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'Herding cats' on the space station

The expanded, six-man ISS crew is off to a smooth start, the astronauts say, as they adapt to the "surreal" environment with no major problems.

Orchestrating the work of six full-time astronauts aboard the International Space Station is a bit like "herding cats," a Canadian crew member told reporters Monday, adding that living in the weightlessness of space is like floating in a Salvador Dali painting.

And then there's the part about recycling their sweat and urine for drinking and meal preparation.

"First of all, the water is great!" NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt said during the expanded crew's first orbital news conference. "It's probably as good as or better than anything you'd buy out of a fancy bottle on the ground.

"We try to use our water (regularly) to keep our processors primed and happy and we're all hydrating drinks and hydrating some of our sublimated food and it's a very convenient system. We've got hot water, cold water...and absolutely no complaints about the water up here."

Astronaut Mike Barratt describes life aboard the space station during a news conference Monday. His crewmates, from left to right: Koichi Wakata, Frank De Winne, commander Gennady Padalka, Roman Romanenko, and Robert Thirsk. NASA TV

Barratt, space station commander Gennady Padalka, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata were joined Friday by three new full-time crew members--cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium, and Robert Thirsk of the Canadian Space Agency.

Although visiting shuttle crews can push the combined crew size even higher, the arrival of Romanenko, De Winne, and Thirsk opened a new era of space station operations. With six full-time crew members, the lab's science output is expected to increase dramatically.

The station's complex life support systems are working well, including the critical urine recycling system referred to by Barratt. The problems encountered so far, he said, are the minor sort of growing pains one might expect when doing something for the first time.

"For me personally, I feel very much at home," Barratt said. "I come from a large family and I'm used to a lot of activity and 'busyness' and a lot of laughter, and we certainly have that now with these guys coming (aboard)."

The size of the station helps, he said, given the astronauts can work in three dimensions in a way impossible on Earth.

"The station is very large and six people still don't quite fill it, it's a very comfortable venue for six people to work with, I would say, pretty intensive timelines," Barratt said. "And these guys got to work right away, so I can tell you for sure that that's true."

Thirsk said the greatest challenge is simply becoming more efficient.

"I think for the newer members of the six-person crew--it's a little bit like herding cats for Gennady, trying to get us all organized and getting us all to accomplish our tasks in a day," he said. "The learning curve is steep. We've been here, Roman says, five days now. I think we've learned an awful lot, so the working efficiency is coming.

"But believe me, this is a surreal world here. I sometimes feel like I'm in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting here. My greatest fear? Astronauts always have fear of injury or death, but our greatest fear is of making a mistake. So I just hope I can get through this six months without making any serious mistakes."

The station crew faces a busy first few weeks in orbit, gearing up for a pair of spacewalks June 5 and 10 and arrival of the shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for launch June 13.

For the first spacewalk, which begins around 2:45 a.m. EDT June 5, Padalka and Barratt plan to route cables and mount an antenna to prepare an upper docking port on the Zvezda command module for eventual use by visiting Soyuz ferry craft.

A second, internal spacewalk is planned for June 10 to rig the upper hatch with a docking cone. For the second spacewalk, Padalka and Barratt, wearing Russian spacesuits, will remain connected to umbilicals while working in the depressurized transfer compartment between Zvezda and the Zarya module. The work is expected to take about an hour.

If all goes well, Endeavour's countdown will begin that same day, targeting a launch at 7:17 a.m. on June 13. Assuming an on-time liftoff, docking with the space station would be expected around 3:50 a.m. on June 15.

"With 13 people up here, it'll be a challenge," Barratt said. "Of course, we'll have the added volume of the shuttle added to the stack, it'll be a massive stack. But it'll be busy, and there will be a lot of coordination, a lot of activity, a lot of patience, but these are the guys to do that."