Twelve years

On Friday last week, the ISS passed the milestone of 12 years of crewed flight. Expedition 1 docked on November 2, 2000 and over 200 people have visited since.

Twelve years is a bit less than half of my lifetime. In the fall of 2000 I was starting my 8th grade year in middle school. That was the time in my life when I was becoming a book nerd, but I was just discovering more serious literature. Until then my sci-fi reading consisted of Star Wars. I knew I was a space geek but like most pre-teens, especially those growing up on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I didn’t much follow what was going on in current events. However, it was at that time that many people had already spent a big chunk of their careers on the ISS program (or Space Station Freedom, or Space Station Alpha, etc.). All of that work was paying off in the initial launch and assembly of a real laboratory in space occupied by Krikalev, Gidzenko, and Shepherd.

So, considering that the ISS was launched and occupied while I was still a 12-year-old geeking out over Star Wars Episode I, coming into the ISS program as a newbie fresh-out of college in January 2009 felt like jumping into an already well oiled operations program. But now almost 4 years later I have seen a whole third of the ISS occupied lifetime. I now understand high performance, high risk operations well enough to know they were still learning in 2009 when I showed up, and we are still learning now.

It’s hard to describe why spaceflight is different in this respect from other types of flight operations. The airlines that operate Boeing 737 airliners – flying for the past 45 years – don’t consider their flight programs to still be “experimental” or “developmental.” Those are reliable pieces of engineering that can be trusted to fly millions of ┬ápeople on thousands of flights a year. The ISS, however, is whizzing by several hundred miles overhead. It’s hard to get the mechanics out to take a look at a problem between “flights” like on an airliner – because there is no between. The ISS must continually function well enough fly straight and keep 2-6 people alive. All repairs must be done in flight by a few trained astronauts – who may or may not have mechanical backgrounds – and who have to be trained in several dozen specialties. The successful spacewalk by Expedition 33 crew members Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide* last Thursday was sort of like a Southwest Airlines mechanic going out on the wing while at cruising altitude to check the hydraulic pressure of the ailerons – if you don’t mind strained analogies.

The ISS has the combined equivalent systems of a high performance aircraft, a functional wet science lab, an office building, and a home. Not only that, the international nature of the program means that some of those systems are written in Cyrillic or Japanese and must function with their American built counterparts. I wonder if the environmental system of a Tokyo high-rise could be easily retrofitted into a similar system in NYC? Learning to operate all of these systems together reliably and non-stop for many years will necessarily take time, and as I’ve written about before, should probably be considered one of the main goals of the ISS. Twelve years is enough time for us to start building confidence, but we are just getting started.

I may still be here in 2020, celebrating my own kind of 12-year anniversary with ISS. Who really knows what their life will be like 8 or more years in the future? I certainly didn’t think I would be here flying spaceships back in 2000. ISS operations today are nothing like they were during Expedition 1 – and that’s mostly in good ways. We now have a fully assembled laboratory with more science than our full crew of 6 can take care of. Older components are wearing out and we are learning how to repair, replace, or live without them. Whatever the rest of the NASA budget is spent on, the next 12 years of ISS operations will be spent really learning what “long duration spaceflight” really means. Here’s to seeing Expedition 60 and beyond!

*By the way, Commander Sunita Williams now has the fifth most hours of spacewalking time of any person ever

November 4, 2012 9:00 pm

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