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A space odyssey


Paolo Nespoli sets up his camera to document the interior of the International Space Station, 2017

The 241 people who have called the International Space Station (ISS) home since it launched in November 2000 spent their days aboard a contraption the size of a football field, orbiting 250 miles above Earth at speeds of 17,500mph and witnessing 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24 hours. Their time was spent conducting cutting-edge experiments, pushing the limits of human knowledge on microgravity, cosmic radiation and extreme temperatures.

At least that was the idea. “Things didn’t always work out like that,” says Paolo Nespoli with a laugh. Nespoli is an Italian astronaut and engineer who first docked at the International Space Station in 2007 and returned twice, in 2010 and 2017. “The plan was that astronauts spent most of their time on science, which is the purpose of the space station, right? We’re all used to working from home these days, but on my first trip to the ISS most of our time was spent not just working from home, but trying to keep it standing. Things didn’t work, parts of the station were yet to be built and at times it was literally falling apart. We barely slept three hours a night – the rest of the time we were working because water was coming through the ceiling or something like that. That’s how it was then, but today the space station is stable and living up to its original goals.”

Over the course of his three trips Nespoli spent a total of 313 days living on the ISS, more than any other European astronaut. Knowing that his 140-day mission in 2017 would be his last, he decided to document this flying workshop before it was too late. “The space station is due to be [decommissioned] in 2024,” he says. “This may be extended by a few years, but its destiny is to disappear.” Nespoli realised that unlike architectural marvels on Earth, there was no way to preserve the ISS for future generations. “It will simply be destroyed,” he says. “Could you imagine if the pharaohs in Egypt built the pyramids thinking that in 10 or 20 years they would be destroyed? It’s 4,500 years later and the pyramids are still sitting there. That is not the ISS’s fate.”

A keen amateur photographer, Nespoli worked with photojournalist Roland Miller to set about capturing the details of the ISS before they were lost forever. The results of that collaboration have been published in a new book, Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station. “Roland obviously would have liked to photograph in space himself, but that wasn’t an option so he approached me with the idea to document the inside of the station,” says Nespoli. “There are a million pictures by astronauts taken from the cupola [the ISS’s observatory module] looking down at Earth, but there are very few pictures of the actual station – and it is the most incredible place. All the pictures we have onboard are technical pictures, but a document of what the station is? We don’t have that.”

The only problem was that he had a fairly demanding day job and Nasa wasn’t sending him to space to take snaps. A daily shift on the ISS lasts 12 hours, from 7.30am to 7.30pm. Nespoli says he needs about six hours’ sleep a night and maybe three hours for meals, personal hygiene and other chores. That left only a small window to work on his side project. “Roland said ‘I’d like you to take 80 pictures inside the station, I will tell you what to do’,” says Nespoli. “I reckoned I would need two or three minutes per picture, that’s about three hours. I’ve got six months, I can find three hours.” But he’d reckoned without the complexity of shooting in microgravity where it is impossible to stay perfectly still and not ruin the exposure the photographs need – even the thump of a heartbeat is enough to move you around. “Each shot ended up taking an hour or two,” says Nespoli, who ended up creating his own rig using two articulated arms to reduce the shudder. “It was a pretty big job”.

The equipment storage area of the ISS’s Quest, the main airlock and departure point for spacewalks, 2017

A wall of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module decorated with ESA mission patches, 2017


A wall of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module decorated with ESA mission patches, 2017

Still he persevered, even if it meant sacrificing sleep. “We were looking to capture little details, which are theoretically not that important – but they tell us a lot about the people who took this laboratory and transformed it into a place to live. Nothing is there by chance because space is limited. So when you start looking at the photographs, you see so many details of human beings. It’s like going to Pompeii and looking at what people had scribbled on the walls. The body has gone, but what they left tells you something about what was important to them.”

Nespoli actually credits his interest in photography as the reason he was selected as an astronaut by Italy’s ASI space agency in 1998. “People ask me ‘What is the recipe for being selected? There are a million people who want to be an astronaut, but only a few hundred that get to do it’,” he says. “My answer is ‘I have no idea’. Because I know that there are people more qualified than I am who are not astronauts. What I can tell you is that during my last selection interview, we talked mostly about my interest in photography. I spent all my time studying the equations of space travel and all they wanted to talk about was my pictures. I was thinking, ‘Ask me about the third degree equation!’, but they were not interested. Looking back I think they trusted that I knew that stuff. They wanted to know if I had passions and what I could achieve through passion.”

