Image: Space station
NASA
This portrait of the international space station was taken by Endeavour's crew in December 2002, the last time a space shuttle visited the outpost.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 5/9/2005 7:08:33 PM ET 2005-05-09T23:08:33
Commentary

This is the first of two articles on the international space station's endurance amid adversity.

The international space station has flown for years with only an unofficial name, "Alpha." Now rarely used, and based on an obscure rationale, that name might at last have a worthy replacement, replete with honor and expressing what the 100-ton orbital outpost has truly exhibited: "Endurance."

With the space shuttle’s return to flight delayed another two months, the space station’s orbital isolation from large-scale repair and resupply will drag on even longer. Between the last shuttle departure in early December 2002 and the earliest possible return in mid-July, more than two and a half years have elapsed. It's traveled almost 400 million miles (640 million kilometers) in that period, and it has defied the doubters every mile of the way.

Space engineers who operate the station knew that because of its complexity, some equipment would be breaking down and needing replacement or repair. The rate of breakdown and the flow of spare parts had been calculated years in advance, and despite the near-continuous stream of news items over the last two years about something else breaking on the space station, the equipment has actually hung in there more reliably than expected.

This is true even though last Thursday’s internal status report from NASA Headquarters reprised the theme of a trouble-plagued Russian oxygen generator called Elektron. It broke down for about the three dozenth time — but this time, there seem to be no remaining tricks to revive it.

The status report describes several hours' worth of repair work, during which Russian station commander Sergei Krikalev scavenged potentially usable components of the failed device. At last, the refurbished unit was turned on. It ran about three minutes, then automatically shut itself down when its sensors detected something unacceptable about the pressures inside the plumbing.

“Russian specialists are reviewing the shutdown signature before deciding on a forward plan,” the NASA report said.

Getting by without the shuttle
Just the week before, space station program manager William Gerstenmaier talked with journalists about the situation that the station faced due to the additional shuttle delay. “From an overall space station standpoint, we're still in very good shape,” he insisted.

New supply flights by robotic Russian craft have already been scheduled. “We've been planning for a Progress launch on the 17th of June — that's still in work,” he said. “We were planning that manifest two different ways, one if the shuttle launched and one if the shuttle didn't launch, so we have that second manifest option all ready to go.”

The non-shuttle option was driven by shortages in other supplies needed by the crew. Gerstenmaier said fresh water would be the "tightest" supply requirement this spring. “We'll put a little extra water on that Progress,” he said.

Another Progress cargo craft is due to be launched to the station in August, Gerstenmaier noted. “We'll do a dual manifest planning for that Progress in August. We'll do one with or without the shuttle, and we'll be prepared to operate either way,” he said.

Gerstenmaier also laid out the scenario for getting by with the balky Elektron oxygen generator: “Even if the Elektron doesn't come back and generate any oxygen from now until the Progress, we're fine. We have enough oxygen stores on board station and enough oxygen stored in solid-fuel candles that we can operate without any concerns.”

When the next Progress supply drone comes up in June, he said, “it will carry about 110 kilograms [242 pounds] of oxygen on it, and again that will carry us through to the next Progress, again, without any functioning Elektrons. So again we're in a fairly stable configuration overall in terms of oxygen.”

These oxygen problems are not new, but they became more acute late last year and early this year .

The 30-month gap
Over the 30-month hiatus between shuttle visits, station crew members conducted a lot of routine maintenance as well as assembly operations. Sometimes they encountered puzzling anomalies, such as a "thump" in the Russian module that might have been an external impact but which eventually was written off an air fan hiccup. Occasionally, out their windows they would see pieces of their station harmlessly floating away .

About halfway through the hiatus, the station crew was faced with a puzzling, slow air leak, which they eventually traced to the main viewing window in the U.S.-built Destiny laboratory module. Although NASA never explicitly confirmed it, program sources revealed that the leak had been caused by a crew error made possible by a design flaw , and their first attempts at repair actually made the problem even worse .

Reducing the crew size from three to two was initially of concern to psychologists, but as it turned out, the teams got along fine , just as two-man Russian crews had done. They developed various techniques to keep morale high, and one man even got married , by proxy, to his earthbound girlfriend.

