2012: A Stepping Stone to the Future

Multiple images of the International Space Station flying over the Houston area have been combined into one composite image to show the progress of the station as it crossed the face of the moon in the early evening of Jan. 4. The station, with six astronauts and cosmonauts currently aboard, was flying in an orbit at 390.8 kilometers (242.8 miles). The space station can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye and a pair of field binoculars may reveal some detail of the structural shape of the spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

When André Kuipers boarded the International Space Station, two days before Christmas, not even his years of training could have fully prepared him for the size, grandeur and beauty of the complex in its finished state. In fact, the last time the Amsterdam-born physician flew into orbit in April 2004 was in the dark period after the loss of Columbia, a time when the future of the ISS and its completion hung very much in the balance.

Today, nine years since Columbia, the station is for all intents and purposes complete – a bright star, visible with the naked eye from the ground, bristling with golden solar arrays and sprouting silvery modules from Russia, the United States, Europe and Japan – and the mission of Kuipers and his crewmates on Expedition 30 is to put it all to work in the post-Shuttle era. This year, 2012, will be particularly challenging ‘on station’, in part due to the absence of NASA’s reusable orbiters, but also on account of lingering worries about the reliability of the Soyuz booster and concerns over whether commercial providers, including SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, can step up to plate with a viable means to deliver supplies to the ISS.

This unusual image, photographed through the Cupola on the International Space Station by one of the Expedition 30 crew members, is centered over Turkey. The lake just above the bracket- mounted camera at center is Egirdir Golu. Photo Credit: NASA

Commander Dan Burbank and flight engineers Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoli Ivanishin, Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Kuipers are the first crew to have all been launched in the wake of the final Shuttle mission. The first three members flew to the station in mid-November, with Kononenko, Pettit and Kuipers following about six weeks later. Theirs is a flight of true ‘utilisation’ of the complex and, indeed, their press kit proudly proclaimed its role as marking the start of A New Era of Research and Resupply. “The idea,” explained Burbank, “is to let the space station do what it was intended to do…and that is to do cutting-edge research.” Burbank knows from first-hand experience how the ISS has evolved over the years. On his first mission in September 2000, it was little more than a handful of modules, with no permanent crew aboard; by the time he flew again in September 2006 it had more than doubled in size and capability; and now, today, on his third voyage, its completeness at last matches the artist’s impressions. The years of construction are virtually over. Only a single EVA is planned during Expedition 30 – by Shkaplerov and Kononenko, on or around Valentine’s Day, to install debris shields on the Zvezda service module – and a full plate of scientific research will consume much of the crew’s time.

One of the Expedition 30 crew members aboard the Earth-orbiting International Space Station photographed this night time scene of the Iberian Peninsula on Dec. 4, 2011. The city lights of Spain and Portugal define the peninsula. Photo Credit: NASA

Writing in his blog from his cabin in the Harmony node on New Year’s Eve, Kuipers noted that this work had begun almost immediately, with the Microgravity Science Glovebox and the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS, both housed in the Destiny lab. Elsewhere, plant growth, Earth sciences, fluids and combustion physics, radiation monitoring and astronomical surveys are a taste of the disciplines being pursued. Just last week, the crew installed a set of Enhanced Processor and Integrated Communications (EPIC) cards into one of the station’s primary computers, enabling more experiments to run simultaneously. In the coming weeks, on 8 February or thereabouts, SpaceX’s first Dragon will be launched and berthed onto Harmony by the Canadarm2 manipulator. A month later, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), named in honour of Italian physicist Edoardo Amaldi, will arrive, bearing more supplies and experiments. Betwixt these missions will be regular deliveries aboard Russian Progress craft. In June, the third Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), known as the ‘Kounotori’ or ‘White Stork’, will also be launched. Each of these craft will bridge the gap between past and future, enabling the station to establish itself securely on a transitional path from construction and maintenance to full utilisation.

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft has become the workhorse in terms of ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle. Photo Credit: NASA

Still, each member of the crew remains determined to make the most of an opportunity which has been granted to precious few human beings in half a century of space exploration. For Kuipers, one ISS module incomparably surpassed all others: the Italian-built Cupola, whose hemispherical dome of windows provide a virtual 360-degree view of the station and the ever-changing Home Planet. “When I am in there,” he wrote in his blog, “I can see the Earth in its full glory pass below me – or above me, or next to me – it all depends on the angle with which I float into the Cupola.” At night, with the lights out, he could behold the twinkling of city streetlamps, more than 200 miles below, or nomadic fires in the desert or burning meteors, the shimmering brilliance of the aurora and even the unexpected trail left by Comet Lovejoy. Other crew members spent their free time differently. Don Pettit attained a measure of fame in 2003 when he instituted ‘Saturday Morning Science’ – a series of basic, non-intrusive experiments, performed and videotaped during his free time – and he has pledged to continue the tradition during Expedition 30.