Nespoli describes the space station as a sort of ramshackle hybrid of a high-tech lab and an extraterrestrial flop house. “Everybody thinks the space station is like an operating theatre in a hospital: sterile with nothing around,” he says. “Well, it is not like that at all. There is stuff all over the place because you have to imagine that the surgeon lives inside the operating theatre for a year.” Nespoli believes the insights discovered at the ISS about human behaviour in isolation are almost as important as the scientific experiments and spacewalks undertaken by astronauts. “That’s part of the analysis – what is important for human beings? What is important for them to be able to feel at home outside the world, in a place that is totally unnatural? To go to Mars we need to understand what happens to people from a physical and a psychological point of view, so we can build stations in such a way that people don’t go crazy after two weeks and kill each other.”

A signed model of the space shuttle Atlantis, eye chart and mission patch on display in the US-run Destiny module aboard the ISS, 2017

This transformation of the space station – which accommodates up to six astronauts at a time – has taken some time. “For years people would just have a sleeping bag they would unfold, and sleep in the corner,” says Nespoli. “But it was a mess. People would not be rested. Personal space is important, so they eventually built crew quarters, each one roughly the size of a telephone booth. Inside you put your sleeping bag, your computer, the pictures of your dog, your partner, your kid, your grandma… You make it yours, because you have to have something that’s yours, no matter how small it is.”

Another important development was the realisation that the expensive lines of communication back to Earth needed to be for more than contacting colleagues. “They had audio and video channels to send science data back but the astronauts said, ‘I want to talk to my partner. I want to talk to my kids’. They said, ‘Well, it’ll cost a gazillion to have a satellite link-up with them’ and the reply was ‘Yeah, okay. But I need to know they are alright’. You need to have a way to communicate with the ground. Nasa understands that now, and you have email and the capability to receive electronic magazines, music, movies… Whatever you want, you just ask Houston and most likely they will sort it out for you.”

Apart from a visit by American multimillionaire Dennis Tito – who in 2001 paid an estimated $20 million to become the world’s first space tourist – until now the only people to set foot on the space station have been a select group of highly trained astronauts. That looks set to change. In September it was reported that a new US television programme, Space Hero, will see contestants from around the world competing to win a ten-day trip to the space station travelling on one of the new breed of private spacecraft developed by private businesses like Boeing, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which became the first private company to send people to the station in May.

Nespoli believes that the commercialisation of the final frontier is unavoidable. “I think the role of the state is very important from a strategic point of view,” he says. “Once it becomes viable from a commercial point of view the state should let the private era begin, because they are much more efficient. Who can go to Mars now? Well, maybe a nation if they decided to, but will they invest the amount of money needed? Now people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have shown that there is another way, a commercial side – and it’s very effective. I know that a lot of people think that it’s a trivialisation of space, but I disagree. Space still has so many things to offer. If low Earth orbit becomes trivial, you still have the Moon, you still have Mars. Even if you go to Mars, in terms of the universe we have gone nowhere, and private companies can help us go much, much further.”

View of Earth through window six of the Cupola observatory module, 2017

One of the partners in Space Hero is Axiom Space, a start-up that aims to build its own commercial space stations. Again, Nespoli is in favour. “I think the ISS has shown that we can learn a lot. I hope we use the knowledge to build something else, and that [the private sector] will build a better one, a faster one, a cheaper one.” And how does he feel knowing that the extraordinary place he lived in for almost a year will be no more? “I am psychologically attached to the space station but it’s like a human body,” he says. “As much as you want to live forever, today we cannot. There will be a point when we are gone, and so it is with the space station. It’s so expensive to run.” Whenever the sun sets on the ISS for the last 16 times, Nespoli believes its lasting legacy will not be the result of any of the experiments, the spacewalks or acting as the backdrop to an out of this world TV show. “The ISS has shown that no matter how divided people are they can work together if they believe in the goal,” he says. “Russia and the United States haven’t got along for a long time. The only project they subscribed to together and kept doing is the space station. So that means that even though we are not that friendly, there are some ways that allow us to work together out of this world and on it. The point is not to like or dislike, it’s to achieve a goal.”

The Italian astronaut believes that during the pandemic this kind of cooperation is more important than ever. “People need to understand we are all in this [pandemic] together. We have an objective which is to find a way out of this crazy situation, and because of this we need to all work together. It’s not like that at the moment. In Italy now certain regions are in lockdown and still we are looking at other countries and thinking ‘Well, at least we’re not as bad as they are’. This virus doesn’t have a passport, it doesn’t care about our little gardens and their walls. If we understand this and everybody does their part, we will find a solution. Now, I know that this is a weird situation, but so was the building of an international space station. When everything was broken, or expensive or difficult it seemed impossible. But little by little, we endured. We endured and we succeeded.”

The ISS with the space shuttle Endeavour and automated transfer vehicle Kepler docked. Taken from Nespoli’s departing Soyuz TMA-20, 2011

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