Home sweet home in orbit
By Dennis Overbye
From afar, the International Space Station might look like a gangling machine, or like robot butterflies mating, but inside it is a cradle of humanity. Over the past 20 years, 141 people from 19 countries have worked, played with their food, grumbled about the toilet, drawn blood, space-walked and gazed up and down at the universe, and at Earth.
In the process they have thronged their high-tech surroundings with gear, including laptops and cameras, and plastered the walls with mission stickers and photographs of friends, loved ones and heroes of the Space Age such as Yuri Gagarin. Toys, stuffed animals and even orderly graffiti — the signatures of crew members and visitors — abound.
All this and more is documented in “Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station,” by Roland Miller and Paolo Nespoli. The result is a high-tech tour of a high-tech home in the sky; to an astronaut it must look almost cozy.
The space station has been variously occupied by as few as two astronauts (just enough to keep the lights on) and as many as 13 (when the space shuttle visited with new crews). Most of their work — endless medical and biological tests on weightlessness, maintenance of the ever-growing station — has not garnered headlines. Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent a year in space while his twin brother, Mark (now running to be Arizona’s senator), stayed on Earth so their physiologies could be compared.
For many fans of the space station, the outpost’s high point came in 2013 when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, on his last mission in space, sang a modified version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while floating with his guitar in a most peculiar way through the ISS. It was a reminder that humans take their humanity with them, even to space, with all joys and troubles that entails.
Over two decades, an international community has sprung up, of people who have been to space, have lived in space or expect to live in space, people so enthusiastic that some, like Charles Simonyi, the Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist, have paid millions of dollars to go and, in his case, go again.
Quietly, these astronauts and other offworld tourists have created a style for future space exploration — best practices for living and communing in space with grace and dignity. In a tradition passed down from the days of Mir, the Soviet Union’s final orbital outpost, new arrivals to the station are offered bread and salt. In “Interior Space,” Nespoli, a veteran Italian astronaut, recalls his shipmate Cady Coleman playing her flute in the station’s cupola, a windowed dome that offers spectacular views of Earth, and hearing her music float through the corridors.
The photographs shown are the result of an unusual collaboration between Miller, a photographer, and Nespoli, who at the time was flying his last mission on the space station, in 2017. “To our knowledge, this is the first collaboration at this level between a visual artist on Earth and an astronaut in space,” Miller said in an email.
Earthbound, Miller scoured Google for images of the space station and potential scenes he wanted captured, and emailed them to Nespoli. Nespoli took the shots and emailed them back to Miller, who critiqued them.
“I think the most surprising thing for me was how much the photographs Paolo made looked and felt like my work,” he said.
Nespoli, in his own email, said: “The basic structure of the ISS is fairly stable and it’s represented decently in Google Street View. What is missing there, though, are the signs of the human presence.” He added, “I paid a lot of attention to the details of the environment, making sure that the possible sterile appearance of the ISS was moderated by the little details of human presence that made this science lab feel like a home.”
The book includes an essay by an archaeologist, Justin St. P. Walsh, of Chapman University, who is using the photographs as a proxy for the kind of fieldwork that might be carried out in, say, a desert in Egypt.
Walsh said he was particularly interested in the aft wall of the Russian Zvezda module, where crew members live, eat, exercise and work. The wall is covered with memorabilia — flags, pictures of wooded landscapes, religious items that come and go depending on events in Russia.
“The cultural landscape of the International Space Station is every bit as rich as any terrestrial context an archaeologist might want to study,” he writes.
So many missions, so many stickers and mission patches to collect.