Ep. 298: Space Stations, Part 3 — International Space Station

And now we reach the third part in our trilogy on space stations, with the largest vehicle ever assembled in space: the International Space Station. Launched in 1998, it now consists of 450 metric tonnes of modules, power systems and spacecraft and is regular host to a handful of astronauts from many countries.

Show Notes

Transcript: Space Stations Pt. 3: The International Space Station


Astronomy Cast episode 298 for Monday, March 18, 2013 – Space Stations, Part 3: The International Space Station.
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. Where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and the Director of CosmoQuest.
Fraser: Hi Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Fraser: Good! Good! A few technical snafoos as we are attempting to start this show up. But we’ll get through it.
So for anyone who does not know, we record these episodes every Monday at noon Pacific, 3:00 Eastern as a Google Plus Hangout. So you can watch us live if just getting the episode on your pod-catching software isn’t enough and you want to actually see what goes into making this show. You get to see all of the shenanigans that go on around it, all of the mistakes we make and all of the times we have to go back and re-record something. Good times!
Pamela: And for those of you who aren’t able to watch live, we’re working to, hopefully within a few hours of each recording get these recordings up onto Astrospherevids so you can actually get the raw show much earlier than you can get the fully processed by Preston whom we love, but he can’t do things instantaneously.
Fraser: And we are aware there are a bunch of people wonder why is their stuff on YouTube before the stuff in the stream on iTunes. It’s because there are all these steps: we record the show and then it goes to Preston to get edited. We’re trying to narrow the gap. That’s why there are delays. Are there any announcements you have this week?
Pamela: I can’t think of any other than if you’re a US citizen please write your congress critters and tell them we do want to see science education in America funded by the same places where the sciences are happening. For those of you who don’t know, the proposed White House budget removed science education from NASA, the NIH – all of the places where you have science educators partnered with scientists. And it focusses on all of the science education at the Department of Education. Outreaches at the National Science Foundation and outreaches at the Smithsonian. This has the potential to actually cut all of my funding and a lot of the really awesome programs you may rely on like Night Sky Network’s Solar System Ambassadors,
Astronomy Picture of the Day, all of us are in jeopardy right now.
Fraser: Astronomy Picture of the Day! No!
Pamela: (Laughter) I love that that’s the one you’re upset about.
Fraser: Oh, I love those guys.
(Pamela keeps laughing)
Fraser: That’s such a great resource. That would be crazy to do that.
Pamela: And this is why people need to write their congress critters.
Fraser: Yeah exactly. There’s so much great education outreach that’s happening. It would be insane to cut it off. Alright, let’s get rolling.
Fraser: So now we reach the third part in our trilogy on space stations with the largest vehicle ever assembled in space, the International Space Station. Launched in 1998 it now consists of 450 metric tons of modules, power systems and space craft. And it’s a regular host to a handful of astronauts from many countries. Alright Pamela, today we’re going to talk about the International Space Station and also some other space stations in orbit as we speak including the Chinese Tiangong and the Bigelow. Is that still happening? I think it’s up there.
Pamela: Yeah, the Bigelow has their inflatables up there.
Fraser: Yes, their inflatable space ship. So now we’re entering the modern era. All of these space stations we’ve talked about so far have all been deorbited and now we finally have a space station that is fully in orbit right now.
Pamela: Fully operational space station.
Fraser: Oh, you went there.
(Pamela laughing)
Fraser: There have been a ton of ideas on the books and different back and forth that went into the space station starting with the space station was a freedom and different ideas. So can you go back and give us the history of the space station?
Pamela: The current space stations are actually an amalgamation of several different nations pretty much not having enough money to do what they wanted so they banded together in a ‘forcing-the-puzzle-pieces-to-fit’ kind of manner. On the US side we had plans to build the Space Station Freedom. Some of the original plans in the mid-80s had it as three separate orbiting platforms where you had a cargo bay where people could build on orbit construction of stuff. It was basically a giant hanger-orbiting planet. There were the science modules. These three different orbiting platforms and then we didn’t really have the billions and billions to do that so it got curtailed and curtailed until eventually it was a single vehicle multiple modules including Japanese science module. It had solar arrays and when the congress looked at the new budget they said, “No”. They removed an entire tress of solar arrays and gradually worked on trying to bring costs down starting with construction. On the Russian side, and it was Russia at this point, they were working on Space Station Mir 2. Again this was going to be a new replacement station: bigger and better than before they started construction on the pieces. In Europe they were also working on their own platform. They had the Columbus Science Platform which actually ended up being part of the International Space Station. Canada was tied in as the Builder of Arms.
Fraser: That is what we do.
