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Astronauts Will Share a Painfully Cramped Space Aboard Future Lunar Space Station

The planned lunar Gateway space station will be just one-sixth the size of the ISS and feature an upsettingly tiny habitation module.

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An illustration of the lunar gateway in orbit around the Moon.
An illustration of the lunar gateway in orbit around the Moon.
Illustration: NASA

Architects designing the living space for the upcoming lunar Gateway did their best to make it comfortable for astronauts, but technical constraints forced them to create a tiny, noisy corridor with no windows and barely enough room to stand upright.

The European-built international habitat, or I-Hab, is meant to provide living quarters for astronauts on board the Lunar Gateway, a future outpost that will orbit the Moon. The purpose of Gateway, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and other international partners, is to provide a place for astronauts to conduct science in lunar orbit and to transfer from one spacecraft to another, such as a lunar lander. But an architect involved in I-Hab’s design recently revealed the claustrophobic conditions for the orbital habitat that’s supposed to house up to four astronauts for around 90 days at a time.

Related story: What to Know About Lunar Gateway, NASA’s Future Moon-Orbiting Space Station

During the Czech Space Week conference in Brno, Czechia (the country formerly known as the Czech Republic), René Waclavicek, a space architect and design researcher at Austria-based LIQUIFER Space Systems, stated that the Lunar Gateway will be roughly one-sixth of the size of the International Space Station (ISS), Space.com reported. Waclavicek, who was involved in I-Hab’s design, said that the architects behind the lunar living quarters were constrained by the amount of material that can be transported to the Moon, requiring them to make some sacrifices.

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I-Habwill have habitable space of about 8 cubic meters [280 cubic feet] and you will have to share it with three others,” Waclavicek said during the conference. “In other words, that would be a room 2 by 2 by 2 meters [6.6 by 6.6 by 6.6 feet], and you are locked in there.”

By comparison, the ISS stretches for about 357 feet (108 meters) from end-to-end, and is essentially a five-bedroom orbital complex complete with a gym, two bathrooms, and a 360-degree window with an enviable view of our home planet.

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A view of the Moon wouldn’t be bad either, except I-Hab won’t be equipped with the same luxury. “We always get asked ‘where is the window?’,” Waclavicek said. “The moon is a thousand times farther away [than the ISS] and each window is a disturbance in the continuity of the structure. Also, glass is very heavy so a window is the first thing that gets canceled.” The Gateway will have windows, although not in the living quarters. Instead, the refueling module ESPRIT will have small windows, according to Waclavicek.

With an extremely curtailed view of the surrounding cosmos, the astronauts will have a hard time relaxing during their downtime—especially as they’re being serenaded by the robotic hum of onboard machinery. “Actually, you are living in a machine room,” Waclavicek said. “The life-support systems make noise, they have a lot of fans, and you have [a tiny amount] of private space where you can close the door and tame the noise.”

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The architect admits that they began with a design for larger living quarters but had to shrink it down due to mass restrictions for the lunar outpost. As a result, astronauts will be cramped inside a tiny tube for the duration of their mission around the Moon. “[The I-Hab] really is just a cylinder with a hatch on each end and two hatches at the sides and a corridor going through the length axis,” he said. “Even if you want to pass one another, it’s already quite difficult, you have to interrupt whatever you are doing in the moment to let the other [person] pass by you.” It will be a cramped environment, no doubt, but it’s important to remember that a capsule, namely NASA’s Orion spacecraft, will be attached to the Gateway station during these missions, which will allow for some added elbow room. Lunar landers, such as SpaceX’s upcoming Starship, will also dock to Gateway.

NASA’s Artemis program is officially underway, having kicking off in November 2022 with the launch of Artemis 1. Unlike Apollo, Artemis is designed to establish a sustainable presence of astronauts on and around the Moon, with the Lunar Gateway being an essential part of the mission objective.

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The first components of the Lunar Gateway could reach orbit as early as 2024, but I-Hab isn’t expected to make it up there until 2027. The living quarters may not sound like it would provide for a pleasant experience on board, but it will likely contribute some valuable science on Earth’s natural satellite and beyond.

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