Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/3/2001 6:59:50 PM ET 2001-12-03T23:59:50

James Oberg, a former NASA engineer and one of the world’s most respected observers of the Russian space program, traces the course of U.S.-Russian cooperation in a new book, “Star-Crossed Orbits.” In this excerpt, Oberg reveals details about life on the international space station that NASA wanted to keep out of the public eye.

LATE IN THE EVENING of January 4, 2001, International Space Station commander Bill Shepherd was completing his daily entry in the “Ship’s Log,” his written account of the crew’s accomplishments, frustrations, and observations. In describing the crew’s after-dinner relaxation, he noted that the men had viewed the first DVD disk of “2010,” Arthur C. Clarke’s story of a U.S.-Russian joint mission to Jupiter to reactivate HAL, the homicidal computer autopilot of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Wrote Shepherd in his Ship’s Log, “We note that the movie opens with a recounting of ‘Ship’s Log’ from the previous mission.” The following evening, he wrote that the crew had “finished the second [DVD] disk,” and he added: “Something strange about watching a movie about a space expedition when you’re actually on a space expedition.”

Long before the mission began, Shepherd had been determined to imprint U.S. naval tradition on the space station. He found the psychological parallels between sea voyages and space station expeditions to be very compelling, and his own military background was in the U.S. Navy.

We talked about it one afternoon, about a year before the launch. I reminded him that the first crew aboard the Skylab space station in 1973 had also been all Navy. That crew, too, had used nautical rather than aviation terminology for equipment, directions, and structural features — “bulkhead,” “galley,” “head,” and so on. Shepherd quickly chased down Dr. Joe Kerwin, one of the members of that crew, and they began to discuss more of the naval traditions.

One common naval tradition is a written Ship’s Log, kept by the captain of the vessel. Shepherd decided that he would keep one. These daily one- to two-page notes were stored on a NASA computer in Houston. In the beginning, the notes were freely available to the public. Then, two months into the mission, NASA managers decided that their contents might be private and proceeded to restrict access to all of them — in spite of the fact that Shepherd had explicitly told reporters that he was writing the notes for the public.

“We are going through the process of determining if these logs are Shep’s private information,” explained space station program manager Tommy Holloway. He said that he and Johnson Space Center director George Abbey would decide “how much of it should be distributed.”

Fortunately, I already had archival copies of the reports that had been made public. They were full of day-to-day details, catalogs of frustrations and triumphs, and candid advice to Earth about how things could be run better next time. And behind the space jargon were Shepherd’s sharp eyes and dry wit.

MOMENTS OF TRUTH

The crew ‘s descriptions and comments are the moments of truth, the culmination of the years of blood, toil, tears, and sweat for the American, Russian, and international workers on the ISS. What worked, and what didn’t work? What was expected, and what caught them by surprise? The taste of space is in the words of these men. This isn’t speculation or supposition; it isn’t make believe. It really happened. And it never happened quite this way before.

Early in the flight, the crew was treated to an unearthly view. It seemed to signify that they had really passed beyond the realm of the known world. “November 10, 2000. 11:30 GMT,” the entry stated. “Transited through a very unusual aurora field. Started as a faint green cloud on the horizon, which grew stronger as we approached. Aurora filled our viewfield from Service Module nadir [down-facing] ports as we flew through it. A faint reddish plasma layer was above the green field and topped out higher than our orbital altitude.” They definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Image: Aurora
A picture taken from the international space station in October 2001 shows a green aurora spread out above the earth. Almost a year before this picture was taken, station commander Bill Shepherd marveled at the sensation of passing through the aurora.
They were lucky to have spotted the natural wonder, since they could average no more than about 10 minutes of sightseeing per week. The mission kept them incredibly busy. But they occasionally found time to notice the outside. On January 3, Shepherd wrote: “Up at the usual ‘crack of dawn.’ We are orbiting where we get continuous light now, so ‘dawn’ doesn’t really apply to us. Kind of like being above the Arctic Circle with the Sun right on the horizon.” It was a down-to-earth description of an unearthly sight.

