A Spacecraft Is Taking Shape
ISS photographed by a departing Atlantis on June 19. The two spacecraft parted ways somewhere over the Coral Sea. With installation of the last truss and deployment of its solar arrays, the station is finally assuming its shape. Turning on the solar arrays was not without problems; it somehow caused the computers to crash. They were reportedly rebooted via a bypass of the surge protectors, a very risky step. A planned Progress flight in August may be moved to July 23 to bring updated computers.
Space stations have been in people's dreams since the beginning of the rocket age. Wehrner Von Braun pubished designs for an orbiting wheel in the 1950's, which inspired 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In 1983 President Reagan proposed Space Station Freedom, involving the US with Japan and European partners. Station was intended to be a steppingstone toward the Moon and planets.
During Clinton's administration the space station was very nearly cancelled. It was revived with Russian participation as Space Station Alpha. Political justification for the project went from staying ahead of Russia to fostering cooperation with them. To allow servicing from Russian spaceports, the orbit was moved to a high inclination. This made ISS useless as a fuel stop for the Moon or Mars. From its launch site in Florida, shuttle Atlantis needed 2 days to catch up with ISS. Problems in Russia delayed the launch of the first modules, but Russian assistance was invaluable after Columbia.
The project's usefulness for science has always been doubted. Originally ISS was designed for a crew of 8, but the 8-person rescue vehicle was cancelled because of budget. Crew size is limited to three using Soyuz as an escape pod, like Expedition Six. That is barely enough people to keep the station clean, much less do a lot of science. There is still room for valuable experiments, particularly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Currently AMS is sitting in a clean room, its future uncertain. Amazingly ISS has survived all these hurdles.
Station is already invaluable for research on long-duration flights. Construction experience will be valuable for any large objects to be built in Space. From visions of orbiting wheels, real space stations have evolved to resemble dragonflies. The delicate network of solar panels and radiating fins has been called beautiful. It is certainly satisfying to see a big project near completion.
(On my own Space project, the parts are also being assembled. Like ISS, this was a pile of raw materiels and ideas for a years. Presently some very late nights are spent integrating the life support system and electronics. It is hard to describe how it looks, but it is quite pleasing to the eyes. This may be the only example of the technology in existence. It may change the way humans visualise spaceflight.)