The six-month limit
But six months — the standard time between Soyuz launchings — seemed to be an upper limit for routine missions. At one point, the Russians proposed extending a crew's flight to a year's duration. NASA rejected the suggestion , saying longer tours of duty would put too much strain on the crews, particularly when the space station was in a "reduced operational state."

Image: Padalka and Fincke
NASA TV  /  Reuters
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke install equipment on the international space station during a spacewalk in August 2004. The station experienced "phantom torque" during the outing.
Despite the limitations, the space station expeditions have offered key lessons for planning missions to Mars.

The lack of a third crew member was a significant drawback during spacewalks, when the two astronauts had to go outside and leave the station empty . Sometimes hardware problems on these spacewalks taught unexpected lessons , or required all the flexibility that was available because of redundant U.S. and Russian systems , even if these changed plans involved the Russians sending NASA a bill for extra services .

One baffling anomaly on spacewalks even threatened to become hazardous. When using Russian suits, some unknown effect caused the entire space station to slowly drift out of proper orientation, and during one recent spacewalk , Russian steering thrusters fired while the American crewman was close to the exhaust plume. Although corrective procedures were developed, the source of the ‘phantom torque’ disturbance remains unresolved.

More than just maintenance
The two-man crews conducted far more than just maintenance and routine servicing. Although they did not devote a substantial amount of crew hours to science, their presence allowed the existing array of scientific equipment to continue functioning under remote control from scientists back on Earth.

Widely unrecognized by outside observers, these research activities, made possible by the station’s unprecedented communications links with Earth, allowed several different teams of investigators to be running their own equipment simultaneously, day and night.

As the Russians carried the operational load of launching Soyuz spacecraft like clockwork every six months, they had the opportunity to assign the third seat on each vehicle to a short-term passenger who would go up with one long-term crew and then, a week or so later, head back to Earth with the crew that had been relieved.

Sometimes these seats were sold to European astronauts, but attempts to sell them to private space passengers fell through due to problems ranging from medical disqualifications to financial frustration. Russian replacements had to be quickly trained to fill the third seat.

It wasn’t only the third seats aboard Soyuz that were for sale. Buy late 2004, the Russians had made it clear that their original agreement to provide seats for American astronauts on a barter basis would expire at the end of 2005, and new arrangements needed to be made. But as negotiations dragged into early 2005, no resolution appeared imminent.

The true objective behind the orbits
One could well ask whether keeping the station occupied at all during the shuttle gap was worth the cost and the risk, considering that the lessons being learned about living in space aren't going to be applied to other projects in the immediate future. A small delay in learning those lessons would be unlikely to have any noticeable negative consequences.

NASA's constant boasts about how long the station has been occupied, while significant for trivia games, prove nothing about the value of doing so. Perhaps there's some subconscious space gamesmanship involved, since Russia's Mir space station was continuously occupied for about a decade — although the Russians didn't seem to derive any benefit for accomplishing this remarkable feat.

Image: Payload Operations Center
NASA
The flags of the nations involved in the international space station light up workstations in NASA's high-tech Payload Operations Center, at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
And despite the real research being conducted — research that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves, because it's not being performed by astronauts — other hyped activities look so strained as to be comical. There's a camera in a window run by high-school kids who could get better pictures from commercial imaging satellites at a fraction of the cost NASA absorbs. There's a respectable portable ultrasound device that promises genuine advances in telemedicine — but NASA has never made clear the advantage of testing it aboard a space station instead of under earthside conditions where it will have real benefits. Other medical activities involve the circular logic of learning how people react to space conditions so that people can be exposed to more space conditions.

But these questions miss the larger goal of the project. Little money would have been saved by shutting the station down for a few years, although NASA had studied the procedures required for "de-manning" the facility . The American flight control team has broadened its experience in handling long spaceflights, a lesson they were supposed to learn from the experienced Russians. In the end, they didn't have to: They learned by doing it themselves.

Perhaps the greatest long-range value is simply in accustoming the world to the notion of people living in space on a regular basis, rather than in two-week episodes. The "larger goal" is the endurance itself, and that may prove in the end to be all the justification it ever needed.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.

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