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The International Space Station brought together old space rivals who were looking for different benefits from the multibillion-dollar deal. Click on the video button for a report from MSNBC's Alan Boyle about the course of Russian-American cooperation in space.
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updated 11/30/2001 2:19:42 PM ET 2001-11-30T19:19:42

In this excerpt from the book “Star-Crossed Orbits,” space expert James Oberg outlines how NASA cut back on information from the international space station after commander Bill Shepherd and his fellow Expedition 1 crew members returned to Earth — and how the next crew dealt with the challenges of life in space.

SHEPHERD’S WRITTEN COMMENTS provided a view of space station life that is refreshingly free of spin, to the benefit of both space workers and the general public. But the tradition that he tried to establish was unable to take root. The commander of the next expedition, Yuriy Usachyov, stopped writing log entries entirely — as far as the public was allowed to see. NASA claimed that this was “crew choice” and that it was beyond the authority of Mission Control to alter.

NASA itself altered other public-insight policies. During the course of the first expedition, which ended with the crew’s return to Earth aboard a visiting space shuttle in mid-March 2001, radio communications with Earth were regularly fed out live over the NASA TV channel. Conversations between astronauts, cosmonauts, and operators in control centers in Houston and Moscow were available nationwide via many cable channels or through a backyard satellite dish.

That stopped the day the crew landed. Although the voice signals are still played during working hours in the press offices of several NASA centers around the country, the public’s access to them has been cut off. Rob Navias, a public affairs official at the Johnson Space Center, told me that NASA didn’t any longer “have the resources to support distribution on NASA TV.”

Image: Shepherd and Wetherbee
Shuttle astronaut James Wetherbee looks through Expedition 1 station commander Bill Shepherd's Ship's Log in March 2001.
Sending the mission audio channel to NASA’s Web site in Maryland for audio streaming over the Internet is an obvious technical solution, Navias admitted, but it “requires a fairly costly modification” to equipment. He refused to estimate the projected cost of such a modification. Television rebroadcast of air-to-ground conversations during Expedition-1 was conducted at night and on weekends, when other programming was not needed, Navias explained. “It required resources at JSC and at Goddard,” he pointed out, and the programming has since been canceled. NASA did continue a one-hour daily summary of ISS operations.

Once the station’s Ku-band communication system began working in March 2001, four channels of multiplexed video were coming down to control centers and payload operations teams via relay satellites. According to Navias, “by policy of NASA headquarters and the ‘NASA TV’ executive producer, there is too much other video to dedicate ‘NASA TV’ to ISS video.” Instead, a weekly video highlights summary would be released every Wednesday. Navias stressed that “real time” video and audio remained available to the news media agents who visit press centers or have their own trailers on NASA sites. Since the newsroom is open less than half the time, however, all print journalists and practically all broadcast journalists were excluded.

The press-center-only policy had been followed for NASA’s previous space station, Skylab, in 1973-1974. But back then, all space-to-ground conversations were transcribed into hard copy for the use of space scientists, the news media, and the general public. These written records provided reliable, unexpurgated insights into space station events.

But no more. NASA terminated the manual transcription efforts after the third space shuttle mission, in 1982. Despite two decades of technological progress in computer-aided systems, NASA appears to have no interest in resuming the process. Experts in the field of automated voice transcription estimate that a workable system for NASA could be operated for about $100,000 a year. Apparently, in a project costing a hundred thousand times this amount, the extra expense is unwarranted. NASA officially denied it was transcribing any air-to-ground communications, which baffled me because from time to time my friends at NASA e-mailed me transcripts of exactly such conversations.

BEYOND ‘HAPPY TALK’

While there wasn’t at first any reason to suspect that this looming space blackout was motivated by a desire to deliberately cover up or distort events on NASA ‘s space station, occasional lapses in candor by NASA press officials in the recent past raised the concern that a monopolized information flow would be a slanted information flow. Whether the issue was a flubbed debris-dodging maneuver in 1998, or some non-functional Russian space suits in 1999, or a false fire alarm compounded by a computerized checklist crash in 2000, the people that NASA hired to inform the public just weren’t fully up to the task. “Happy talk ” is easy, but rigorous candor about problems takes a level of effort — and a mindset — that has sometimes been lacking. The way I see it, the public’s right to know shouldn’t be held hostage to perpetual budgetary issues, squeamish censors, or bureaucratic inertia. But that’s NASA’s new openness (or lack thereof) policy.

