Astronomical Expense

by Andrew Crumey

Review of International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth by David Nixon. Literary Review, June 2016.


If you're the sort of person who likes looking up at night, you might on occasion notice what appears to be an extremely bright star moving slowly across the sky. If it's not a helicopter searchlight or UFO then there's a good chance it's the International Space Station, a structure about as large as a football pitch orbiting two hundred and fifty miles above the Earth at a speed of five miles per second. That bright light in the sky, according to David Nixon, is a feat of engineering and architecture on a par with the Eiffel Tower or Aswan Dam. While his sumptuously illustrated book amply justifies the claim, the jury is still out on whether the brilliant technical achievement justifies the enormous bill the ISS has run up for the fifteen countries contributing to it.

Amid the mass of information assembled in this coffee-table format book is a flow chart used for planning NASA missions. Step one is "refine user needs and objectives", and it gives the first clue to the problems that beset the project from the outset. What exactly is a space station for? In the minds of mid-twentieth century science fiction enthusiasts it could be a floating city, luxury hotel or launch pad to the outer planets.

When Ronald Reagan officially gave the go-ahead for development in 1984, NASA had already been ploughing through their flow charts for five years, and had decided that it would be, as David Nixon says, "a space research laboratory, an astronomical observatory, a transportation node, a servicing facility, an assembly platform, a manufacturing plant, a storage depot and a staging base all rolled into one." [p31] Hard economic realities stepped in, with rising costs and slashed budgets creating a need for constantly revised plans. In the end, a single objective remained intact: space research laboratory. Yet so far there has been no great discovery or breakthrough, nor is any seriously expected. What the ISS has produced is a lot of information about how people, plants and materials behave in near-zero gravity, plus numerous technical spin-offs. Perhaps more important, in the long run, is its political and social impact: a significant part of the astronauts' activity is doing web chats with schoolkids or generating good-news headlines for their sponsor nations. Well, the Eiffel Tower was very expensive too, and served no practical purpose at all. And if all that cash hadn't gone into the ISS, we can be sure it wouldn't have been used instead to eradicate poverty or cure cancer.

Reagan wanted to call the space station "Freedom", a name that went by the wayside as partner countries were brought in to help support the troubled project. The biggest boost came in the wake of the Soviet Union's demise, when Russia joined the club. It was Russia that put the first piece of the ISS into orbit in 1988, and the multi-national design has left its mark on the structure, most of which was completed over the following decade. As astronaut Nicole Scott writes in an introduction, "The U.S. modules are somewhat sterile, with a lot of white panels and exposed cables and equipment, while the Russian modules are what I would describe as 'cosy', with a plush tan fabric covering the major surfaces." [p20] On the other hand, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield did not entirely regret the austere American decor. He is quoted as saying, "the psychiatrists who were consulted thought that soothing colours were key to mental health, so they chose... salmon. Either they changed their minds or stopped dabbling in interior design..." These personal perspectives are very welcome in what, for the most part, is a factually comprehensive but rather dry account of the ISS project. The level of technical detail is more than the general reader is likely to require, but as a history of the planning, design, assembly and functioning of the space station, this book is unlikely to be surpassed. The story of the ISS is not one of visionaries or mavericks, but of committees, consultancy teams and endlessly redrawn blueprints.

Among the discarded proposals was one for a rotating wheel, like a smaller version of the one seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's just as well it never happened: the rate of spin would have made astronauts nauseous, and the artificial gravity would have negated what has become the chief scientific attraction of the ISS. Also serendipitous is its orbit. Satellites are best launched to fly eastwards, to get a boost from Earth's rotation, but the Russian launch site is far north of the American one, so a compromise was reached. The result is a path that progressively takes the ISS over much of the Earth's surface, and it has enabled ground observation to become a major activity, with benefits in agriculture and meteorology. It also means we get to see it fly over every now and then, which is more than you can say for the Eiffel Tower.