Comet Lovejoy is visible near Earth’s horizon in this nighttime image photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 21, 2011. Photo Credit: NASA

The astronauts and cosmonauts who will occupy the ISS in 2012 represent this transition. By next New Year’s Eve, no fewer than 17 men and one woman will have worked there. Americans Burbank and Pettit will be followed by Joe Acaba, Sunita ‘Suni’ Williams, Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn, together with Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide, Canada’s Chris Hadfield, Dutchman Kuipers and Russians Shkaplerov, Ivanishin, Kononenko, Gennadi Padalka, Sergei Revin, Yuri Malenchenko, Oleg Novitsky, Yevgeni Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko. Indeed, of these ‘Russians’, only half actually originate from within the political borders of today’s Russia: Shkaplerov and Malenchenko are both Ukrainian, Kononenko is from Turkmenistan and Novitsky from Belarus. Therefore, politically, no fewer than eight discrete nations will be represented on this most ‘international’ of outposts in 2012. It is a remarkable achievement and a promising sign for the future. That the crews are undivided on political, racial, linguistic or ethnic grounds – that they train and work as teams, even though launched on separate craft – is demonstrated in the mission patch for Expedition 34, due to begin in October: its commander, Kevin Ford, insisted that the names of the two halves of his crew should be merged to underline their unity.

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The appearance of the ISS today and the mixture of its occupants reminds us of the early hopes and aspirations for Space Station Freedom, all those years ago in the 1980s: a permanently inhabited home in the heavens, with experiments in research and technology for the benefit of humanity, performed by a fully international crew and acting as a staging post to venture deeper into the Solar System. The ISS has been in orbit for more than a decade, and will remain there until at least 2020. It has changed slowly and dramatically over the years and has grown larger, infinitely more complex, more internationally diverse and its role has expanded in ways which could scarcely have been imagined in the early days. Before his launch, Oleg Kononenko off-handedly remarked that he thought Expedition 30 would generate little ‘historic’ value…a positive, as well as negative, attribute, perhaps, as long-duration missions in space become more commonplace. Whilst the majority of us were not even taking notice, the hopes and the aspirations for a permanently occupied space station were fulfilled and, as these words are written and read, the testament of that fulfillment circles more than 200 miles above our heads.

In this picture is the crew of Expedition 31. Pictured on the front row are Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko (right), commander; and Gennady Padalka, flight engineer. Pictured from the left (back row) are NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Revin, European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers and NASA astronaut Don Pettit, all flight engineers. Photo Credit: NASA

Now that the station is complete, the crew of Expedition 30 are not alone in their wish that this remarkable engineering accomplishment – the greatest ever undertaken in human history, dwarfing by far the Pyramids or Stonehenge or the Great Wall – can now be used as a stepping stone to cement our place as a true spacefaring civilization. Crew training is already heading in that direction. Dan Burbank’s preparation for this mission differed markedly from his preparation for his two Shuttle flights. “It’s impractical to train the crew in what we would call a task-based sense,” he said, “to teach ‘em all the things that they would be expected to do on a two-week Shuttle mission. We can’t do that same approach on space station, so we basically teach a set of skills. We trust in the skills of the crew and the help of the ground to be able to do some potentially very sophisticated kinds of repairs.” Such repairs were amply demonstrated in August 2010, when Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell-Dyson performed three EVAs to repair and replace a damaged ammonia pump module. “Personally, I look forward to that,” Burbank continued. “Not that I look forward to space station hardware breaking, but I think…learning how to keep hardware operating well in space is a key skill. It’s something that, once we leave low-Earth orbit, is going to be absolutely crucial.” At the present time, for all its complexity, the advances and steps being taken aboard the ISS in 2012 are mere baby steps to the future. But they remain ‘steps’ and, as with so much else in the human journey, all steps ultimately lead to unimagined destinations. The Moon – whose dusty surface fell silent of human company, almost four decades ago – and Mars are waiting, beckoning us to visit and set up home there. “We’re standing with our toes in an ocean that’s still to be discovered,” said André Kuipers. “There’s so much to discover and it will continue in ways that we cannot ever imagine now.”

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