Two worlds in space

Just metres apart, and hundreds of miles from planet Earth, the Russian and American ISS crews lead very different lives.

Russian and American space suits.
Royal Institution/Anthony Lewis

As long-running tensions continue to bubble between Russia and the USA, the International Space Station stands out as a gleaming beacon of international collaboration. A bastion of unity rising above all the terrestrial troubles.

But the station itself is actually very divided. Despite being 400km from any other people, the teams at opposite ends operate largely independent of each other. The result? Two microclimates of behaviour and habit: the USA astronauts (along with the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese working in the US segment) doing things one way, the Russians another.

Let us have a taste

In 2014 the crew of Expedition 40 successfully harvested lettuce grown entirely on board the space station. The feast was meticulously frozen and brought back to Earth for testing.

On 10 August 2015, the astronauts of Expedition 44, Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui had the first taste of lettuce grown entirely in space. This tasting of red romaine lettuce, a symbolic step in the path to long-distance human space travel, was greeted with much fanfare. You can even watch the seminal moment in full 4K HD on YouTube.

The Russian cosmonauts, on the other hand, have been chomping happily away on their crops since 2003, eating half of everything they grow.

Friends at last

Many astronauts and cosmonauts know the troubled past of the two nations all too well. Lots of them have military backgrounds, particularly as pilots. In fact, many astronauts who have ultimately worked together to take man into space once flew against each other in tense airborne interactions.

2015 Christmas Lecturer Kevin Fong tells a classic NASA tale: over lunch in the canteen, an American pilot is telling his friends about how, in the 80s, he was sent to see off a Russian plane that had breached American airspace near Alaska. He caught up with the intruder, but after some aerobatic manoeuvring, the Russian pilot got the upper hand, and caught the American in a missile lock from behind. Satisfied with his victory, the Russian plane pulled up beside the American pilot, flipped upside down and waved, then flew off. From the other side of the lunch hall, in a thick Russian accent, someone then yells “That was you!? That was me!”

Keeping track

One of the most common frustrations astronauts mention is that their whole lives are carefully scheduled by the team at mission control. Someone back on earth keeps a tight inventory of everything in the USA modules, cataloguing the precise location of everything.

The Russians deal with it themselves, which is something of a mixed blessing: you can put your socks wherever you like, but you have to catalogue your every move.

If it's broke...

The approach to broken kit is very different at the opposite ends of the station. Although constant repairs throughout the space station are necessary, for the US team, once something gets worn out or broken, a replacement becomes the priority. The Russians have a more make-do attitude, and aim to fix rather than replace. In 2006, and again in 2011, the cosmonauts repurposed a defunct suit to act as an amateur ham radio satellite, with antennas on the helmet and a radio transmitter inside.

This article is part of ‘A Place Called Space’, the 2015 Royal Institution advent calendar.

Research by Jon Farrow, written and illustrated by Anthony Lewis. Copyright Royal Institution.

Suiting up

Two suits are used on the ISS for dangerous forays outside the station. The Russian solution is the Orlan EVA suit: a semi-rigid one-piece that takes a mere five minutes to put on.

The Americans, meanwhile, don the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU): a two-piece suit that takes a full 15 minutes to slip into. It does, however, look pretty slick: