At Home 250 Miles Above Earth
A former astronaut on his six-month stint on the International Space Station: limited space but great view
On the market: shared living space with six-month lease. No rent, but must work for room and board; no pets; weekends off (kind of); transportation provided; astronomical view.
What a deal! Where do I sign? Oh, did I mention there is an almost-four-year training program? Still, it would be my chance to live aboard the international space station.
In 2000, I was a NASA astronaut preparing for my third space-shuttle mission when the chief called me into his office: “How would you like to spend half a year aboard the international space station?”
Hmmm. I would have to learn Russian and spend half of my life training in Star City (outside of Moscow) a month at a time over the next several years. But eventually I would have the run of the station and a perch to observe the Earth like no other. After two days of contemplation, I accepted.
I left Earth on Oct. 9, 2004, for my new home in space. There are several rooms (modules), two airlocks (one American, one Russian), one toilet, a separate washroom, plus a powder room in the Soyuz spacecraft. There is not so much a kitchen, but more of a dining room with what could be considered a kitchenette.
The place comes equipped with a gym, complete with a treadmill—and harnesses and rubber bungees to hold one down on the track. Don’t like running? There is also a stationary bicycle, and a resistance-exercise device to keep up muscle tone and bone density in zero gravity.
The station is quite roomy, actually, even though my own quarters were about the size of a phone booth. When I was there, the place felt like a good-size three-bedroom apartment. There was plenty of room for a crew of two, plus three visitors during crew exchanges. In space, there is no up or down, so there is no floor or ceiling. Thus, there is twice the amount of wall space available, and the lack of gravity makes the volume much more usable.
Most of the work is housekeeping and repairs, just like at home on Earth. Something always is in need of maintenance. However, the main purpose of the space station is to be the worlds’ premier microgravity research platform, and the most rewarding work is conducting scientific investigations.
Location, location, location! That’s what all real-estate people tell me. And, low Earth orbit is no exception. The view is unparalleled. From 250 miles up, one can see everything from cities, mountains, lakes, rivers and various landmarks, to rain forests, bridges, volcanoes and other natural wonders. Of course, it is difficult to go for a stroll around the block. Several days of planning and preparation are required for even a short excursion.
And, what about taking the spacecraft for a drive? That also takes preparation and a full day—even just to move from one parking spot to another. Thus, the vehicle is usually used only for arriving to, and departing from, the domicile (once for each).
This is the age of well-sealed green homes, and the space station is no exception. The air is purified using filters, micro-impurity reactors and carbon-dioxide scrubbers. The water is similarly run through resin-exchange bed purifiers. When I was there, perspiration and other condensation were collected and purified for drinking. Other wastewater is also recycled (you know what I mean). And all power aboard the station comes from solar panels.
Don’t want to rent? Do you prefer to buy? The construction cost of ISS is around $2.5 billion. You’ll have to ask your real-estate agent for comps. I don’t know if the market in low Earth orbit has gone up or down. There are others who are offering new construction, but they are not experienced builders. I recommend going with the guys who have done it.
For less, one can visit for a week or so at a time. Several individuals have, and all have loved the experience. The ISS is the ultimate destination. Like all desirable real estate, it’s not cheap. It is, however, an experience you would never forget.
—Leroy Chiao, who has spent more than 229 days in space, now serves as an adviser for human spaceflight for the Space Foundation. He lives in Houston.
The International Space Station
• There are 13 connected modules, making it about the size of a U.S. football field, including the end zones. Living space is 13,696 cubic feet.
• Six crew quarters, each about the size of a phone booth. To enter, the space is unzipped; the crew member then straps himself into a sleeping bag.
• Two bathrooms.
• For exercise, there is a Russian treadmill, an American treadmill, a stationary bike and a resistance machine, all spread throughout the station.
• There is a galley area, but it looks more like a science station than a kitchen.
• Wi-Fi Internet access throughout; movies can be watched on laptops.
• 205 people have lived in it.
A version of this article appeared October 19, 2012, on page M7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: At Home 250 Miles Above Earth.
Angela Donath, The Keith Byrd Team, South County Realtor in San Luis Obispo County, including Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Oceano, Nipomo, and Avila Beach, 805-801-4355