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20 YEARS ON THE FRONTIER

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THE NEXT FRONTIER

Life and the Legacy of the International Space Station

by Craig Collins

Depending on how you mark your milestones, you could say the International Space Station (ISS) came into existence in December of 1998, when its first two building blocks met each other: The control module Zarya (Russian for “sunrise”) was launched on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was joined a few days later by the first American module, Unity, which rode the space shuttle Endeavour from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In December 1998, the crew of Space Shuttle Mission STS-88 began construction of the International Space Station, joining the U.S.-built Unity node to the Russian-built Zarya module. The crew carried a large-format IMAX® camera with which this picture was taken. With Unity in place, NASA astronaut Nancy Currie begins positioning Zarya – in the grip of Canadarm – for mating.

In December 1998, the crew of Space Shuttle Mission STS-88 began construction of the International Space Station, joining the U.S.-built Unity node to the Russian-built Zarya module. The crew carried a large-format IMAX® camera with which this picture was taken. With Unity in place, NASA astronaut Nancy Currie begins positioning Zarya – in the grip of Canadarm – for mating.

NASA’s retired former space station program manager, Kirk Shireman (Joel Montalbano is currently the space station program manager), began his career at the agency in 1985, and spent nearly all of it at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, helping to develop, operate, and manage the orbiting laboratory. As a feat of precision engineering, the ISS still amazes him. “The first time those two modules ever saw each other was in space, 230 miles up, traveling 17,500 miles an hour,” he said.

When the hatch to Unity opened for the first time, said Shireman, “The question we all had – at least those who were close to the program – was: Who was going to be the first person onboard the International Space Station? The answer was that it was both a U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut – a Marine Corps pilot and a Russian military pilot, as well. Sergei Krikalev and Bob Cabana went through the hatch together and entered the station at the same time.”

The International Space Station had begun to take shape many years before that day, of course, and a decade earlier nobody would have predicted such a display of fellowship. The former Cold War enemies spent the 1980s developing separate space station projects in parallel – in competition, you could say – in the style of their mid-century Space Race. The Soviet Union had launched the first modular space station, Mir, in 1986, and was developing a successor, Mir 2. The United States, with the Canadian, Japanese, and European partners it had attracted and cultivated through its Space Shuttle Program, was designing an answer to Mir called Space Station Freedom.

Russia’s Mir space station is seen in June 1998 during a post-undock fly-around by the space shuttle Discovery, from which this 70 mm frame was taken. The markings in the photo are those of the Crew Optical Alignment Sight (COAS), an important instrument used normally for rendezvous and docking maneuvers. Discovery had been docked to Mir as part of the Shuttle-Mir program.

Russia’s Mir space station is seen in June 1998 during a post-undock fly-around by the space shuttle Discovery, from which this 70 mm frame was taken. The markings in the photo are those of the Crew Optical Alignment Sight (COAS), an important instrument used normally for rendezvous and docking maneuvers. Discovery had been docked to Mir as part of the Shuttle-Mir program.

Things had taken a dramatic turn by 1993, when the space station envisioned by the United States and its partners, over budget and behind schedule, came within one vote of being eliminated by the U.S. Congress. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had ceased to exist. Krikalev, orbiting in Mir, had been stranded in orbit after his country’s collapse, forced to spend an extra six months in space while the new Russian Federation sorted itself out.

Despite often tense U.S.-Soviet relations, the two space agencies, NASA and Roscosmos, had always been on friendly terms; the Shuttle-Mir program, launched a year earlier, had already laid the groundwork for a thaw. In 1993, the agencies were the first in their respective countries to understand that if their visions for a low-Earth orbit space station were to survive in any form, they would need to rely on each other’s expertise and resources. When Krikalev and Cabana entered Unity together, five years after their agencies rescued each other, it was a celebration of this once-unlikely partnership.

