When I was in high school I spent a summer on a tiny island named Nåtö between Sweden and Finland. It was the days before the Internet, Twitter and smartphones, and the concept of Amazon.com was still a good time away. Somehow people eked out a living on these tiny patches of land, fishing and subsistence farming and dairying. Entertainment was visiting a neighboring island by boat for a friendly game of cards. And when it came to shopping — well, you had to wait for the grocery boat. Once a week a small-ish fishing boat would dock, stuffed to the gills with fresh fruit, canned goods and kitchen staples. It also delivered the mail. You could also get tools and hardware and put in shopping requests for special items that were not on board. And if you were lucky, it would be there a week or two later.
There are still plenty of places on Planet Earth where sheer remoteness of a region puts a cap on consumerism, and every shopping trip becomes an exercise in planning and rotating your supplies. And of course, there’s a place that’s NOT on Earth that pretty much functions the same way as the grocery boat on Nåtö: the International Space Station. While its sheer distance as the crow flies (if it could indeed fly there) is not that mindboggling — 220 miles — it’s the fact that in order to get there you need a big rocket that makes it so remote.
The scientists and engineers working and living on the orbiting outpost are about as cut off from the rest of the world as you can be. Like those Scandinavian island residents, any grocery list or supply requisition has to be carefully planned months ahead of time, and the logistics are a bit of a nightmare. Fortunately, what the ISS lacks in easy access it makes up in technology and communication. There is a steady flow of data and conversation between the station and various ground-based support bases; you can tweet and surf the internet to your heart’s content, as long as you have the time to actually do it. And planning is what the folks at NASA and other space agencies around the world are very good at.
Playing the role of the grocery boat we actually have several candidates, and most of them are unmanned cargo vessels. The most frequent visitor is a Russian Progress spacecraft. Unpiloted but with a pressurized cargo hold the Progress is the pickup truck of space station deliveries. It brings food, water, oxygen, miscellaneous supplies, refrigerator art from the kids and large quantities of fuel, which the station needs to adjust the height of its orbit. Just last week the crew of the ISS welcomed another one of them with open arms, or rather, with an open docking port.
Recently the Russians have perfected the art of the quick approach: if the launch is timed just right it will allow the spacecraft to catch up with the station is just about six hours, as opposed to the standard two days it used to take to hunt the outpost down. And six hours seems like the blink of an eye when it comes to perishable materials and other time-sensitive deliveries.
Learn more about the Progress cargo ship at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/structure/elements/progress.html
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com