Reflections after 50 Years of Space
A protege of Wernher von Braun, Jesco von Puttkamer has spent his long career working in human spaceflight. In this long essay, von Puttkamer gives his perspective on humanity's next steps into the universe. The first installment ran yesterday. Here he discusses the important role of the International Space Station.
Space Station ISS is the centerpiece of human permanent occupancy of space. It is the largest international technical project ever seen on Earth, a huge undertaking of scientific, technological and world-political significance. It is taking on challenges of prime rank for all of us, challenges of life and quality of life on Earth, of life's content and growth, of deliverance from old-fashioned "business as usual" methods in research and development, and of technological competitiveness. The project is about political ties, world peace and world unity, about catalytic action in school, college and university education, about economic stimulation and jobs.
Back in the Nineties, the first phase of this program consisted of joint missions of the U.S. Space Shuttle and Soviet Russia's 1986-launched space station Mir, the largest orbital outpost at that time, which altogether was visited by 31 spacecraft. Nine dockings involved the Space Shuttle. When Mir, after 15 years of operation and more than 86,000 total orbits, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Friday, March 23, 2001, it had been the home of 125 cosmonauts and astronauts from 12 different nations. Seven U.S. astronauts -- six men and one woman -- resided on the station for a groundbreaking total of 907 days, with the purpose of gathering risk-mitigating experiences for the building and operation of the ISS (at a price, payable to Russia, of about $400 million).
The actual assembly of the ISS started in November 1998 with the launch of the first piece on a Russian Proton rocket from Kazakhstan, the so-called FGB (for Funktsionalnyi-Grusovoi Blok, or Functional Cargo Block), which was dubbed Zarya (Russian for "Sunrise"). NASA bought this 20-ton station element from the manufacturer, Khrunichev, for $190 million, including launch costs. Two weeks later, on December 4, the Shuttle Endeavour, commanded by Bob Cabana and with Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev in its crew, brought up the pressurized U.S. multi-coupling element Node 1, called Unity. Using the Shuttle's Canada-built remote manipulator system, astronaut Nancy Currie attached Unity to the front end of Zarya. Other U.S. and Russian building blocks were added piece by piece. In the fourth quarter of 2000, the first station crew arrived in a Soyuz transport ship: two Russian cosmonauts, Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, and U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd, the expedition commander. Total ISS assembly took more than 10 years, requiring 37 missions by the Shuttle hauling construction elements, resupply goods, and crews. An additional 65-70 assembly and logistics flights by Russian Proton and Soyuz carriers as well as Europe’s Ariane 5 and Japan’s H-2 rockets supplemented this effort. Completion of the station is scheduled for early 2011. Thereafter, it will be in full operational swing with an international crew of six: 74 m long, 108 m wide and about 420 t mass.
What does station operation consist of? What are its objectives?
In its central role, the ISS can be visualized as a permanent multipurpose laboratory operating around the clock, making maximum use of the conditions of near-weightlessness and ultra-high vacuum not accessible in any other way on Earth. It has five world-class science laboratories: the U.S. “Destiny,” the Japanese “Kibo,” the European “Columbus” and the Russian laboratory modules “Poisk” (Search) and “Rassvet” (Dawn). We see it as a combination technology center, industrial product development lab and scientific research institute for investigations requiring long duration, plenty of energy, service by highly-trained personnel, and spacious working and living volume under orbital conditions. As an example, completely assembled the ISS has an internal pressurized volume of 935 cubic meters, larger than a five-bedroom house. This spaciousness, along with its other resources, permits research objectives such as human-medical investigations in the areas of physiology, radiation effects and protection, environmental factors, behavioral and performance research, cell and molecular biology, etc. Particularly in human life sciences, an area of intimate concern to all of us, we expect its onboard program to yield unforeseeable medical breakthroughs, perhaps in immunological research of development of methods for prevention, control, and treatment of cancer and other diseases. Long-duration missions in microgravity are of critical significance in investigating the effects of zero-g on immunity against infections, rejection of organ transplants, and development of AIDS from HIV.
Such claims are supported by examples of medical experiments already flown on the Space Shuttle: They include protein crystal growth for research on AIDS, diabetes, cancer, rheumatic arthritis, salmonella and emphysema. Some of the protein crystals produced in space pertain to gamma interferon (for antiviral research and treatment of certain cancer types), elastase (a protein playing a key role in the destruction of lung tissue in emphysema patients), malic enzyme (important for the development of antiparasitic drugs), insulin (to control diabetes), Factor D (important in inflammations and other immune system reactions), and satellite tobacco mosaic virus.
These types of experimentation require longer running times than the Shuttle could provide; the Space Station, however, is ideal for them. Protein crystals grown in microgravity are generally larger, better formed and internally more homogenous, i.e., more evenly structured in their molecular buildup, than Earth-grown crystals which tend to have malformations due to convection and gravity effects making them less suitable for research. The superior space-formed crystals permit a more complete and exact analysis of their three-dimensional molecular and cellular structures. With proteins that are harmful to humans, the results can be used by pharmacological industries to develop and test "tailor-made" defensive substances with the correct form and nuclear distribution to attach themselves at key positions in the protein, thus blocking their biological effectiveness. For cell-growth studies, bioreactors in microgravity allow cells, such as breast cancer tissue, to retain their three-dimensional shape rather than being collapsed flat due to gravity.
Conditions aboard ISS also enable and support chemical and physical research in areas like semiconductor crystal growth, low-temperature physics, combustion physics, fluid behavior, manufacture of electronic materials, industrial processes, and other investigations. With advanced research and development programs like these, ISS in the longer term creates high technology, new jobs and new economic opportunities today and even more tomorrow, to the benefit of the nations participating in this "Residence in Space" venture. As a motor of newly emerging technologies, it preserves for them leadership positions in the space program and in international competition. A highly industrialized country would almost certainly move by the wayside in the long run if its participation in such a program is nil or at best only symbolic/lukewarm.
Next: Exploration and the ISS