By late 2000, the space station was ready to receive its first long-duration crew. On Oct. 31, Expedition 1 – Krikalev, Yuri Gidzenko, and William Shepherd – blasted off from Baikonur, docked with the station two days later, and spent four-and-a-half months together in Zarya and the Zvezda Service Module (the temporary solar arrays didn’t provide enough power to heat Unity, so it was left unoccupied). The orbital outpost has been permanently occupied since that day: Nov. 2, 2000.

From the very beginning, the space station was a working laboratory in space – the Expedition 1 crew performed plasma and protein crystal growth experiments – but for about a decade, the station was a massive construction site in orbit. Work focused on the Canadian-built Mobile Servicing System, and its Space Station Remote Manipulator System nicknamed “Canadarm2,” which moved massive objects, such as the large pressurized modules, and the construction crew – astronauts and cosmonauts – to areas that would have been otherwise unreachable. Dextre, the robotic “hand” that can be mounted at the arm’s end, added some finesse and touch to the heavy crane work.

NASA astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, uses a pistol grip tool during a session of extravehicular activity as construction continues on the International Space Station in January 2007. During the 7-hour, 55-minute spacewalk, Williams and astronaut Michael E. López-Alegría (out of frame) reconfigured one of two cooling loops for the Destiny laboratory module, rearranged electrical connections, and secured the starboard radiator of the P6 truss after retraction.

NASA astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, uses a pistol grip tool during a session of extravehicular activity as construction continues on the International Space Station in January 2007. During the 7-hour, 55-minute spacewalk, Williams and astronaut Michael E. López-Alegría (out of frame) reconfigured one of two cooling loops for the Destiny laboratory module, rearranged electrical connections, and secured the starboard radiator of the P6 truss after retraction.

Building and operating the space station was a task of unprecedented complexity, and the international partnership encountered surprises and setbacks along the way. Among the most significant was the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew in January 2003, when the orbiter broke apart during atmospheric reentry. Once NASA had recovered from the emotional shock of losing seven astronauts, the agency and its space station partners faced the practical implications of an aging orbiter fleet. Assembly of the station was delayed while the shuttle fleet was grounded for investigation of the accident. When station construction resumed, it was a process redesigned to ease the strain on the remaining orbiters. Two key components – a Japanese centrifuge module and a Russian Science Power Platform – were canceled.

Shireman remembers this as a hugely significant event in the life of the space station program. “The shuttle went away, and the Russians said, ‘We’ve got it,’ and they flew our crewmembers home. We started flying all our crewmembers up and down on Soyuz vehicles. And the Russians didn’t bat an eye. It did cost them some flight opportunities. A great partner came to our aid.” While some crewmembers continued to launch to the orbital outpost aboard space shuttle orbiters until the fleet’s retirement in July 2011, the Soyuz has been flying cosmonauts and astronauts for the last 17 years.

During the 30-month grounding of the orbiter fleet, station crews were reduced from three to two – the maximum that could be supplied by the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft. Other partners stepped up to provide cargo delivery capabilities to the station. Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) flew deliveries from 2008 to 2014, and Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) began delivering cargo in 2009.

Russia’s Soyuz MS-12 crew ship (foreground) and Progress 72 resupply ship are seen in June 2019 against a mesmerizing backdrop of the aurora australis, or “southern lights,” in this photo taken from the International Space Station. The Soyuz has been flying cosmonauts and astronauts to and from the space station for 17 years.

Russia’s Soyuz MS-12 crew ship (foreground) and Progress 72 resupply ship are seen in June 2019 against a mesmerizing backdrop of the aurora australis, or “southern lights,” in this photo taken from the International Space Station. The Soyuz has been flying cosmonauts and astronauts to and from the space station for 17 years.

Michael Suffredini managed NASA’s space station program for a decade beginning in 2005, before the space shuttle had resumed flying. “What saved the International Space Station after the Columbia accident was the fact that the partners were there,” he said. “They had built their modules. If the station hadn’t been there, I’m not sure we’d even have flown the shuttle again. But we had to meet our commitments to our partners.”

