The International Space Station is a disaster inside, but it makes sense

Have you ever seen pictures or videos of the International Space Station (ISS) from the inside? Probably you have been surprised by the amount of things displayed on the walls, all over the floor and the ceilings of the modules. It makes the impression that the astronauts live surrounded by chaos, just like if they were back to their dorms at college.

However, such apparent mess has a method. The World Space Week just happened, and we are going to tell you *why the ISS is organized that way, and why our mothers could not just go in there shouting to tidy everything up. And it is not only because the ISS orbits the Earth 360 kilometers high.

International Space Station’s structure

This ISS orbital complex was first started in 1998 with the launch of the Russian module Zarya. Since then, the station took shape during a decade through several missions from space shuttles and the launching of Russian rockets. The first permanent crew came in 2000. It was formed by three astronauts that lived there during six months. The current expedition is the number 44, and the number of members of the crew has been increased up to six. ISS’s assembly was completed in 2011, and it cost approximately more than $100k million.

The station is formed by three big structures. The main core serves as a “central bar” supporting the solar panels, the thermal radiators, the experimental platforms and, of course, the set of pressurized modules. These pressurized modules and the big solar panels are the other two ISS structures. The former have fifteen compartments among service and connections modules, labs, passenger compartments, etc.

ISS’s habitable space is 935 cubic meters, which amount to a Boeing 747 and a half.That means, there is no much space there. The modules were built to host the shuttle’s cargo hold, the MPLM, modules that serve to carry equipment, experiments, and supplies. These are 21 feet long and 15 feet in diameter, not exactly a luxury suite.

There has to be room for six astronauts during six months in this habitable volume. Also, another three astronauts that spend a week in the complex during the relay of the permanent crew. These travel in a Soyuz shuttle. These astronauts require supplies, life support systems, compartments to live and wash, devices for exercise and mitigate, if possible, the loss of muscle mass related to long-term weightlessness stays. In addition, they also need replacement equipment, computers, scientific instrumentation, cameras… Therefore, all the room possible has to be used in the best way possible to store and organize things.

The weightlessness’ mess

Interior of Columbus’ lab. Picture: ESA/NASA

The astronauts divide their time between the laboratories (Destiny, Kibo y Columbus), Zvezda’s service module (that is, for example, where the kitchen is), Cupola’s observatory and the pressurized hatch Quest. That is where the crew gets ready for the extra-vehicular activities, like spacewalks outside the station. Whenever they are not doing their daily activities, they have a very exact length of time for personal cleanliness, for eating, for doing sport and for sleeping. In each module they do different tasks:

  • Zvezda: Russian service module, similarly built to the main module of thespace station Mir. It has compartments to live and wash.
  • Zarya: Mainly aimed at storage and the station’s propulsion. The station needs to elevate the heights of its orbit periodically.
  • Harmony y Unity: Connection nodes between other modules. Harmony also hosts air generation systems, electricity, water recycling and other essential services.
  • Kibo: Japanese lab, it is the biggest module in the ISS. It is formed by a pressurized module and two sections for experiments, one of them exposed to the space.
  • Columbus: European laboratory.
  • Destiny: NASA’s lab.
  • Tranquility: Connection node to the observatory module Cupola. It also hosts life support equipment, water recycling systems, oxygen generation and the treadmill.
  • Quest: Hatch for the preparation of extra-vehicular activities. That is where the spacesuits are.
  • Rassvet and Poisk: Nodes for Soyuz’s docking. There is also a room available for the crew to acclimatize to the ISS’ atmospheric pressure.

Inside of the Cupola module. It is used for the Earth’s observation and the monitoring of vehicles that dock in the ISS.

In the pictures published of these modules’ interiors, it is common to see things everywhere. They are attached to the walls with velcro or embedded to the floor and ceiling. It has to be taken into account that there is no gravity in the ISS like on the Earth. It is in a permanent free fall state so that there is micro gravity. This is how common space orientation “up and down” stops making sense if you are freely floating around the complex.

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti explained to some students from her country that:

“On the ISS, a highly organized chaos reigns. It’s kind of like when you’re a little girl, and your parents come and tell you to tidy up your room. And you say no because you always precisely know where everything is.”

Columbus’ laboratory includes several “cabinets” attached to the walls where the crew can make different scientific experiments. These experiments arrive by automatic shuttles from Earth, like the Russian progress shuttles or the recent SpaceX’s Dragon capsules (there is a piloted version that has not been used yet). When these cargo ships get to the ISS (around a couple of times per month), the astronauts unload them at once. This means they have to storage tons of instruments and supplies until they can be used. Bu in exchange, these vehicles are filled with waste, defective equipment and trash. Once they get back to Earth, they disintegrate when they re-entry the atmosphere.

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio exercises inside the node Tranquility

It is normal to see pictures with some soft and white boxes all over the stationfixed to the walls with ropes so that they do not float away. Those boxes have been used to deliver provisions, replacements and experiment utilities to the ISS. They are necessary for the astronauts to work, although noways they also get some of the instructions per e-mail, and they can print some pieces with a 3D printer directly at the station.

Everything at hand

ISS’ crew have a very organized schedule from the mission control center so that there is few time to tidy up the station. Since there are six people, they have more time for scientific experiments, and this should be ISS’ main task. However, the maintenance task of the complex take most of their daily activities. These time constraints and the lack of space make the station look untidy.

The astronauts leave most of the stuff at hand, somewhere where they are no inconvenience. In the end, it is all about operating comfort. Canadarm 2 is one of the robotic arms of the ISS. If its controls are in the Destiny laboratory, is normal to find there a couple of computers and a huge amount of wires to join the device to the ISS so that it can receive energy and the astronauts can use it.

Those who have been into the station also tell that, for example “there is a lot of fan noise in some places but you get used to it. However, the doctors mean there can be some hearing loss after spending long periods of time there. The odor is not noticeable, there is much better air than in the Soyuz”, pointed out the Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque once he was back from his Cervantes mission back in 2003. However, all the astronauts who have been to the ISS want to come back at some point. The station is a much more organized house than what it seems to be like from the Earth.

Originally published at on November 11, 2015.

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