven already on board. Two astronauts will have to sleep in the docked SpaceX capsules. And that leaves two others without beds — but that's not a problem. "The nice thing about sleeping in space is that just about anywhere can be your bedroom," said NASA spokesman Dan Huot.

The packed house is only temporary. SpaceX is launching NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. The crew will spend the next six months in space.

The four astronauts who arrived last November are scheduled to return to Earth next week. During this brief transition period, those two bedless crew members can pick wherever they want to call home.

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet (from left), NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide react to comments after arriving at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center ahead of SpaceX's Crew-2 mission.
NASA / Getty Images

"They'll talk with the flight controllers and pick out spots on the station for the different astronauts to set up their own temporary stakeout location," said Huot.

Figuring out sleeping arrangements isn't a new problem for station astronauts. During space shuttle missions, there sometimes were more astronauts than bedrooms. Since astronauts float in the station, pretty much any surface — floor, ceiling or wall — can be a great place to roll out your sleeping bag.

"Sleeping in space was absolutely the best sleep I've ever had in my entire life," said retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. She spent more than 100 days in orbit, in the space shuttle and the space station.

"I always slept on the ceiling because where else can you sleep on your ceiling? You float into that bag and you find your position, and I would not wake up until the alarm went off."

Astronauts Mike Massimino (left) and Michael Good are pictured in their sleeping bags, which are attached to the lockers of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Atlantis in 2009.
Courtesy NASA

The station has hosted up to 13 visiting space travelers, setting the record back in 2009.

In recent years, it has been home to only around a half-dozen astronauts at a time. With a packed crew, mission planners have to pay close attention to things like exercise schedules. Each astronaut is required to exercise a certain amount every day to prevent muscle and bone loss in orbit, which requires careful planning.

One thing NASA isn't worried about — bathrooms. A recent cargo launch sent a new toilet to the station, bringing the number of space commodes to three. "It's a blessing that there are three toilets up there now for a crew of 11," said Stott.

Having to figure out problems like sleeping arrangements and bathroom capacity for a larger crew is a sign that NASA is entering a new chapter for the International Space Station. The agency's $6 billion Commercial Crew Program relies on private companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the station, ending a nearly decade-long gap of U.S. launches after the space shuttle program ended.

More launches mean more astronauts on board. "This really is where the evolutionary vision of ISS has always been heading," said Amy Foster, a University of Central Florida professor and space historian.

"We're finally reaching it because we have the new technological capabilities. We've got commercial crews that can make some of that possible in a way that shuttle and soyuz just simply couldn't support."

There are no signs of slowing down. NASA and SpaceX are set to launch four more astronauts as early as October, giving even more astronauts a chance to sleep on the station.

Copyright 2021 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Four more astronauts will soon be on their way to the International Space Station. Their launch is scheduled for tomorrow. When they arrive, they join seven people already on board, making them the largest population of the space station since the end of the Space Shuttle program a decade ago. There's not even enough places for everybody to sleep. WMFE's Brendan Byrne reports from Orlando.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The space station might be bigger than a football field, but it's equipped with just seven permanent sleeping pods, each about the size of a phone booth. So NASA has to get creative for those rare times when there are more people than beds. When the new crew arrives, two astronauts will have to sleep in the docked SpaceX capsules, and that leaves two others without a bed. But that's not a problem, says NASA spokesman Dan Huot.

DAN HUOT: Yeah, not necessarily a pull-out couch, but the nice thing about sleeping in space is just about anywhere can be your bedroom.

BYRNE: The packed house is only temporary. Four astronauts who arrived last November are scheduled to return to Earth next week. During this brief transition period, those two bedless crew members can pick wherever they want to call home.

HUOT: They'll talk with the flight controllers and pick out spots on the station for the different astronauts to set up kind of their own temporary stakeout location, where they'll usually get a corner in a module somewhere.

BYRNE: Figuring out sleeping arrangements isn't a new problem for station astronauts. During shuttle days, there were sometimes more astronauts than bedrooms. Since astronauts float on the station, pretty much any surface - floor, ceiling or wall - can be a great place to roll out your sleeping bag.

NICOLE STOTT: Oh, my gosh. Sleeping in space was - it was absolutely the best sleep I've ever had in my entire life.

BYRNE: Retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott spent 103 days in space, both on the shuttle and the ISS.

STOTT: I just always thought that was so cool. If I can, like, tie my sleeping bag off to the ceiling of the space shuttle and sleep on the ceiling somewhere, why would you not do that, right?

BYRNE: The station hosted up to 13 visiting space travelers, setting the record back in 2009. In recent years, it has only been home to around a half dozen astronauts at a time. NASA's Dan Huot says with a packed crew, mission planners have to pay close attention to things like exercise schedules. Each astronaut is required a certain amount of exercise each day to prevent muscle and bone loss on orbit, which requires careful planning. One thing NASA isn't worried about - bathrooms. A recent cargo launch sent a new toilet to the station, bringing the number of space commodes to three. Huot says, still, with 11 people, there might be a wait.

HUOT: At least you can wait with a view, and you can do it while flying around in space.

BYRNE: Having to figure out problems like sleeping arrangements and bathroom capacity for a larger crew is a sign that NASA is entering a new chapter for the International Space Station, says Amy Foster, a professor and space historian at the University of Central Florida.

AMY FOSTER: This really is kind of the - where the evolutionary vision of ISS has always been. And we're finally reaching it because we have the new technological capabilities, and we've got the commercial crews that can make some of that possible in a way that shuttle and Soyuz just simply couldn't support.

BYRNE: And there's no signs of slowing down. NASA and SpaceX are set to launch four more astronauts as early as October, giving even more astronauts a chance to sleep on the station.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "SEA URCHINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.