The space station's first six-person crew is adapting to a more crowded habitat than they're used to.
The second half of the team — Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne of ESA, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk — arrived May 29, boosting the population of long-term residents at the International Space Station (ISS) from its usual three to six.
"It's great having everybody here," NASA astronaut Michael Barratt said during an in-space press conference today. Barratt has been serving onboard the orbiting laboratory as a flight engineer for two months already. "It's great having the extra bodies and the extra noise. And for us, it's three new crewmates to share the adventure and share the workload."
Romanenko, De Winne and Thirsk launched May 27 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.
In addition to Barratt, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and station commander Gennady Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut, were already onboard before the newcomers arrived. Though the logistics of coordinating the larger crew are a bit more complicated than before, the influx of people hasn't caused too much disturbance, Barratt said.
"I don't think the routine has changed that much," he said. "There's a lot more of us, and we still tend to congregate in the Russian service module for breakfast. There's just a lot more people to share some stories."
Not only is the station crew now larger than it's ever been before — it's more international. For the first time all five of the station's international partner agencies are represented on orbit at once: NASA; the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos); the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); the European Space Agency (ESA); and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
"We've had the international flags up for a while, and having our new colleagues come gives them much more meaning," Barratt said, referring to the flags of member nations that hang in the space station.
For Romanenko and Thirsk, this trip is a first visit to the ISS.
"I think the greatest challenge will just be to get my working efficiency up," Thirsk said Monday. "We've been here five days now and I think we've learned a lot. I just hope I can get through my six months here without making any serious mistakes."
The long-duration mission will be made slightly easier by frequent calls and e-mails home to family, he said.
"We communicate every day," Thirsk said of his wife and three children. "We have e-mail and an internet protocol phone. Once a week we'll have a planned video conference as well."
The station can accommodate the larger population thanks to a few home improvements made recently. Last week the space station's new urine recycling system was officially activated, allowing astronauts to drink purified water reclaimed from used water and bodily fluids. The device helps provide enough potable water for all six crewmembers on the station without requiring heavy loads of water to be ported up to space by shuttles and cargo ships.
Despite the icky-sounding concept, the system has been working out well, the astronauts say.
"The water's great," Barratt said. "It's probably as good as or better than anything you'd buy out of a fancy bottle on the ground. It's a very convenient system. Absolutely no complaints about the water up here."
It will come in especially handy when the space station has to accommodate even more people in a few weeks. Seven astronauts are scheduled to lift off June 13 toward the station aboard the space shuttle Endeavour's STS-127 mission. When they arrive at the ISS for a planned 16-day construction mission, they will boost the total number of people onboard to 13.
"With 13 people up here it'll be a challenge," Barratt said. "It'll be busy, there will be a lot of coordination."
Nonetheless, Barratt said he didn't mind things getting crowded, since he comes from a family of seven on Earth.
"I feel very much at home," he said. "I come from a large family and I'm used to a lot of activity, business, and a lot of laughter, and we certainly have that now."
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