The strength of the partnership wasn’t the only thing to impress Suffredini after the Columbia tragedy. The station is an engineering marvel – “It’s amazing,” he said, “that a spacecraft can be built without any part ever seeing its mate on the ground” – that was built to withstand uncertainty. “We had a spacecraft in orbit,” he said, “and we didn’t really have an option to stay on the ground until we figured things out ... and fortunately the station was designed so that at any point in the assembly, that configuration had to be able to survive and stay in orbit indefinitely.”

Shireman, who was deputy program manager from 2006 to 2013, remembers an event that confronted the space station with the real possibility that it might have to be abandoned. On June 7, 2007, as a new solar panel was being attached to the station, all six of the Russian navigational computers responsible for maintaining the station’s orbital position crashed. This left the station in a precarious position, Shireman said – the greatest danger it had ever faced. “Once the shuttle undocked,” he said, “the station would tumble and be out of control, and that would be the end of it. The crews would have been safe, but once they undocked they wouldn’t be able to come back.” Ground crews around the world worked 24 hours a day for four days to solve the problem – which was eventually traced to a leaky air conditioner – and to restart the computers. Shireman didn’t sleep for three days. The station was fully operational on June 11.

The newly installed Kibo laboratory (center left) attached to the port side of the Harmony node of the International Space Station is photographed in 2008 from space shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. The Kibo logistics module is visible at bottom left. The Columbus laboratory is at center right and the Canadian-built Dextre is at center top, along with two Russian spacecraft docked with the station.

The newly installed Kibo laboratory (center left) attached to the port side of the Harmony node of the International Space Station is photographed in 2008 from space shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. The Kibo logistics module is visible at bottom left. The Columbus laboratory is at center right and the Canadian-built Dextre is at center top, along with two Russian spacecraft docked with the station.

“At the eleventh hour, we figured out what the problem was and were able to recover the computers,” Shireman said. “It’s another example of everyone doing their own thing until the need arose, and then everyone just pulled together and did what we needed to do. It’s probably not a story that the public knows a lot about today. But it was one of the great engineering war stories of the program.” Today, in his frequent meetings with people at the other space agencies, they still remember it vividly. “They’re lifelong friends as a result of that event,” he said. “It really had lasting effects on our partnership.”

AN UNFATHOMABLE LEGACY

The configuration – and population – of the space station underwent dramatic transitions from 2008 to 2009, when the European and Japanese laboratory modules, Columbus and Kibo, arrived to substantially complete the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). The station’s frontmost module, Harmony (Node 2) served as a crossroads, connecting these two modules to the American Destiny laboratory.

The station, designed to house six or seven crewmembers over a six-month increment, was finally roomy enough to do so, and the first six-person crew arrived for Expedition 20 in May 2009: Gennady Padalka and Roman Romanenko from Russia, Michael Barratt from the United States, Frank De Winne from Belgium, Robert Thirsk from Canada, and Koichi Wakata from Japan. “We had a member from every international partner onboard at one time,” recalled Shireman. “I think it’s the only time we’ve ever – at least for a long-duration increment – had someone from every agency on simultaneously. And I think that was a really great day for the partnership.”

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, a crewmember of Expedition 49 aboard the International Space Station, works on an experiment inside the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox. The glovebox is one of the major dedicated science facilities inside the Destiny laboratory and provides a sealed environment for conducting science and technology experiments. More than 3,000 scientific investigations have been conducted onboard the space station.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, a crewmember of Expedition 49 aboard the International Space Station, works on an experiment inside the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox. The glovebox is one of the major dedicated science facilities inside the Destiny laboratory and provides a sealed environment for conducting science and technology experiments. More than 3,000 scientific investigations have been conducted onboard the space station.

