For more than twenty years, humans have had continuous presence aboard the International Space Station (ISS) which orbits the earth at five miles per second some 250 miles above its surface. Almost a football field in length and weighing in at 463 tons on the ground, the ISS is filled with laboratories running experiments in fields such as micro-gravity, human physiology, botany, climate observations, flameless combustion, cosmic spectrometry, and condensed matter physics. In all, 242 individuals from nineteen countries have been aboard the ISS, and 231 spacewalks have been performed outside.
American crews have launched a total of thirty-nine missions to the ISS, including at least a dozen each by the now discontinued Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis Space Shuttles, and two manned SpaceX Dragon flights. Russian crews have launched four Soyuz TM, twenty-two Soyuz TMA, twenty Soyuz TMA-M and seventeen Soyuz MS capsules lifted by Soyuz 2, U, or FG launchers. Crews exchange spacecraft between launch and reentry with the newer Soyuz capsule remaining docked to the ISS (for emergencies), while its cosmonauts and astronauts return to earth by a previous Soyuz capsule or by Shuttle in years past.
And yet despite a total of some six decades in space, human activity above our atmospheric cocoon still stands in its infancy. Gravitational attraction to earth’s surface creates an enormous challenge for rising into low orbit, in addition to the absence of breathable oxygen, temperature extremes, solar particle exposure and skeletal-atrophying micro-gravity that make operating in such environments challenging. Nevertheless, Americans can still be satisfied in knowing that together with participants from around the globe, our engineers, scientists, pilots and other technical specialists have quietly achieved, largely unappreciated and uncelebrated by a public obsessed with social media, a monumental construction feat in the hostile and unforgiving environment of space.
Recognizing the cost of such endeavors, complaints have been voiced that the 0.5 percent of federal spending allocated to NASA should be diverted to some other worthwhile cause (usually their own pet projects). In a similar manner, fiscal hawks will point to the breathtaking incompetence and bureaucratic corruption Americans have become accustomed to in key areas of the federal government’s functions such as intelligence agency deception, feckless military interventions, criminal prosecution abuses, taxation harassment or healthcare mismanagement, and see it as yet another part of the budget to cut.
As a self-interested beneficiary of technology, such attitudes seem myopic to me. Judicious funding requires discernment on where to emphasize society’s technological objectives, and public acceptance of large infrastructure projects requires persuasive promotion which in turn necessitates explaining the benefits succinctly. So the questions remains, why should the country invest in such matters?
To Be Human Means to Explore New Frontiers
We should invest in such endeavors because humans as a species have an imperative to go where we’ve not gone before, albeit no longer always by ourselves alone, but Americans should and do lead the way.
The conditions and opportunities beyond our atmosphere fosters solutions that benefit ourselves on the ground. Human spaceflight has ushered in a plethora of diagnostic instruments for medicine, such as health monitors, robotic surgery and pharmaceutical research. Related inventions include sunglasses, cordless power tools, digital cameras, portable heat exchangers for fire-fighter suits, aerogel ultra-low-density insulation, microwave water decontamination, and light ranging and detection for vehicle navigation. In fact, NASA annually highlights many of these technologies in a publication called “Spinoff” – its 2020 edition even has an inspiring video from Johnson Space Center that summarizes the ISS' benefits in disease diagnosis and geological photography from orbit to aid disaster relief.
These practical attributes are not an optional luxury. Despite external challenges which set limits to its unaltered continuity, human traditions facilitate communities that thrive with the buzz and hum of beneficent human activity. After all, nature is a harsh mistress, and among primates, homo sapiens are not noted for their docility in their interactions with other living things or even themselves. However, unique among God’s creatures on our planetary abode, humans exploit their surroundings to make tools in order to better survive and propagate not only their own species but many other living things. Societies develop and grow by consolidating the techniques created by their citizens, so that mankind’s technological impetus can nourish our collective desires to understand the world around us and improve our chances to nurture the next generation.
Thus, civilizations that abandon their sense of curiosity and fail to seize opportunities to innovate eventually stagnate. During the Ming Dynasty in the early fifteenth century, China launched seven expeditions to ply the South China Sea and Indian Ocean with an armada of five dozen junks, some reportedly as long as 360 feet. Then for various reasons the empire stopped their expeditions and subsequently fell into decline. We should resist the temptation to follow mediocrity’s siren call and repeat the Ming Dynasty's fate.
The Origins of the ISS and What it is Today
On occasion, visionary confidence engenders such ambitious daring, and the ISS represents a tribute to America’s daring, innovation, determination and transnational cooperation. Prior to the ISS, the Soviet’s orbiting station Mir intermittently hosted crews, including nine American Space Shuttle crews, from March of 1986 through June of 2000, which provided invaluable experience and information on long-duration operations in orbit.
However, it remains an enduring legacy of Ronald Reagan’s foresight that he proposed a permanent space station in his 1984 State of the Union address. NASA’s early designs proved overly ambitious politically-speaking, and in 1993 the entire project was nearly defunded in the House of Representatives (then under the control of the party of “science”). However, the next several administrations witnessed the ISS’s concept refinement and eventually the building of its hardware on the ground before being lifted into orbit.
Unlike NASA’s first space station “Skylab” which launched in 1973 on the last Saturn V rocket, the ISS was constructed in segments like a tinker-toy. This has proved a fitting method of construction for a multi-national program, that has become a cooperative venture between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
In late 1998, Russian cargo block “Zarya” and American node “Unity” together with the first crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s mission STS-88 began the assembly of ISS. Over the years, various other modules, truss sections and photovoltaic panels were added via numerous spacewalks. Called an “extra vehicular activity” (EVA), such an excursion outside a spacecraft requires considerable preparation followed by operation from inside a bulky spacesuit.
All told, the ISS’s construction has involved thirty-four launches, including four components that were launched by the Russians aboard unmanned Proton K and Soyuz U boosters, not counting Progress supply missions. America lifted the remainder of the components with the Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour Space Shuttles before their retirement in July 2011, as well as SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.
The structure is held together by a series of trusses that extend port (left) and starboard (right). Photovoltaic panels extending from these trusses provide electrical power from radiation emitted by the sun. NASA’s “Destiny”, ESA’s “Columbus”, and the Roscomos “Rassvet” and "Poisk” denote the on-board laboratories or research facilities. Additional modules used for sundry purposes include JAXA’s Experiment and Logistics modules, the European “Leonardo”, robotic manipulators and stowage containers. NASA’s nodes “Unity”, “Harmony” and “Tranquility” serve as passage links to other components.
Extended duration stays started as Expedition 1, with one American and two Russians, boarding only two habitable modules together with mating adapters and a truss portion. The next two decades witnessed more components delivered and assembled by robotic arms and spacewalks by crew members. In July of 2011, Atlantis on STS-135 conducted the last Shuttle delivery and crew visit during Expedition 38. These extended missions last between four and seven months (by contrast, the Shuttles would dock for six to twelve days). Currently, Expedition 64 operates the ISS with two Russians and one American with an additional three Americans and one Japanese who arrived with SpaceX Dragon Crew-1.
Over the next decade, select truss portions and batteries will be replaced, and by late next year, Axiom Space expects to initiate the first commercial mission to the ISS via Space X, and is scheduled sometime this decade to bring three additional segments to dock with the “Harmony” node. All of these monumental accomplishments, past, present, and future should be an inspiration to the human race that not all of our events are all doom and gloom. Silver linings in the clouds can sometimes be seen, even if that means that at times we need to see them from above.