Pamela: But all these different nations didn’t really have the ability to do everything on their own. Initially what happened was you have the European Space Agency. They tagged along with the Russians. They were going to be part of Mir 2. Then Russia and America started to realize maybe they could work together. This is where the Mir Shuttle Program began. It became more and more realistic to scrap the idea of each nation doing their own separate space station. It was decided we’d actually take the pieces that were already under construction for Mir 2, take the pieces that were already in construction for Freedom, keep the Japanese Module, keep the European Space Agency Modules, launch and put all the pieces together. This required some rejiggering of the architecture you might imagine.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: (Laughing) This was not a graceful process. This is the armadillo’s space ship – not armadillo. This is the platypus of spaceships.
Fraser: Right. You’ve got this situation where you’ve got all of these different countries and with different histories of flight hardware, especially the Russians. And they had their way they put their spaceships together and the way docked them and their different modules. Then after the fact, after these spacecraft have already been built or in the plans to be built and they’d say, “Ok, let’s try to attach them altogether in some useful kind of configuration.” But fortunately the Americans had a lot of practice with Mir, with Atlantis, all of the docking they did with that. They knew how to make these talk.
Pamela: The thing is the starts of building the International Space Station actually came out of starting to go to Mir. It was decided pretty much at the exact same time we were going to fly to Mir and building ISS as a joint partnership with Russia. So we wouldn’t have had one if we didn’t have the other. This was an all or nothing gamble we played with the Soviets or Russians as the case turned out to be.
Fraser: So we’ve got all of these countries agreeing to come together and build this International Space Station, this international effort. When did things actually start to get rolling? What was the first….
Pamela: The first components went up in 1998. The Mir Space Station was still in use. It was still being occupied. It would be two more years before they had enough components on the International Space Station on orbit that they could really occupy it full time. They also had to overcome a lot of, “Well what spacecraft we are using” types of questions. The original plans for Mir 2 had the Soviets, later Russians using the Buran Space Plane. The European Space Agency also had plans for their own space plane that didn’t happen either – The Hermes. Ok. We’ve scrapped two different space planes. Now how are we getting things up there? So we still have the Salyut, we still have the Progress, and we still have the Space Shuttle. All of these have different docking mechanisms. So we had to build these different docking mechanisms. Then we had to figure out about space suits. This is where it starts to look almost silly because American space suits and Russian space suits aren’t the same for obvious reasons. They are built by two different manufacturers. It’s like Levis jeans and Gap jeans. They aren’t identical jeans. But with a spacesuit, they are bigger than a pair of jeans. It turns out the Russians can go through smaller doors than the Americans can. And this has nothing to do with the average weight of our two populations. The US space suits are that much bulkier. So we had to have different doors to accommodate different size spacesuits. It was problem after problem after problem.
Fraser: Right. So the first module went up back in ’98. Which one was that? The Zarya?
Pamela: Zarya, you’re right.
Fraser: Then followed up with Zvezda and then year after year, mission after mission they kept launching more and more of these modules.
Pamela: And the thing is it’s actually not done yet. That’s one of the things we often forget somehow. There are still more things waiting to come and more modules that will be replaced. This is an ongoing, never ending spacecraft project.
Fraser: Do you know how long they are planning to continue launching modules to the space station?
Pamela: They currently have plans going up through 2015 but it is believed the space station can probably exist at least through 2020 and probably through 2028.
Fraser: Wow! So it’s going to be there for a while. The Space Shuttle launched most of the modules up there to date. With that great cargo bay they could dock, they could pull out the module and attach to the space station. But now without the Space Shuttle it will have to go to some of these other more traditional rockets that are going to be launching modules up there.
Pamela: And it was only really the American pieces that were launched by the shuttle. This really is a multinational but not equally shared space station. So while we did take up a bunch of the trusses, we did take up all of the US components for the most part, there was one component that was launched by the Russians for us. We launched one thing for them. They don’t even let Americans use the Russian’s toilet in theory.
Fraser: Really?
Pamela: I’ve heard that isn’t enforced. There’s a Russian crew compartment and an American crew compartment. There really are lines of demarcation.
Fraser: That’s funny you talked about the toilet because that’s often the main question I know the astronauts often get, “How do you go to the bathroom on the space station?”
Pamela: It quite sucks quite literally.
Fraser: How do they do this?
Pamela: (Laughing) They have basically a toilet-shaped orifice built onto the machine that has fans that suck the air and whatever is coming out of you. There is also an anatomically correct hose that has male and female attachments to collect liquid waste.
Fraser: (Snickering) Have you ever had a chance to sit on one of these to set an example of it?
Pamela: No.
Fraser: No?
Pamela: No.
