Tracking Ten Years of Space Station 'Stuff'
Garrett Reisman floats inside the International Space Station's Zvezda service module.
Credit: NASA

This story was updated at 1:08 p.m. EST.

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 10 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 maxed out on storage space," he told collectSPACE.com during 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 [Mission Control's] concurrence 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 low 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."

Continue reading at collectSPACE.com about Reisman's adventures in label-making and the label-less toy action figures he left behind.

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