QUICK FIXES

Thanks to the Russians’ experience on long space flights and Shepherd ‘s experience on long naval voyages, the crew quickly adapted to the different tempo of space station operations. They knew that their work would help future operations in the months and years ahead. But the long-term significance of their tasks was often overshadowed by the quick fixes of the moment.

Once, a supply flight that would have carried up a work table was canceled. On November 27, the log described how the crew overcame the problem of the missing table with creative ingenuity.

“Breakfast in the ‘wardroom’ on our mess table,” Shepherd boasted. He explained what he and his crewmates were so proud of: “The crew ‘turned to’ over the weekend and we have a prototype table set up with brackets and clamps to evaluate size and location. All hands agree that the standard table (still on the ground) will not be very serviceable, as it will block access to the [freezer], and will be in the way of the treadmill and the doorway of the starboard [bunk]. Our do-it-yourself model is somewhat narrower, shorter and lower. We think our prototype will fit better, and we feel pretty happy that we can leave the other table on the ground. Power tools are out and development activity on the prototype continues as we find time.”

Image: Wardroom
Space station commander Bill Shepherd works on the wardroom table in the space station's Zvezda service module.
A great many of the crew ‘s tasks involved on-the-fly repairs. As Shepherd noted in his postflight debriefings the following March, the on-board tool kit was critical to getting the station operational and keeping it that way. This was a reprise of a familiar theme from Skylab and Mir, but as usual, ISS planners seemed to have overlooked the lessons. “I really think we need the capability onboard to fix things while we wait on replacements from the ground,” Shepherd stressed. His favorite tool was his Navy SEAL knife, which “was used every hour of every day for the first month.”

The crew ‘s desire to perform repairs in space clearly far outstripped the ground’s plans to equip them with the necessary tools. For example, the crew had repeatedly asked that a coaxial cable repair kit be sent up, but the ground never accepted their justifications for it and refused. The crew also wanted a battery tester, but the ground told them to use another tool that was already on board, even though they had repeatedly told the ground that it didn’t work. There were still some hard lessons to be learned in this regard.

COPING WITH NOISE

Another major problem was the inadequate level of noise suppression aboard the modules, which forced the crew to wear earplugs for much of each day. This was yet another of the recurring problems that was never really solved. On November 24, Shepherd wrote about the sound levels: “Shep’s perception of noise — very similar to [naval] shipboard environment. Noise is a distraction, but bearable. We are getting reasonable sleep, all hands wearing earplugs. What would be very useful would be to have the noise canceling headsets adapted to the comm system, as we are on a radio almost every hour during the work day.”

Early in 2001, a NASA safety meeting in Houston raised the issue of noise levels aboard the ISS. For years, it had been known that the equipment noise inside the Russian Service Module was going to be too high. When the Russians made it clear that they weren’t going to do anything significant about it, NASA issued a temporary waiver —called a Non-Compliance Report, or NCR — for the first several flights. This was supposed to give the Russians time to develop noise baffles for the noisiest equipment. But the Russians hadn’t gotten around to it, and they needed an extension on their original waiver.

Long before launch, NASA experts had known that the noise would be a problem. A small NASA team, including some astronauts, met with Russian medical scientists in Moscow on August 17-20, 1999, to discuss the “setting of mutually acceptable standards.” Note the wording. It wasn’t a matter of setting “safe” standards, it was a matter of what standards the Russian side would “accept.” The NASA astronaut who wrote the report on the meeting noted that “it is clear that the noise levels on SM will be very high, comparable to those on Mir,” but the only suggestion for improvement that he mentioned was that “a paper is being prepared for management on this problem with proposed countermeasures.”

Little was actually accomplished, despite the two years of delay in getting the SM launched. So Shepherd ‘s crew was launched anyway. They made no secret of their concerns over the noise levels, and in their in-house postflight debriefings in March 2001 (which NASA kept secret), they got very specific in their criticisms.

