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Mission between garbage and microbes – what it looks like on the ISS

When Matthias Maurer sets off for the ISS at the end of October, no futuristic science fiction awaits him around 400 kilometers above the earth. The international space station is full of technology, but not everything looks ultra-modern. Some things have a certain retro charm after more than 20 years. Especially since the look inside is reminiscent of a messe apartment from time to time. “It’s already full up there,” admits Volker Schmid, who heads Maurer’s “Cosmic Kiss” mission at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “Looking for something and finding something is sometimes not so easy with the crowd.”

Alexander Gerst once discovered floppy disks in a compartment – one of them with the Windows 95/98 operating system, which is over 20 years old. Leaks have appeared in Russian modules in the past few months. To track them down, the astronauts let tea bags float around.

The ISS was designed in the 1980s. European participation is initially secured until 2024. In all likelihood it will be extended at the ministerial conference next year. “That was a huge investment in tax revenue. You want to use it as long as you can,” says Schmid. The USA, Russia, Canada and Japan are also involved in the ISS.

The construction is safe, says the expert, who pays the engineers a lot of respect. The leaks are not indicative of poor quality. As the oldest parts of the ISS, the Russian have more than 20 years under their belt and are highly stressed: minus 150 degrees in the earth’s shadow, plus 150 on the sunny side. Alternating every 45 minutes.

Schmid compares this to a car: Over the years, the probability that something will fail increases. “Then you have to see that you can fix it.” Time and again, water pumps and heat exchangers, for example, are exchanged and spare parts are installed. For example, the large solar panels are currently being replaced because they are no longer performing as well as they can after 20 years.

What if it gets really tricky? There is a substitute for all life-sustaining systems, oxygen and electricity. If a module leaks and becomes unusable, it can be sealed off. The astronauts also trained for such cases or for fire. “And if necessary, you could always go back, because the Soyuz and Dragon capsules also function as rescue systems,” says Schmid. And finally, reliable and safe technology is more important than a modern look.

To keep the technology and equipment up to date on the ISS, two to three tons of supplies and payloads are shot into space every few weeks. “When there is a lot to do, loading and unloading can get hectic. For example, when a lot of new experiments come, samples have to be packed for return transport and large parts have to be temporarily stored,” says Schmid. It also requires logistical choreography so that, for example, docking points are free.

The same applies inside: Because the ISS has neither a basement nor an attic, nor a garden or parking lot, experiment cabinets sometimes have to be pushed back and forth. Schmid remembers that it was sometimes very tight in Gerst’s time. According to the European Space Agency ESA, the living and working space is around 1200 cubic meters. “They have as much space as in an empty jumbo jet,” compares Schmid.

For Maurer alone, eight experiments were carried to the top with the latest SpaceX rocket. Including a special lens for retinal scans to diagnose swelling of the optic nerve due to the higher head pressure caused by weightlessness, and wild flower seeds for a youth competition.

Before the expeditions, all partners agree well in advance, explains Schmid. “It’s not that easy at times.” To make room, devices and samples are repeatedly sent back to earth for analysis. Disused experiments, hardware and astronaut underwear, on the other hand, burn up as garbage with supply spaceships when they re-enter the atmosphere. “Trashing” is then called.

Another experiment by Maurer looks at different surfaces and how resistant they are to bacteria. Because they also cavort in the space station. “Wherever there are people, there are also bacteria and germs,” ​​Schmid makes clear. “Therefore it has to be cleaned thoroughly all the time.” Of course, ventilation is not possible. And according to the information, some bacteria also attack metal and decompose it.

In spring, US researchers published a study in the journal “Microbiome” in which they Bacteria and fungi examined that were taken by three different crews within 14 months. Dining table, sleeping cabin, toilet, walls and windows were taken into account. The number and composition of the fungi found remained stable, while those of the bacteria changed, the team found – probably because of the different spacemen on board. Whether the microorganisms found, such as staphylococci and enterobacteria, could endanger the people in the space station or the ISS itself, remains to be investigated.

Biologist Rob Dunn writes in his book “Never Alone at Home” that the ISS reportedly smells of a mixture of plastic, rubbish and sweat. In view of the occurrence of various bacteria, this is no wonder.

DLR Head of Mission Schmid is certain that the need for research in space will remain great even after the ISS era. “Some experiments cannot be done here on the ground.” Next year at the meeting of the ESA Council of Ministers, plans are likely to be presented on how to proceed and what a successor could look like after 2030. It will certainly get a new design.


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