Fraser: No. I’m trying to remember where I’ve seen an example of it. I think it was when we were in California. I was at the California Science Center and they had an example of the toilet where they have the Endeavour Space Craft parked. You get a chance to see what they used on the space shuttle. So let’s talk about the crew then. We’ve talked about how the modules came together and there are too many modules to talk about and all of the power systems. It just goes on and on and on. It’s an amazing enormous vehicle. But let’s talk about the crews because it’s an international space station so it’s going to be an international crew.
Pamela: Right. Currently the commander of the ISS is a Canadian, Chris Hadfield.
Fraser: Chris Hadfield, yeah.
Pamela: It’s one of these things where they cycle through the nations picking who is best for what they are currently doing to be in charge of the mission. There have been Russian commanders, American commanders, now there’s Canadian commander.
The crews are allocated based on who has bought into the mission. The Italians kind of cheated. They are both part of the European Space Agency but they are also did some off the Easa books construction for the Americans so the Italians get some of the American’s share as well of the time. Canada bought in with the Americans through their arm. The European Space Agency bought in through the Russians. So there is careful allocation for who gets time to do what. Japan is in there with their individual module that was sent up as part of the American collaboration. And so all of these different nations have the right to send astronauts into space and all of the different astronauts take care of the experiments from all of the different nations once they make it on orbit.
Fraser: So let’s talk about the money. It has been a very expensive – billions and billions… Do you know what the full price tag for construction and launching and maintenance and crewing this big space station?
Pamela: I found a number earlier. I’m scrolling back to find it again.
Fraser: Hundreds of billions…
Pamela: For both nations the NASA budget for the space station has been about 72 billion in 2010 dollars. It was 150 billion when you include the space shuttle flights. It’s estimated that it is 7.5 million-ish per person day. That’s kind of huge.
Fraser: Yeah. It’s been a very, very expensive thing. I think one of the situations that you’re dealing with personally is this space craft is up there manned by human beings who are there nonstop. NASA and the other countries have to continue funding this thing to keep it going and any excess money it requires gets funded and other stuff has to suffer because of it – science and other space exploration.
Pamela: And this is done through international treaties such that while America several times curtailed our budget much to the dismay of our international colleagues who are basically told, “Sorry, we know you have built that. We’re not going to launch it now. We don’t have the money.” And America can only do that so many times. It’s one of these things when there are international agreements in place. If you keep breaking your contracts over and over, no one is going to work with you anymore. So we have to be careful how often we break treaties.
So there is this horrible dichotomy of contracts and treaties in place saying we will keep doing the following things, coupled with economic downturn and cuts to NASA’s budget, so we have an ever-increasing expense with the ISS. We have contractual obligations to keep it. Where does the money come from? It comes from people like me who keep getting our budgets zeroed.
Fraser: Well, let’s talk about what they use it for. Science, right?
Pamela: They are doing a variety of different experiments that range from things like launching sunflower seeds and then distributing them to researchers to watch them grow for nine months; launching fish and seeing how they swim; and growing plants on orbit. A lot of the experiments they do are geared to try to figure out, “Can we survive long term in space? Can we grow the fish and plants we need if we want to continue out and colonize out to Mars?” In addition to that they do a variety of different microgravity experiments. They have over 50 different science racks that are a variety of ever-changing experiments that get launched, orbit for a period of time. It has high band width antenna to get information back and forth. A lot of those experiments are proprietary, so I can’t actually tell you what they are. That is one of the interesting things; this is getting used for a variety of different experiments that are funded both privately and through government funds. They are quite small. And they will all hopefully and eventually see publication but you can’t just look up somewhere what every single experiment going on in the ISS is.
Some of the more noticeable experiments are things like monitoring how bodies change in terms of when you’re in orbit. Your face puffs out. So when we see the images of the astronauts, you can actually see the results. The most shared results of experiments are, and it’s not so much an experiment as having fun and learning along the way as they take tons of photos of the earth that get used for meteorology, they get used for earth science. They also get used to communicate the overview of what it’s like to see the earth from space.
Fraser: I think we’ve talked about this before. My real position here is human beings’ real goal eventually is going to travel to space to learn how to exist in space. The only way to do that is to spend a lot of time in space and see what goes wrong. Then take each one of these things that go wrong and fix it so that next time it won’t be a problem. This will be everything from how you go to the bathroom, to how you make sure you have enough water to drink, how you grow food, and just keep extending our presence out in space. This is the next generation of this process. These astronauts go up and they are up there for months and months on end. At this point now with so many missions that have happened, we have learned about the impact is on their bodies, ways they can mitigate the effect on it and how they can recover when they get back. Hopefully we can eventually live there in space forever. Be a true space faring civilization.
