Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Plans for Keeping the Peace in Space

A makeshift prison hovering more than 380 kilometers above the Earth?

Why not, if there is no other way to neutralize an unstable inhabitant of the International Space Station who is endangering the safety of the $60 billion scientific outpost, Russian space doctors say.

Once fully deployed, the 16-nation station will house seven permanent residents from different nations, including Japan and Russia, and they may find it difficult to accept one another’s cultural taboos, according to psychiatrist Vadim Gushchin.

If crew members fail to cope with one another, they can become increasingly neurotic and even violent, said Gushchin, who works for the flagship of Russia’s space medical research, the Institute of Medical and Biological Studies.

"The idea of a space isolator is not that fantastic," he said in an interview Wednesday.

With the mission of the first full-time crew fast approaching, space officials are considering how to prevent serious conflicts on the orbiting station and to handle any that may occur.

Gushchin’s institute recently completed a study of how people of different nationalities got along during long-term "flights" in an ISS simulator.

During one flight, two Russian men exchanged blows after one of them tried to forcefully plant a kiss on the lips of a Canadian female volunteer during a New Year’s celebration.

The Canadian perceived the attempted kiss as a case of sexual harassment, while the Russian was merely trying to congratulate her with the New Year, showing how easily cultural differences can lead to violence on board the ISS, Gushchin said.

It took a big effort by Gushchin and others to convince the Canadian and her colleagues not to leave the simulator and complete their 110-day stint.

Unlike these volunteers, inhabitants of the International Space Station won’t be able to escape a tense situation by simply walking out.

Austrian doctor Norbert Kraft, who also participated in the ISS flight simulation, proposed forming a "space police" unit that could rush to the station in a U.S. shuttle and enforce order there when necessary.

However, both Gushchin and Yury Kargopolov of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center disapprove of the space police idea, although they agree that ISS inhabitants should be allowed to enforce their will upon unruly colleagues if necessary.

Thus, experts from the space agencies of the 16 countries participating in the ISS project should come together and draft a very detailed code of behavior for the station’s international crews, Gushchin said.

"It has to be very, very detailed and regulate as much as possible, otherwise fights can erupt over such seemingly insignificant issues such as whose job it is to tidy the place up," he said.

The Russian Aviation and Space Agency and NASA did endorse a draft of such a code this month, but it has yet to be approved by the Russian government, whereas the first full-time crew of U.S. astronaut Bill Shepard and two Russian cosmonauts is due to take off for the ISS on Oct. 30.

Even Kargopolov, who coordinates all space training at the Gagarin center, has only a vague idea of what powers this code would give to Shepard, who is the crew’s commander. He noted, however, in an interview Wednesday that the original code would have allowed Shepard, who is a former U.S. Navy SEAL, to use physical force if necessary.

However, the latest draft allows the commander only to ban his misbehaving subordinate from work as the harshest punishment, the Russian space official said.

It is not clear whether all ISS inhabitants would perceive such a ban as punishment. For instance, U.S. astronaut Michael Foale chose to abstain from work during his accident-ridden stint on Mir with two Russian cosmonauts in 1997, which included the potentially lethal collision of the station with a Progress cargo ship.

Kargopolov also could not say whether the code would be of any use if the entire crew spun out of control.

The first case of a space rebellion was reported in October 1968 when the stressed commander of the Apollo 7 craft, Walter Schirra, openly refused to obey ground control.

Then the entire crew of the U.S. SkyLab-4 station took a day off during their 84-day stint from November 1973 to February 1974. The three astronauts simply turned off the radio so as not to be bothered by ground control, citing fatigue and stress.

"We looked out the window, took showers, and did that sort of thing," Commander Gerald Carr recalled in an interview with The New York Times.

The best-known rebellion by Russian cosmonauts took place in June 1995. Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov refused to come out of Mir for their sixth space walk in two months, despite orders from the Flight Control Center.

These cases show that any code of behavior on the ISS would be useless, said cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who has been to Mir and is now training to fly to the international station.

"No one is going to use it. We have worked before in international crews and it was fine, and I can’t imagine a commander actually referring to this code to sort something out," Padalka said in a interview.