In early 2011, the space shuttle Endeavour made its final flight, delivering one of the orbiting laboratory’s most important experimental packages: the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), a particle detector that is helping scientists understand the origins of the universe. Several modifications to the station have been made since then, but 2011 marked one of the space station program’s most significant milestones: assembly complete. The station now entered the utilization phase, an era in which – with its laboratories in full swing, staffed by a full complement of crewmembers – it would contribute to the global commons through a mature and dynamic research and development program.

NASA has since released three editions of a publication, International Space Station: Benefits for Humanity, that offer a broad outline of how the station has facilitated the worldwide sharing of knowledge for the benefit of life on Earth, primarily through this research program: over 3,000 investigations conducted onboard so far, by more than 4,200 investigators from 108 different countries and areas. The benefits of these programs include new findings in technology development and innovation, Earth and space observations, disaster response, human health, plant biology, and bioregeneration.

Technologies transferred directly from station operations have already provided some of the most obvious benefits. The system developed by NASA to recycle station wastewater into drinkable water, for example, has been adapted all over the globe into filtration systems that can provide drinkable water without the need for electrical power. The agency’s former lead engineer for air and water monitoring has since developed a free smartphone application, mWater, for checking the cleanliness of water sources. mWater is currently used by more than 25,000 government, nonprofit, and academic institutions in 147 countries.

Canada’s expertise in robotics and imaging have inspired spinoff technologies for medicine and industry – including neuroArm, the first surgical robot capable of being guided by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In May 2008, a Canadian surgical team completed the first surgical removal of a brain lesion with neuroArm. Other spinoffs include recently developed robotic digital microscopes that help neurosurgeons perform minimally invasive procedures – including surgeries for brain conditions otherwise considered inoperable – with greater safety and accuracy.

The Japanese Experimental Module (JEM) Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD), in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, deploys a set of Nanoracks CubeSats in 2014. Nanoracks was the first private company to use the J-SSOD.

The Japanese Experimental Module (JEM) Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD), in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, deploys a set of Nanoracks CubeSats in 2014. Nanoracks was the first private company to use the J-SSOD.

The station’s Earth-imaging systems differ from other satellite-based systems, which typically use polar orbits. Imaging and remote-sensing technologies aboard the space station have helped tropical island communities to understand and manage changing reef ecosystems; monitored flooding and provided agricultural information to North American farmers; collected data on the depth and clarity of coastal waters and the characteristics of coastal seabeds; provided high-resolution images of the flooding caused by Japan’s 2011 tsunami; and improved climate models through better monitoring of ocean winds, clouds and atmospheric particulates, the ozone layer, lightning, forest canopies, and water content in vegetation.

The proliferation and refinement of technologies aboard the space station have helped bring about what Shireman believes to be the next big inflection point in the station’s history: the commercialization of low-Earth orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is photographed during grappling operations with the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station on May 25, 2012. Expedition 31 flight engineers Don Pettit and André Kuipers grappled Dragon and used the robotic arm to berth Dragon to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European, and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is photographed during grappling operations with the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station on May 25, 2012. Expedition 31 flight engineers Don Pettit and André Kuipers grappled Dragon and used the robotic arm to berth Dragon to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European, and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory.

Research partners in space include a growing number of private entities, collaborations that have provided the station with new or updated capabilities while opening new markets. Small businesses provide hardware and launch/flight support for space station experiments. Axiom Space, a company co-founded by Suffredini after his retirement from NASA, is building its own modules in preparation for the first private space station. Nanoracks became the first private company to use Japan’s JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD) in 2013, and deployed 176 of its own CubeSats (miniaturized satellites for space research) from the station between 2014 and 2017. A total of 725 CubeSats were launched from the orbiting laboratory between 2012 to 2017, with a launch rate that increased an average of 66 percent annually.

Expedition 20 crewmembers give a thumbs up as they pose in “star-burst” formation for an inflight portrait in the Harmony node of the International Space Station in August 2009, marking the only time a member from every space agency partner has been onboard the station simultaneously for a long-duration increment. Pictured clockwise from the bottom (center) are cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, commander; and NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, all flight engineers.

