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Tracking ten years of space station 'stuff'

November 20, 2008

— Imagine for the moment that you moved into a one bedroom apartment 10 years ago. Over the course of the past decade, you've torn down seven walls between your room and the neighbors, giving you a total of eight rooms. You needed the extra space as 15 of your friends sent 167 people to move in, some staying as long as six months.

Oh, and did we mention your place lacks gravity?

The first "room" for the International Space Station (ISS) launched ten years ago today, and since then 78 "moving vans" — rockets — have delivered new rooms (modules), furniture (equipments racks), and residents (cosmonauts, astronauts and spaceflight participants).

That's a lot of stuff, and when most people on Earth have a hard enough time finding the keys or the remote control, let alone something they received 10 years ago, you have to wonder how anyone finds anything aboard the ISS after 57,309 trips around the planet since November 20, 1998.

Shopping at the space station

Garrett Reisman knows firsthand; he lived on-board the station for three months, just shy of the 10th anniversary of the launch of Zarya, the Russian-built functional cargo block (FGB) that was the first module to reach orbit. He returned to the ground this past June.

"Some modules are really packed," Reisman recalled, "like the FBG is completely covered with stuff. It is pretty much to capacity. It is very difficult to work in there."

He said the same is true for the Russian service module Zvezda and the Pirs docking compartment, launched in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

"The Russian segment is kind of maxxed out on storage space," he told collectSPACE in an interview. "The rest of the station is actually in a lot better shape."

Of course, the newer the segment, the less chance it has had to become cluttered. Reisman arrived at the ISS just a month after the addition of the European lab Columbus, and was there to help with the docking of two parts of the Japanese experiment module Kibo, the most recent living rooms to be added.

Not that the solution is as simple as just redistributing the supplies between segments.

"You just can't put anything anywhere you want," Reisman explained. "You have to get concurrence [from Mission Control] to move any major item from a module to another. You can certainly make suggestions, but cargo space and storage space is one of those things that is negotiated contractually. So you can't just take like all the Russian gear and stick it in the European module without approval from the ground. That's subject to negotiations."

Beyond international relations however, there's another good reason why the ISS residents can't just reorganize as they see fit: there is a method to the madness, or in this case, storage.

"It is incredible how well the ground does know where things are," Reisman reflected. "It really surprised me when I was up there how good they were. There were times when I was looking for something and I would call down and within a matter of minutes, or at least hours, they would come up with a location and lo and behold, there it would be."

That mission control can locate just about any piece part aboard a station orbiting 200 miles up can be credited to a technology most people on the ground are familiar with when shopping: barcodes.

"One of the things we learned from the Russians from our partnership is that we knew that this issue of storage and location was a major issue on space stations. That this is not something that can be taken lightly," said Reisman.

Though the U.S. had operated Skylab 35 years ago, the Russians' experience with orbiting outposts was greater given their multiple Salyut stations and the 15 years they operated the Mir space station. As such, they developed an inventory management system (IMS).

"Everything on the station, pretty much everything — I mean, like individual pieces of underwear, for example, might not have it to this detail, but — almost every major piece of equipment up there has a barcode on it," shared Reisman. "It also has a serial number and a part number that is entered into a database that is available on our computers throughout the whole ship, both the Russian and U.S. segments."

"You can do searches and you can say, 'Okay, I want to know where all the 9/16th hex-head sockets are located.' You just do a search and it will tell you that they are located in this particular module, in this particular rack in this particular bag."

Keeping the database updated is the responsibility of every crew member, and the ground watches — literally — to make sure that they do.

"They can watch on video as we work, so they have a great collective knowledge about where things have been in the past and where they probably are currently," added Reisman.

Not that the astronauts have to go around remembering barcode numbers in their heads.

"We have barcode readers," explained Reisman, "so just like doing inventory in the supermarket, where you have a little laser that you shine on the barcode and it beeps and it tells you what you have, you don't have to manually enter barcodes into the computer. You can scan an item and then scan its new location, push a button and through an RF link, it updates the location in the database."

From the store to the station

Astronaut calls for the label maker. Click to view and enlarge in a new, pop-up window. (NASA)

Sometimes though, it isn't the part or location that needs changing, but the barcode it launched with (or without).

"A couple of times, we've found mistakes: cables that were incorrectly labeled. Maybe it was a video cable and it should have been a power cable, or something of that sort. Or more likely, this cable was to be hooked up to module three but is going to be hooked up to module two so now the label is wrong," Reisman described.

That is when they break out the label maker, but not just any label maker but the Brother P-Touch 1880, the same model you could go to your local office supply store and buy off the shelf, which is pretty much what NASA did.

"That's our middle of the line model," explained Duane Yamashita, Brother's marketing manager for vertical label commercial applications. Yamashita learned of their label maker's use aboard the ISS after it was already in use.

"It has good features, and it has a very good price," he told collectSPACE. "What makes it different from our entry-level models is that it prints onto a wider label. It has a couple of different fonts to choose from, it's very easy to use and it has a big display. So, from a kind of middle of the road, that's a nice conservative model to choose."

Marketing aside, for Reisman, the best feature of the label maker was the alternative it provided to the earlier, barcode-correcting procedure.

"It's great because we had been making marks on things just with Sharpies [pens], and this hundred billion dollar asset looks a bit shabby when you are just scrawling on it, especially with my penmanship," he said with a laugh. "So having a label maker was huge because it allowed us to make much more legible and much more professional looking labels."

According to Reisman, it was the astronauts themselves who suggested flying the label maker and it has been very useful.

"I remember making a label: there's a video port plug and so they have this big cap that goes on this plug and you have to remember that it needs to be installed in order to get video from the space shuttle over to the space station. And it needs to be uninstalled when the shuttle is gone. So, instead of having every crew member have to remember that, I just made a label that says, 'Install this plug when shuttle is present.'"

Label-less leftovers

Of course, like Reisman's underwear example, not all items have barcodes or labels, such as the astronauts' personal possessions. That can lead to something of a scavenger hunt when it comes time to go home.

"When it is about time to go home, there is this mad hunt to go through the whole station and gather up all your stuff that you want to take back with you," Reisman said. "That is a pretty complicated process actually. It can take a lot of time."

"You deploy things," he explained, "like I put a pair of dark welder's glasses, like very thick sunglasses, in the docking compartment because those are the best windows to watch sunrises and sunsets. And so I left it there."

Some items though, are purposely left without labels to be discovered as a surprise by future crews.

"I once opened this one locker and inside I found a bunch of books that people had left before," Reisman recalled. "I didn't end up reading any of them but it was kind of neat to see."

Among the items Reisman left behind were a couple of toy action figures, including one of "Gort", a humanoid robot from 1961 sci-fi movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It currently stands perched on top of the station's robotic arm controls.

"Yeah, I left that behind," admitted Reisman, "I thought it would be a nice little decoration there."

"I did leave an 'Ultraman' action figure inside the JEM to look over it and protect it," he continued, referring to the character from a Japanese television show and Japan's experiment module.

"I did leave one or two other items too, but I don't want to give away all my secrets," said Reisman.


Inside the International Space Station's U.S. Destiny lab. (NASA)

Garrett Reisman inside the ISS's Zvezda service module. (NASA)

Inside the International Space Station's Zvezda module. (NASA)

Brother's P-Touch 1880 label maker. (Brother)

Garrett Reisman's Gort action figure on board the ISS. (NASA)

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