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In Studios or Skylab, Space Is Relative

August 22, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

Don't have enough ceiling clearance to hit your mid-iron shots in the den? Think your real estate agent was bluffing about the "huge, spacious, roomy" bathrooms that you can't even swim laps in? Feeling gypped because you can't quite fit a regulation polo field into the dog run?

I don't want to hear about it. Not after taking a stroll through the Industrial Space Facility (ISF) at the Southern California Home and Garden Show at the Anaheim Convention Center that closes Sunday. I came away from my short tour longing for the prairie-like vastness of my sleeping bag.

The facility, a kind of hybrid space station built for NASA by the private contractor Space Industries International, was one of the more popular set pieces at the show. Tucked into a corner of one of the exhibition halls, it attracted a steady flow of gawkers who climbed in one end with curious expressions and emerged from the other shaking their heads and gasping, "They sleep standing up? "

Nobody told the people who built the thing about how tough it is to get a camel through the eye of a needle. A few minutes inside this high-tech Dodger dog and you'll know what toothpaste feels like in its native habitat.

But form still follows function, even in space. As an earthbound habitat, it ranks right up there with a subway car at rush hour, but as a home in the cosmos, it's a peach.

Just ask Charlie Duke, a.k.a. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Duke (retired), lunar module pilot of the Apollo 16 mission, moon walker and one of the most non-claustrophobic humans on the planet. To Duke, the lack of space in space--as well as the dearth of tasteful interior design--is relative.

"The Skylab guys were up for 85 days," said Duke, "and they didn't have any problems. And Skylab was a lot less aesthetic than this."

Actually, if you live in a studio apartment and like modern, functional furniture, you'll probably like the ISF. Nearly cylindrical, it's designed to fit neatly into the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle orbiter, from which it will be released into low-Earth orbit sometime in the late 1990s. There it will stay, an unmanned, free-flying facility that will eventually become one component of the international space station Freedom.

Think of it as a cosmic time-share condo. It will contain all facilities needed to support astronauts who will visit it from time to time to conduct research and experiments.

The mock-up at the home show, said Duke, was not configured in exactly the way the real ISF will be, but featured an amalgam of several workstations--called "racks"--and contraptions that will be located elsewhere in the larger completed space station.

For commercial airline commuters, the ISF ought to look fairly familiar: the same type of unflattering overhead lighting, the same sort of light-colored institutional plastic bulkheads and compartments, the same brand of tight-sealing compartments, drawers and doors.

But, because you don't just fly there, you live there, there are crucial differences. The exercise rack, for instance, a mere indentation in the bulkhead large enough to accommodate one body. Duke pointed out that weightlifting in zero gravity is useless as exercise, so the exercise rack is a kind of modified pull-down device that is spring-loaded to provide resistance. The exerciser is held in place with that ubiquitous friend of the space traveler, Velcro straps.

The hygiene rack--about the size of a head on a small sailboat--is designed for an actual zero-gravity shower. An improvement on the sponge baths of Skylab days, the shower nevertheless needs a bit of help to work properly: a vacuum system to suck the floating droplets of water away and into a separate compartment to keep them from splashing around the cabin or being inhaled.

The tiny toilet facilities (everybody wants to know about this; Duke volunteers an explanation without even being asked) operate similarly: a conventional seat, a vacuum and collection chamber and, of course, Velcro. Duke compared it to the restroom system on newer commercial airplanes, with a slightly more aggressive vacuum.

It was the sleeping facilities, however, that drew the most comments. Smaller than any bunk you ever slept in as a kid, the rack on the mock-up featured a mannequin strapped into bed in a vertical position. A problem?

"Not really," said Duke. "In zero gravity there is not up or down. You generally like to sleep in relation to your instruments, but you don't have to."

In fact, said Duke, astronauts can simply decide what is up or down ("that's what we did on Apollo"), and that's simply the way it is. Or, he said, one can look out a window at Earth and use the home planet as a frame of reference.

Maybe that's the secret to living in a little metal cigar--or a cut-rate condo, for that matter--day after day: You may have a living room the size of a Volkswagen, you may sleep in a hammock and you may have to bathe in a soup bowl, but it's all tolerable if you have a really big front yard.

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