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The Economy Aboard The International Space Station


The International Space Station cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build. For astronauts living on the space station, though, money is essentially useless. There's nowhere to spend it. But that does not mean there isn't an economy for the handful of astronauts living on board. From our daily economics podcast, The Indicator From Planet Money, Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia explained.


STACEY VANEK SMITH: The economy aboard the International Space Station is all about trade. This is according to astronaut Doug Wheelock.

DOUGLAS WHEELOCK: Actually, everybody at NASA calls me Wheels. I'm one of the old, grizzled veterans, so the early career astronauts call me Papa Wheels (ph).

VANEK SMITH: Doug, Papa Wheels, served as the commander of the International Space Station and lived there, orbiting the Earth for six months.

WHEELOCK: The interesting thing is with food, of course.

CARDIFF GARCIA: Doug says that aboard the space station, most of the food is actually pretty bland.

VANEK SMITH: But every three months, a big event would happen. Doug and his crew would get a shipment from Earth.

WHEELOCK: Just before they closed the hatch on the launch pad, they would throw, like, a bag of fresh fruit, like oranges, lemons, apples, vegetables as well.

GARCIA: Everybody would only get one or two pieces of produce. There just wasn't that much of it. And so here's where the trade comes in. Doug knew that the Russians loved onions, but Doug loved fruit.

WHEELOCK: Fyodor Yurchikhin was my commander. And I said, hey, Fyodor, you want to trade an onion for - do you have, like, an extra orange? He goes, oh, you don't want your onion?

GARCIA: Of course, the space station economy was not just about food, though. Services were also a big part of it.

VANEK SMITH: Doug, for instance, has an engineering background. And he says for him, one of his least favorite parts of life aboard the space station were all the scientific experiments they had to do. Whatever their background, this was just part of what they did every day.

GARCIA: The way out of it - economics.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Doug discovered this a couple of weeks into his mission, when one of the scientists aboard the space station told him that there was a big problem.

WHEELOCK: She said, hey, the potty's broken.

GARCIA: Not what you want to hear aboard a space station, that's for sure.

VANEK SMITH: No. But Doug's background was in engineering, so he understands systems. And he says fixing things comes really naturally to him. And the scientist, this woman named Shannon, knew this about Doug.

WHEELOCK: Shannon looked at me. She said, if you fix the potty, I'll do all of your science for the rest of the day. And I'm thinking like, that is a deal and a half. I'll take that deal. So I got my tool belt and called Houston and said, you know, Houston, we have a problem. The potty's broken.

VANEK SMITH: But the real commodity on the space station, says Doug, was Earth itself.

GARCIA: For example, Doug says, you just want to see and talk to other humans, even if you don't know them. You want to drop in on other astronauts' video chats and see their families and talk to their friends. You don't care.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, because in space, humans are a precious commodity. And I asked if there was ever bartering around this. Like, hey, you can join my video chat with my family for an apple. And Doug says, actually, everybody needs human interaction so much they don't really trade it because it becomes sacred.

GARCIA: And when you get back to Earth, Doug says, your idea of what's valuable is changed forever.

WHEELOCK: It's completely changed my whole perspective, especially rain. I am just, like, fascinated by rain now. It's just I - the smell of it, the sound of it and just the feel against your skin I took for granted before, you know?

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.