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It's getting crowded on the ISS: SpaceX Crew-6 to launch Monday

NASA is used to dealing with extra guests: just sleep on the ceiling

With SpaceX's Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station set to lift off Monday, and three astronauts trapped up there by a malfunctioning Soyuz capsule, it's about to get pretty crowded on the orbital outpost.

Crew-6 will bring four astronauts to the ISS: NASA's Stephen Bowen and Warren "Woody" Hoburg, Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi – the UAE's second-ever astronaut. 

Those four will join the four-person complement from Crew-5, who will hang around for a few days to hand off operations. They'll also be bunking in with the three-man crew of Soyuz capsule MS-22, who were originally scheduled to depart the ISS in late March, but who are staying on until September.

For those keeping score at home, that will bring the grand total of bods aboard the ISS to 11.

The cosmonauts of MS-22 – who along with Crew-5 made up ISS Expedition 68 – were supposed to leave the ISS in March to make way for Crew-6 and the original members of MS-23. Instead, that capsule will be launching for the ISS without a crew later today to serve as the return vehicle for the MS-22 crew. 

Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Francisco Rubio are extending their stay until September, joining Expedition 69, and will return in September around the same time as Crew-6. 

There are only seven permanent beds on the ISS, so 11 people will make it a bit snug. Luckily, overflow isn't uncommon given the overlapping windows between new crew arriving and their predecessors leaving.

When SpaceX's Crew-2 mission launched in 2021, NPR reported that surplus crew simply found somewhere to strap a sleeping bag, cleared it with the flight controllers, and hit the sack. Because the microgravity of Earth orbit is, well, micro, there's no need to confine sleep surfaces to floors. 

"I always slept on the ceiling because where else can you sleep on your ceiling? You float into that bag and you find your position, and I would not wake up until the alarm went off," retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who did two tours on the ISS, told NPR. 

A NASA spokesperson confirmed as much in an email to The Register, adding that temporary accommodations "are typically located in modules with the least activity during the handover period like the U.S. Quest Airlock or the large Japanese Kibo Module and can include docked spacecraft."

Wake up, there's science to do

Once they're settled in and have found a permanent bed, the Crew-6 astronauts will be performing some interesting experiments aboard the ISS – including one to see how badly the human microbiome might contaminate space or other planets. 

"Before explorers search for life elsewhere, investigators need to identify the microorganisms that may be transported with crew members," NASA said of its ISS External Microorganisms study.

The study will see astronauts collect samples from outside the ISS – particularly from areas surrounding life support vents – to "examine whether a spacecraft releases microorganisms and, if so, how many and how far they may travel." 

NASA said that the results of the experiment will help verify previous discoveries from a Roscosmos experiment that found non-spore-forming bacteria growing outside the ISS. The study may help scientists understand how microorganisms evolve when exposed to space, and could inform future NASA mission plans. 

Crewed spacecraft and space suits may need to be modified to prevent the release of contaminants "before humans explore destinations where life may have once existed and may still today," NASA explained. The space agency hopes the project will avoid investment of too much time and money into technology to go back to the Moon or on to Mars that may have to be replaced to prevent contamination.

"No matter how well crewed spaceships or spacesuits are cleaned, the humans inside continually regenerate microbial contaminants," NASA said. And the more of them, the filthier. ®

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