When Expedition-1’s crew returned to Earth, they were candid in public about the problems that they had faced. And, as was proper, they were even more pointed in their private criticisms. Their comments also showed how much had been learned from the first ISS mission with crew aboard. However, most of the lessons of ISS should have already been learned during the Mir missions. NASA had spent years bragging about how much it had learned. Harsh flight experience showed that it hadn’t learned much.

‘VANISHING ALARMS’

InsertArt(1283297)One critical safety element was the computer-driven alarm system, called “caution and warning” in NASA jargon. It was supposed to alert the crew to unusual situations, which could range in seriousness from merely bothersome to outright life-threatening. Yet the crew complained that the caution and warning system kept doing strange things. “It ‘s the darkest hole we have right now,” Shepherd remarked, adding that “things happened during flight that we didn’t understand.” Krikalyov gave an example: “We would sometimes get the ‘OTHER’ alarm and have no idea why.” It’s not good to have your spacecraft computer giving you a warning that you can’t interpret.

Among the items that needed fixing was a feature of the alarm system that would annunciate for five seconds, then turn itself off. This wasn’t a problem in itself, but what happened in practice was that the first alarm would mask any subsequent alarm, as no alarm would sound until the previous alarm had been acknowledged by a keystroke on the control computer console. On the other hand, if the condition that had caused the alarm ceased before the crew got to the console, the entry vanished entirely from the screen so that the crew couldn’t tell what it had been. “We hated vanishing alarms,” Shepherd told the debriefers.

The yellow “caution” light labeled “OTHER,” said Shepherd, “was on for 98 percent of the flight,” a big problem that led the crew to simply ignore it. The alarm reference books were far too big, the crew said, “almost unusable.” Shepherd was frustrated that the crew had “never had a reasonable integrated caution and warning simulation during

training.” But they had practice in flight: For example, a false “rapid depressurization” alarm sounded so often that the crew learned to check a mechanical pressure gauge for signs of a real disaster. They soon disregarded the software system entirely.

All of these software problems should have been caught and fixed before launch, since in hindsight, it seems that none of them was unpredictable. Instead, the crew had to discover them and learn to tolerate them.

CANDID COMMENTS

Overall, both in public and in private, Shepherd made the case that everybody had learned a tremendous amount from working on the first expedition. In large part, this was due to the candid comments of the crew. “It might have been painful at first,” he told a press conference on March 30, “but in the end I think the result was good.”

Shepherd, the rough-and-tough former Navy SEAL, turned out to be a first-rate space station commander. Years earlier, he had flown four good shuttle missions, after which he survived several years as program manager on the station project. As the commander of the first crew, he managed time on orbit efficiently. He knew when to order breaks, and he knew when to keep everyone up past midnight on special projects.

Initially, the Russian side had been so dubious about Shepherd that one veteran cosmonaut, Anatoliy Solovyov, had quit rather than serve under him. But even from the Russians, the verdict was unambiguous. “Our cosmonauts speak highly of human relations and work atmosphere aboard the station,” Dr. Yuri Katayev, the Russian crew doctor, told news reporters after the two Russians had returned to Moscow. “They praise commander William Shepherd for his ability to establish the right tone in dealing with his colleagues and the ground services during the expedition.” Considering the sources, that’s high praise indeed.

The crew had high ambitions, too. Back on January 6, just halfway through their mission, Shepherd, Krikalyov, and Gidzenko were relaxing. They cast their eyes on more distant targets: “Finished the day with more email and watched ‘The Rock,’” the log stated. “Quote of the day (from us) — ‘Put some more engine on this thing and send up that Mars vector.’” They had been following the same orbit around Earth for months, and apparently they were getting bored with where it was taking them. As they soon discovered, however, the boredom wouldn’t last.

Ahead of the ISS was the cascading computer collapse of March 2001, the worst crisis in more than a decade of U.S. human space flight. At the height of the crisis, some sources told me, the station was only one hardware failure away from having to be abandoned, possibly forever. But the crew and the ground controllers held on, worked the problems, and clawed their way back to a fully operational station. It was the “baptism of fire” that many experienced engineers had expected to come along sometime. Most of them had figured that the station would survive if the teams were up to traditional NASA standards. They were.

