The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISS illustration
The ISS is finally starting to resemble artist’s illustrations like this, after many years of difficulties and delays. (credit: NASA)

Finishing the space station

Since the beginning of the Space Station Freedom program back in the days of the Reagan Administration the effort, now the International Space Station, has been denounced as a waste, as a boondoggle, and as a “hole in the sky”. In spite of all the effort of the critics, and in spite of all the problems, tragedies, and setbacks, the program has survived and is now well on the way to completion. To have gotten as far as they have in the face of these obstacles is something that NASA and its partners should be proud of.

Sure, nobody is happy with the ISS as it is. It’s in the wrong orbit to support a return to the Moon or a trip to Mars; it’s too small to support a large crew but too big to be just a simple manned orbital outpost. Yet is has gone from being a precarious toehold in orbit to becoming a substantial base for useful research and a proving ground for future exploration. The experience and expertise that has been built up in several areas, especially in joint human-robotic operations, is going to pay real dividends on the Moon and beyond.

In 1993 the US Congress came within a single vote of canceling the whole program. It was saved in part by the promise that cooperating with the Russians would save money and would improve relations. No one can seriously claim that collaborating with Moscow saved any money, but the project continues to have a positive impact on bilateral relations.

The ISS has gone from being a precarious toehold in orbit to becoming a substantial base for useful research and a proving ground for future exploration.

At a time when Russia is once again sending its long-range bombers out to probe the air defenses of Alaska, Norway, and Great Britain, and when, as the cliché has it, “sabers are being rattled,” the ISS represents one area where Americans and Russians, and their partners, are happily working together. Well, sort of. Both sides have too much invested in the success of the station to back out now that it is almost built. The human contacts that have been established are deep and enduring.

Some day, perhaps soon, when the rattles subside and things have calmed down a bit, leaders in both nations will be able to see what they can accomplish when they work together. Russia wants to go to the Moon, but it needs partners to do so and the only logical one is America. Neither the Europeans nor the Chinese have the resources to achieve that goal, at least not in the foreseeable future.

In 2005 Congress designated the US portion of the ISS as a “national laboratory”, giving it the same kind of status that Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore have, no doubt with far less of a Defense Department presence. One early sign of the way this status will be used is the agreement between NASA and the National Institute of Health (NIH) signed last week to work on “…human health issues – including how the human body heals itself, fights infection or develops diseases such as cancer or osteoporosis,” according to NIH director Elias Zerhouni.

This is an interesting statement in that he does not seem to want to confine the research to simply the effects of space travel on the human body, but indicates that knowledge gained about the way it works in space will help advance medical research down here on Earth. It would seem logical that if the body behaves in a certain way in the unique environment of space, this information will increase our understanding of how it reacts in a “normal” situation, in much the same way that medical research on highly trained athletes has lead to advances in treatments for the rest of us.

Private firms have been slowly finding ways to make money using the ISS. Space Adventures has so far sold five flights to tourists and SPACEHAB, whose final shuttle mission to the ISS was flown last month, is reinventing itself as a provider of protein crystals manufactured on the ISS for the pharmaceutical industry. There have been a few advertisements filmed in the Russian side of the station and an increasing number of celebrity chefs have found that sending the crews a gourmet space meal is a great way to win some low-cost publicity.

Is all this worth the roughly $100 billion it will cost to build and operate the ISS? It’s far too early to say: a single major medical breakthrough, for example, could pay for the whole thing many times over. After all, the US semiconductor industry long ago paid the US taxpayer back for the investment the government made in the Apollo program. One way or another research always pays off.

The next shuttle mission, STS-120, will carry the Harmony module (formerly known as Node 2) up to the station. Once Discovery arrives the crews will have to perform some of the most complex and difficult maneuvers so far attempted. Harmony will be temporarily attached to a docking port on Unity (formerly known as Node 1) and the older P6 power and radiator module, which had been attached to the station back in November 2000, will be moved to its permanent position on the end of the port-side truss.

This will be the culmination of one of the most challenging construction projects in human history. The experience has taught everyone involved what can and cannot be done in an international partnership.

The difficulty that the spacewalking astronauts had in furling up the P-6 solar arrays may be repeated when they try to spread them out anew. This is going to be a tricky process at best and the crews and the ground controllers should be prepared for a few very tough hours or even days. The news that NASA has added a fifth spacewalk to test a repair device indicates just how difficult and complex a mission this is going to be.

Once the Harmony node is attached to Unity and the shuttle departs it will be up to the ISS crew to move it to in permanent spot. The next step will be to bring up and attach the European Columbus and the Japanese Kibo modules, after which NASA will install the final solar array. By next summer, if all goes well, the Space Station will have assumed something close to its definitive configuration.

This will be the culmination of one of the most challenging construction projects in human history. The technology used in this project spans at least two—maybe more—generations of computers. Integrating systems from the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada have not been easy. The experience has taught everyone involved what can and cannot be done in an international partnership.

After the shuttle stops flying in 2010, the only way to get people back and forth to the ISS will be with the Russians. It will probably be up to SpaceX and their Dragon capsule, working under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort, to provide the US with a near-term alternative. The Orion capsule and its Ares 1 booster will not be ready until at least 2014 and more likely 2015 or later, especially if the White House and Congress end up forcing another budget cut on the space agency.

In 1980 the late Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “NASA has two remarkable records: first, a space program far more successful than anyone had dared hope: and, second the most incredibly bumbling, stupid, inept public relations of any government agency.” In 2007 nothing has fundamentally changed.