Seventeen Years

Last Thursday, November 2nd, the ISS passed the milestone of 17 years of crewed flight. The launch of Expedition 1, now nearly two decades in the past, was a great way to kick of the new millennium for us space geeks. The significance of that event will only be truly known in retrospect. If our continuous presence continues through the ISS program’s entire length – into the 2020s and hopefully beyond – it will have been a huge achievement. If some future unbuilt space station continues the record, leaving us as a space-faring species for generations to come – the launch of Expedition 1 could perhaps be remembered as a turning point for our species. But that legacy is yet to be written.

I wrote about this same event in this post from 2012, when I had been working at NASA’s Johnson space center for only about 4 years. At the time, those years felt significant – a third of the crewed mission! Now five years later, that share has increased to a number that scares me – half. I have been working on ISS for half of its crewed mission. As long as we are talking numbers, it’s also been about a third of my life.

It scares me because with all of that experience, you might think that I am an expert on spacecraft operations. You probably would think that the ISS operations team as a whole are collectively geniuses in that respect, that we knock down pretty much every problem that comes up with ease. But the truth is we are still exploring. There are still ways to use a space station we have yet to try and experiments we have yet to run. Only in the past few years have we started to master the idea of deploying small satellites from the ISS. We are yet to truly utilize the idea of additive manufacturing in space. On a personal level, there are many lessons about teamwork and leadership and overcoming failure I have yet to learn. When Gene Kranz called mission control a leadership laboratory, it was not hype. All of the leadership experience that was on my resume coming out of college pales in comparison to what I have learned as part of a spaceflight operations team. And that’s because there are still problems to solve that I have gained skills by helping to overcome.

The world has many challenges today, some of them unknown at the time that the ISS mission began at the dawn of this century. The relentless pace of globalization and improvements in communication technology put us at a crossroads with respect to social structures, security, sovereignty, and our pursuit of the truth. To say nothing of humanity’s growing population and challenges we must confront with our changing climate. Some might say things are worse today than in 2000. Others will point out the clear advances in science, medicine, and communication that make life better for many. This up-and-down trend of history is what has made me even more certain that projects like the ISS are fundamentally important to our pursuit of positive solutions.

The ISS does not stand alone. Major multinational scientific and engineering projects existed before the space station and will continue after. One of the best examples is CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The design and construction of the LHC could only have been made positive with such an impressive peaceful cooperation between many nations. The Human Genome Project is another success story, not to mention the many international large astronomical observatories around the world. I like these projects not just because they make amazing scientific discoveries and foster peaceful international collaboration. I also like how they transcend the changing tides of politics and rise above changing administrations. The ISS, for instance, was conceived in its first version more than 5 US presidential administrations ago. It has been continuously occupied by astronauts now during 4 presidencies.

This longevity should give us hope. Hope that despite the feeling of “one step forward two steps backwards” we sometimes get from following politics, that it is possible for us to build something together that can stand the test of time. The ISS is certainly not the longest lasting example, but the ISS should have special symbolism for us. The ISS is not just a scientific endeavor or an engineering testbed, it also challenges the frontier of human experience (just ask Scott Kelly) while specifically calling us to imagine more and more ambitious voyages into deep space. To take the space stations mission seriously is to have an optimistic outlook.

One of my idols, Bill Nye, says it best when he says that “space exploration brings out the best in us.” It is for this reason that after 9 years here, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else, and that I hope the ISS can go on for 17 more years. We are far from done learning from this unique laboratory in low Earth orbit. It’s hard to imagine where we will be in ten, twenty, or thirty years. History takes many unpredictable twists and turns. But I hope that the legacy started by the launch of Expedition 1 will go on, and that we never come back down the Earth.


November 5, 2017 3:17 pm

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