When asked to rate the importance of decreasing the noise level in the SM on a scale of 1 to 10, station commander Bill Shepherd gave it a 6, adding that it was “just a tad worse than ‘what we have is livable.’” He went on: “We need a strategy to fix the noise levels. We need to target the big noisemakers specifically. These were the thermal system pumps, the air conditioner compressor, and the Vozdukh valves.” The noise, according to Shepherd, “interfered with communications,” although the crew could still hear the alarm tones. “Unpleasant” was how Shepherd rated the noise, but he said it was “fixable.”

“Vozdukh affected our sleep,” Expedition-1 cosmonaut Sergey Krikalyov told a postflight debriefing meeting. “The worst thing about it is that it is not continuous. Every 10 minutes there is a loud noise. In the Mir it was located in a different module. I always said having it in the SM compartment was not a good idea.” But that’s where the designers, who apparently weren’t interested in the experience of actual crew members, put it anyway.

Yuriy Usachyov, Jim Voss, and Susan Helms made up the crew for the second expedition, which took over in March 2001. On the issue of noise, they agreed with their predecessors. In a progress report sent back to Houston, but not released to the public, they noted that “noise is still a problem, with the SM being the noisiest area (68 to 70 db). ... If sound suppression materials were made available, crews could continue to reduce sound levels by insulating noise makers.”

FINDING SPACE ON THE SPACE STATION

Trash stowage was another aspect of the massive inventory management problem on the space station. Experience from Skylab and Mir had showed that this was going to be a problem. Stowage of and access to equipment and supplies had been a daunting challenge on both stations. But the contract team that had taken care of the problem on shuttle-Mir in 1995 through 1998 had been laid off at the end of the program (the manager got a job supervising baggage handling at a Houston airport). The novice specialists on ISS had to learn the same things all over again. What ‘s more, Expedition-1’s logs were full of descriptions of a nonfunctional automated stowage bookkeeping system, critical descriptions that were excised from the versions shown to the public.

Proper space management was more than merely a matter of convenience. Regarding the struggle with stowage, Shepherd’s postflight comments were merciless. There were so many items stuffed into the FGB, he said, “the condition when we arrived was not livable, and I would say unsafe.”

The crew faced challenges from Earth as well. In a passage subsequently deleted by NASA (probably because it might have led to hurt feelings in Russia), Shepherd criticized his support on the ground: “Another thing that would make IMS [the computerized inventory management system] much better for us would be for both Houston and Moscow to try and make the IMS world we see more of a unified ‘environment.’ We are getting frequent words from both sides that ‘that’s a Houston problem,’ or ‘it’s up to Moscow to do that.’ There are no spectators here — we are all on the team on this one.”

To Shepherd, many of these struggles took on an almost military flavor. On December 13, he noted how tough the day had been, but he added historical perspective to the crew ‘s determination to get their tasks done right: “Kind of a frustrating day, but enjoying the aspect of having plenty of time to fix this stuff later,” he wrote. “Reminded of the Civil War story at Pittsburg Landing. Union troops start the battle with heavy losses. Sherman tells Grant that the had had the ‘devil ‘s own day.’ Grant replies: ‘Yep. ... lick ‘em tomorrow, though.’” After the flight, his number one observation was that “We were more busy on orbit than I think any of us anticipated.”

Image: Space station crew
In the near-weightlessness of the space station, Expedition 1 astronauts Yuri Gidzenko, Bill Shepherd and Sergei Krikalyov balance oranges freshly arrived aboard a cargo ship.
After days of such challenging tasks, the crew looked forward to weekends. On December 16, the log notes: “0710 AM. Up and about. Saturday morning. Fortunately, a ‘rest’ day. We are ready for some time off. Looking for coffee.” They managed to grab relaxation where and when they could, a lesson Shepherd brought to ISS from his pre-NASA military experience.