Expedition 20 crewmembers give a thumbs up as they pose in “star-burst” formation for an inflight portrait in the Harmony node of the International Space Station in August 2009, marking the only time a member from every space agency partner has been onboard the station simultaneously for a long-duration increment. Pictured clockwise from the bottom (center) are cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, commander; and NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, all flight engineers.

NASA’s transition from “cost-plus” to “fixed cost” contracts has stimulated the growth of these new companies and greater competition in the market – and resulted in the first commercial cargo and crew transports to the station. “When the shuttle retired,” Shireman said, “and we started flying all our cargo up on U.S. vehicles, that was a huge win for the partnership, because it was one of the first major inroads of commercialization in lowEarth orbit.”

The growing number of private-sector partners has had a significant economic impact around the world. NASA estimates that the global space marketplace has more than doubled since 2006, to an estimate of more than $345 billion in value. The $33 billion in American aerospace exports NASA reported in 1995 has more than quadrupled, reaching $136 billion in 2019. ESA studies of the station’s economic impact have concluded that every 100 jobs in the space sector generate 90 additional jobs in the European economy, and the space station adds 210,000 jobs annually to the labor market.

Those who have been aboard the station, or who have been involved in the space station program since its earliest days, have less tangible ideas about its benefit to humanity. “We have teenagers today, people 20 years old or younger, that never knew a time when there weren’t humans in orbit,” Suffredini said. “I mean, that’s just amazing. All four of my kids don’t know anything but that there’s a space station and people in orbit. They just think that’s normal. And normalizing this is an important step. I think manufacturing in space and the advances we’re just starting to see, which will become more obvious later in our lives, will be part of the legacy of the International Space Station ... ten, twenty, thirty years from now, we’re going to look at how things have changed and say: ‘Wow, the ISS started all this.’”

The intangible most likely to be mentioned by space station program insiders is the future value of the international partnership that created it. Retired NASA astronaut Ron Garan, who was a station crewmember for six months in 2011, vividly remembers the experience of looking down on both the space station and Earth while sweeping over the orbiting laboratory at the end of its long robotic arm, on his way to replacing a nitrogen tank. He’s since written three books about what he’s learned from his time in space, and speaks to audiences around the world. “I looked down at the space station and I realized 15 nations – some who’d fought wars against each other, two who were on opposite sides of the Cold War and the Space Race – somehow found a way to set aside our differences and do this amazing thing in space,” Garan recalled. “That happened because we jumped off from a foundation of awe and wonder, versus a foundation of fear ... The way to have progress in the world is to find the stuff that we agree on. And now we have this incredible platform, the International Space Station partnership, that can be used as a jumping-off point to start addressing the things we don’t agree on.”

To hear Garan talk about the space station is to understand why it was nominated in 2014 for a Nobel Peace Prize. Its nomination letter, sponsored by Space Safety magazine, read in part: “Visible in the night sky to all people on Earth, ISS is a beacon of peace and hope, and a model for international cooperation on Earth and in space.”

The global commons now confronts predicaments related to climate, food security, energy, and disease – including, in the space station’s 20th year, a pandemic viral infection that had afflicted millions and killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide within a matter of months. Solving these transnational issues will require multilateral partnerships between countries that endure regardless of politics.

The world is full of skeptics who doubt these problems can be solved – but there are no pessimists among the people who designed, built, supported, or flew on the orbiting laboratory. They’ve made the preposterous an everyday reality. “For 20 years, we’ve had people living off the planet,” said Joel Montalbano, space station program manager. “And the fact that we could do that, and that we as a species are not bound to living on the surface of the planet, just shows you that greater things are possible. We, as a species, can do tremendous things when we partner with people from around the world, and the International Space Station is an example of that.”

To learn more, visit: www.nasa.gov/station https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/benefits/index.html