‘WHO IS THE LEAD CENTER?’

By mid-2001, once NASA had wrapped day-to-day ISS communications in a shroud of secrecy, the temptation to exploit this secrecy to project a false public image became too great. On June 28, 2001, chief ISS flight director John Curry sent out a memo stating, “I want every ISS Flight Director to understand the U.S./Russian relationship issue is becoming a problem onboard.” And, to keep the public and the Congress from knowing how bad things were, he added a stern warning: “Please DO NOT FORWARD!!” Somehow or other, a copy of the memo reached me anyway.

Curry’s memo was sparked by a message from Expedition-2 crew member Jim Voss, then in orbit with Susan Helms and the station commander, Yuriy Usachyov. The crew got along fine together. But on June 27, Voss had reported that the TsUP (the Russian control center in Moscow) insisted on talking only with the Russian on the station, and refused to give Voss data intended for the Russian. “We are becoming more segmented every day and the unwillingness of some people in the TsUp to deal with any crew member is making this worse,” Voss wrote.

Usachyov asked Moscow for an explanation. According to Voss, an official “said that we still have no agreement that Houston is the lead control center.” Months earlier, officials had told the public that Houston had assumed that role, following the activation of the U.S. Lab.

“So, who is the lead center?” asked Voss. “I realize that in many ways the Russians are still flying the Mir and we can ‘t get them to move ahead, but we have to keep plugging away.”

“As a professional astronaut with a lot of experience, I was insulted by their approach to this,” he continued. “To me it is totally unacceptable for them to not work with any crew member on any subject. I hope this is resolved after Yury’s discussion with the supervisor today, but I wanted you to know what we were thinking about this and what was going on off the loops. I will be patient and continue to work with them, but I will find it hard to accept another occurrence of this type.”

Voss requested that this problem be concealed from the public. “This is private/personal mail and not for release to the media.” This was in violation of written NASA policies on operational versus personal e-mail.

PRIVATE FRICTIONS

Curry replied to Voss by another e-mail message never intended for the public to see. “I also had a very similar week regarding Russian relations,” he wrote. “The Russians ARE DEFINITELY trying to force us into segmented operations,” where the Russian crew members obey the Moscow TsUP and the Americans are controlled from Houston. This is a direct violation of the fundamental principle of the “unified crew,” agreed to by all the international partners.

“They REFUSE to acknowledge any type of U.S. leadership in the planning world on items such as sleep cycles, priorities, etc., and they proactively maintain a written record of instances when [Houston] makes a planning mistake. This record is then periodically shipped to Houston as justification for why they should still lead planning (i.e.,

[Houston] planners are a bunch of idiots who don ‘t know their ass from a hole in the ground).”

Curry had found out that a month earlier, TsUP boss Vladimir Solovyov instructed all his flight directors to follow the policy that the TsUP was still in charge, and they should “maintain ownership of all Russian Segment related activities.” Concluded Curry, “I believe Solovyov’s goal is to drive us into segmented operations so they can have free reign to profit from Space Station operations without U.S. interference.”

“I’ve been trying to fight this ‘who’s in charge’ battle behind the scenes for quite some time,” Curry wrote. “We have jointly signed Flight Rules which clearly state [Houston] is in charge of all operations including Planning except in specific instances such as Russian Vehicle docking/undockings and [spacewalks] from the SM,” he explained. “In addition, we have signed protocol agreements defining the requirements which [Houston] must meet before complete handover can take place. [Houston] has now met all of these requirements.”

In public, these conflicts weren’t mentioned, and NASA denied any Houston-Moscow friction. Internally, officials knew they were covering up to ensure a public image of diplomatic concord.

The ISS was on a roll, with the impressive achievements of 2000 behind it, the March 2001 computer crisis overcome, and a major new level of on-orbit capability stretching ahead with near-infinite promise. The political and diplomatic foundation of the 20-nation partnership had taken some strong hits, but it had survived, and project workers saw every reason to expect this to continue. Their confidence was at least as high as that of the Soviet space team that had found itself in the same situation, with the same confidence, in 1985, where we first began this story. Back then, the Soviets soon realized, as today ‘s space teams may yet rediscover, that although space is a vacuum, it is full of surprises. And projecting current success into the future is tricky, because orbits through space never follow a straight line.

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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