The crew did take December 25 off, wrote Shepherd: “0700 AM. Christmas morning. Stockings are hung on the [freezer]. Yuri and Sergei surprised with this tradition, but hey, that’s what stockings are for.” But the very next day, the crew manually guided the redocking of a Progress supply craft. The disastrous collision after the botched redocking experiment in June 1997 was on everybody’s mind, but the procedures now were much safer. The ISS crew was also better trained and more rested than the hapless Mir cosmonauts.

The redocking succeeded. “Yuri gets a ‘pyaterka’ [the highest grade given in Russian schools, the equivalent of “A” or “excellent”] for nailing the docking cone. We opened the FGB hatch and the skid mark on the inside of the cone is about 7 cm. off of dead center. Opened the Progress hatch. Pretty cool inside — maybe 8 deg C. We are glad to have some more volume onboard for stowage.”

Although the docking worked perfectly, the crew found that many of the station ‘s systems weren’t working right, including the system for reporting what wasn’t working right. “We have tried several times to get the ‘crew squawk’ tool running,” the entry for January 5 stated [a squawk is a complaint]. “We are able to log in, but the program either locks up or won’t launch when we try to run it. We would like to start documenting anomalies or things which need specific tracking and we believe the squawk tool will be a good way to do this if we can ever get it to behave. We would like to ‘squawk’ the crew squawk for starters.”

This innocuous and somewhat humorous complaint was one of the items that NASA decided to censor from the publicly released versions. “Certain operational,debriefing material has been edited from the Expedition One ship’s log,” explained NASA’s Web site. “This material is considered an integral and critically important element of the ongoing, deliberative decisional process NASA is undertaking related to long-duration International Space Station missions.

“This process must include necessary give-and-take communications about all aspects of crew and station performance,” the explanation continued. “To be effective, these communications require absolute candor in discussion that would not be available if parties to the exchange, including intended recipients on the ground and future crewmembers, thought the material might be released to the public.”

In principle, this is a valid point. The previous U.S. human space missions had been short, lasting only up to two weeks, and crews could save their most serious critical comments for blunt discussions during postflight debriefings. The transcripts from such meetings are not made public. While this may work for comparatively short missions, it doesn’t work for those that last upward of four months. For long-duration missions, in-flight debriefing-style candor is a reasonable expectation, at least at certain times.

The uncensored logbook entries that I was able to review, however, suggested that NASA’s deletion of large amounts of text from the officially released versions also served to limit public awareness of the difficulties and frustrations encountered by the astronauts and cosmonauts on board. A comparison of the original entries with those released by NASA shows that the deleted material dealt with specific hardware and documentation problems. The crew described what wasn’t working, why it wasn’t working, and what should be done to fix it.

In one deleted passage, the astronauts described a software problem familiar to millions of computer users back on Earth. “Sergei and Shep both experiencing problems with print jobs,” the original entry reported. “Shep is continually getting half-page prints on some of his stuff. We are both getting blocked from changing the printer job cue.

Apparently we don ‘t have the right permissions. If the [Mission Control] folks could help here, this would be greatly appreciated.” Why NASA wanted to hide this complaint from the public is baffling.

Here ‘s another highly technical crew complaint that somebody at NASA decided was too hot for the public: “Shep tried to log all the IRED [Integrated Resistive Exercise Device] data on the computer,” the deleted entry reads. “Opened the exercise and IRED applications. Went to the beginning of the IRED workout files and tried to start logging data from 14 Dec, which was when we really got going on the device. The program would not open on any file other than today’s, despite what the user buttons or help file said. Shep decided that he would concede this latest round to the [computer] and go do something else. Finally sent the data down on a mail file to the Flight Surgeon. Suggested to the Flt Docs that we stay in this mode for now. Score now is about [medical computer] 8, Shep 2.” Shepherd may have lost hours of work on this problem, but he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.

Excerpted from “Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance” by James E. Oberg. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. Copyright © by James E. Oberg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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