Page last updated at 00:44 GMT, Saturday, 22 November 2008

A space of one's own

By Irene Klotz
Houston, Texas

Velcro means those family snaps can stick to the wall

When European astronaut Frank De Winne reaches the International Space Station next year, he can look forward to something rarely afforded to travellers in space - a bit of privacy.

To prepare for a permanent six-member crew, Nasa is flying four private boudoirs to the orbital outpost.

Two were delivered this week aboard the space shuttle Endeavour and were installed in the station's Harmony node. Two more are due to arrive in 2009 and early 2010.

When he becomes Europe's first commander of the orbiting platform, De Winne will be able to enjoy… a place of his own.

"Having a place of privacy where at the end of a long day you can get away and relax, have private medical conferences and private conversations with your family… is very important, very important for long-term astronaut performance," said James Broyan, the Nasa manager in charge of the new crew quarters.

This is a luxury hotel compared to what we've had so far
James Broyan, Nasa

The pods are small - about the size of a commercial jet's bathroom - but well designed.

Broyan showed me the two rooms being prepared for flight at a manufacturing plant at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Nasa designed and built the four rooms itself, at a cost of about $30.9m.

Station (Nasa)
The station will soon be occupied by crews of six

Even with the door open, the chamber is noticeably quieter inside, the result of padded walls, insulation and a ventilation system that steers air around the module rather than directly blowing into it.

Broyan said the goal was to cut ambient noise levels from about 60 to 43 decibels.

The soundproofing works both ways. Step inside the high-fidelity mock-up, close the door and no-one can hear you scream.

The station already has two tiny cabins in the Russian-made service module, but they have none of the amenities of the new rooms, including protection from solar radiation, electrical outlets for laptops and connections to the station's audio systems.

ISS window (Nasa)
Everyone appreciates a window... especially on the ISS

The rooms' outer walls are each filled with 250lbs of insulating polyethylene to protect astronauts during solar flares and damaging ultraviolet radiation.

With four pods arranged in a circle, the Harmony node becomes one of the station's safe havens.

About the only thing missing is a window, but Broyan feels that's a small sacrifice for better radiation protection. Windows allow more of the dangerous rays to enter the station.

There are hooks on one wall to hang a sleeping bag and a spot on the opposite wall for a fold-down table and foot restraints so astronauts can use a laptop computer.

ISS residents will be able to decorate a bit. The rooms' white, quilted walls include strips of Velcro to attach pictures and personal items.

The overhead fluorescent light has an adjustable shade.

"This is a luxury hotel compared to what we've had so far," Broyan said.

There are no locks on the small bi-fold doors, but engineers left a piece of Velcro on the outside wall so astronauts can name their rooms.

Broyan tactfully sidesteps a question about having guests over.

"Thermally, they're designed for one," he said.

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