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What a trip! Space station turns 10

The 10th anniversary of the international space station's birth provides a good opportunity for NASA to celebrate its successes — and learn from its mistakes.
Backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the international space station is seen from the space shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation, during the latter days of a mission in June.
Backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the international space station is seen from the space shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation, during the latter days of a mission in June. NASA

The 10th anniversary of the international space station's birth, marked on Thursday, provides a good opportunity to appreciate the project's accomplishments — and there's an impressive list, as NASA is eager to boast. But the milestone also brings to mind how unrealistic the space agency's original plans for the project were, and how many unnecessary risks were taken.

Looking back at the judgment errors can provide valuable perspective for assessing the latest crop of promises and proposals for future American space projects.

If anyone had told NASA officials in 1998 that the station would still be unfinished a decade later — and in fact wouldn't be ready yet to accommodate a six-person crew — they might well have been appalled. Back then, the station was scheduled for completion by 2003. Instead of ignoring this embarrassing delay, NASA must figure out how it got those initial expectations so wrong so it can avoid repeating the mistakes next time.

Indeed, if those officials had known in advance even a portion of the trials, tribulations and excess expenses that would be set into motion by the flight of the first station element, a Russian-built module called the FGB (a Russian acronym for "Functional Cargo Block"), they could easily have concluded the launch was premature — as critics claimed at the time.

They might have determined that the station's inauguration was being rushed for political and diplomatic purposes that transcended the traditional standards of reliability and safety — and the launch might well have been rescheduled with no damage to the program's ultimate milestones.

A closer look at the station's beginnings brings to mind the old adage about making sausages and making laws: Looking too closely at the process can make you sick to your stomach, regardless of the quality of the final product. But look closely we must, if we ever hope to succeed in similar efforts in the future.

Station’s shaky start
Why was the FGB module ever needed in the first place? It was supposed to be only a temporary module, and unlike every other modular component of the station it had a very limited lifetime. Its main purpose was political, to avoid having the initial space station configuration look too "Russian."

Even though the FGB module was built in Russia and designed for launch by a Russian rocket, it was paid for and owned by NASA under the terms of a U.S.-Russian contract. The FGB was supposed to hold the first U.S. element, then called Node 1, steady in space after its delivery on a shuttle flight. This was to last only a few months, until the Russian habitation module arrived. Then the first permanent crew could occupy the station.

The space station project was behind schedule from the start, however. When the FGB launched, the habitation module (which would eventually be called Zvezda, Russian for "star") was nowhere near ready for a launch date. It would be almost two years before that key module was put into orbit, and during all that time, the FGB would continually need repairs from visiting shuttle crews.

Within hours of reaching orbit, the unmanned FGB encountered its first crisis: It refused to acknowledge ground commands to raise its orbit to a safe altitude. While Russian controllers  feverishly threw together a plan to reprogram the nonresponsive vehicle’s circuits, oblivious NASA officials were happily popping champagne corks at their Moscow hotel.

There was no backup for the Russian Control Center. Even though NASA was the nominal owner of the FGB, which had a tiny U.S. flag painted in an obscure corner of the ship at the last minute, the Americans had never been given the keys. All commanding would occur only through Russian military sites. And it was there that experts finally succeeded in establishing a link. Their reward: back pay that had been owed them for months by a bankrupt administration.

Battery burnout
In the months that followed, more consequences of the rush to launch appeared. The craft’s main battery controllers, which had not been adequately tested before liftoff, began burning out one by one.  At one point, the station was so starved for power that it automatically shut off almost all its equipment.

When power conditions improved, the Russians were shocked to discover they had forgotten to program in the ability to turn on the hibernating circuits by remote control. The only method was via a manual control switch that was onboard the still-unoccupied module. (NASA's Mission Control operators in Houston figured out a fix, once they got the blueprints.)

In the end, the faltering FGB, tended by an expensive series of last-minute shuttle repair visits carrying new battery circuits and other replacement parts, did survive long enough to dock with the overdue habitation module. What had been disparagingly dubbed “the longest ‘Hail Mary’ pass in history” had succeeded.

Was there a better way?
The leading alternative to launching the "temporary" FGB was to dock the space station's U.S. modules to the Russian habitation module once it reached orbit. When the delays kept mounting up, some of the Russians proposed yet another alternative: switching over to the aging Mir space station as the foundation for later expansion.

Either way, the U.S.-led space station would have looked like merely an annex to a pioneering Russian outpost. Even though the U.S. components would eventually come to dominate the original Russian segments in size, power, and capabilities, the built-up station would forever be in Mir's figurative shadow.  This was totally unacceptable from a domestic political perspective, and it didn’t make good international diplomatic sense, either. Hence, the need for a symbolic “U.S.-first” design.

Ironically, the solution was to dig into the top-secret reaches of the Soviet-era space program and find a candidate module that had originally been part of a highly militarized space station effort, by a firm competing with the one that built Mir. This was the FGB. One variant of the basic design was even drawn up to serve as the control block for a space-based weapons system aimed at pre-empting President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ deployment.

As with so many other aspects of space exploration, the conversion of hardware originally designed as weapons into modified forms to promote scientific exploration was a quintessential “swords into plowshares” transformation. If that conversion was sometimes more complex and costly than anticipated, as was the case with the FGB, perhaps history needs to make some allowances.

Still in service
The orbiting FGB, now known as the Zarya ("Dawn") cargo module, still serves the space station, even though it was officially "retired" when its solar panels were folded up and stowed. It provides a docking port for visiting Soyuz and Progress vehicles — one of three on the Russian side of the space station. Although it's still considered U.S. government property, the Russians have scavenged the module for hardware they can plug into other modules. It also serves as a fuel depot and a handy closet for supplies and spare parts (and sometimes big bags of trash).

Through all the early troubles, the embryonic space station survived, and grew. The immense logistics and repair capabilities of the space shuttle fleet, supplemented by Russia’s own relentless and error-free parade of manned Soyuz and automated Progress vehicles, proved up to the unexpected challenges.

In the beginning, NASA predicted that the space station's most valuable benefits would be in areas that could not be foreseen at launch. And that part of the promise does appear on the verge of being fulfilled:

  • The station project taught NASA that it most definitely did not know enough to build a reliable interplanetary spaceship, and provided the only feasible test platform for learning how.
  • A swelling suite of laboratory equipment, most capable of being "tele-operated" around the clock by scientists back on Earth, is starting to generate actual research results.
  • Crews of perspicacious humans are becoming adept at spotting the "unexpected" inside the labs, and outside as well.

Today, NASA is looking ahead to the end of the shuttle era and the start of a new push toward the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth orbit. Once again, policy analysts and space advocates are calling on NASA to stress a strategy of international cooperation, for budgetary as well as political reasons.

In the case of the space station, virtually all of the promises going in to the international project fell short: Having the Russians along didn't make building the station quicker, or cheaper, or better. But their presence did have other benefits, not anticipated 10 years ago. Going forward, NASA will have to do a rational appraisal of the true benefits and costs of the various strategies for space exploration, on a national as well as international level.

The fact that the space station is finally reaching its prime makes the 10th anniversary well worth celebrating — as long as we recognize the hard truths behind the self-congratulatory hype.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and orbital designer. He is also the author of several books about the U.S. and Russian space efforts, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."