Pamela: Being an astronaut isn’t an easy life. Everyone romanticizes it. These guys are up at 6 a.m. They have to exercise two or more hours every day to just prevent massive amounts of muscle loss. They are undergoing bone degeneration. They are being subjected to levels of radiation that aren’t allowed on the surface of the planet. There are OSHA regulations that allow astronauts to experience higher levels of radiation than what otherwise would be allowed. They work 10 hour days Monday through Friday, five hours on Saturday. They do get Sunday off. They are expected to do everything from space walks to construct and repair things. There was a solar panel they noticed today looks like a bullet hole going through it from either a micro meteor or a piece of space junk, to running basic pull this rack out, put this one in for the experiments. They communicate with Ham Radios to schools all over the world. They have to be engineers, scientists, communicators, educators, all at the same time.
Fraser: We’ve talked about the various space stations have ended their lives. With Mir they were able to deorbit it. Sky Lab they weren’t too successful and ended up crashing in the Australian Outback. If the space station lasts in the 2020s, what are the plans for its end of life?
Pamela: There have been various discussions of taking some of its modules, repurposing those for yet another generation space station. But they will have to deorbit the bulk of it somehow and that’s going to be just like it was with Mir – a matter of steer, drop, dive, crash into the ocean with any pieces that survive. But what I really appreciate is the way it has been built, they have pulled modules off and replaced modules and they are looking toward the future continuing to do things like that where there are plans to replace module in the future. There are plans to test the viability of using Bigelow modules attached to it. There are plans to launch one, attach it, seal it off other than to go in to do tests, which I find highly amusing. We’re going to put it there. It’s going to be fully inhabitable. We don’t trust it so we’re not going inside unless we have to – is pretty much the way it is specked out. They are going to continue to refurbish what they can and they will now that things are on orbit. They will continue to keep what they can before they bring down through the atmosphere what they can’t.
Fraser: Are they talking about any successor to the International Space Station now? Or is the only conversation they have is: “Is there anything in the works?”
Pamela: Honestly the discussions that come up and down periodically aren’t ones I would trust right now for the very simple reason I think we are at a turning point where we could decide to go and build a more and permanent facility on the moon. We could choose to make or break for the asteroids or mars. Depending on what choices we make, we need very different orbiting platforms from which to launch ourselves. It’s also becoming more and more clear, before we do too much more we need to start cleaning up what we’ve done to outer space. There’s a lot of space junk. Keeping a large object like the ISS in lower orbit is subject to collision.
Fraser: Right. And they constantly have to move it. You get these alerts to do a firing of its rockets to move it because of some possible impact with some piece of space debris. So this is getting worse and worse over time.
Pamela: During one of the more recent space walks we also had a case of one of the astronauts dropped one of the experiments and it flew away and it appears to be in an orbit that won’t ever intersect the International Space Station again, that doesn’t mean some future space station won’t be in its way. So just the fact that dropping your wrench can create a hazard that can endanger the lives of all of the astronauts, that is a pretty stark reality to live in.
Fraser: Well let’s shift gears a bit then. One, talk about the Bigelow Space Station, or Bigelow Space Stations, a private space station which is inflatable. Do you have any information on that?
Pamela: Bigelow has now launched two different modules at two different scales. They have critters on them as long as the critters live. We talked about this in detail during one of our earlier…
Fraser: Animals in space.
Pamela: Yeah. The idea of these is to find a way to launch a large capacity volume you could live in but to launch it with low cost with low shipping weight, and to make space as affordable and easy to survive in as possible. They are taking the idea of a giant inflatable and taking it as far to its limit as you can go. These are inflatable space craft. One of the things when they test a module, the ISS they are going to look at the leak rate. They know these things do leak just like all balloons do leak. What is their durability? And the idea is eventually you can launch a space hotel, a commercial space platform that is just a blow up ball after blow up ball with solar panels attached to them. As I’ve said, they have tested two of these so far. They have gotten to the point of launching bugs. That’s ok. Bugs fly too. But their next big test is going to be in 2015 where they have one that is suitable for humans to occupy it that will be attached to one of the ports on one of the ISS. While the plan is not to live in it, the astronauts will access it to take data periodically.
Fraser: You can see this coming together. You’ve got all of the private accomplishments of space acts where you’ve got a fairly inexpensive, relatively inexpensive flight system. You’ve got a private space hotel that could be available to astronauts and tourists in the future. This whole concept of space tourism is starting to gather. I think 10 years ago, you might have thought no one is going to pay millions of dollars to go up into space. But now there have been a handful of actual private tourists who’ve been to the International Space Station. They’ve paid…
Pamela: 30 million and up each.
Fraser: Yeah, each. And I’ll bet you there’s a lineup of super-rich people who would like to spend a bunch of nights in space in the cramped conditions of a space hotel. Space camping, right? (Laughter) You fly into this little inflatable tent and try to not die. And you look out the window for two days, then come back home.
Pamela: In some big cities and at some major airports, there are these pod hotels where you get this slide door cubby the size of not even a twin bed. This is pretty much what we are looking at in space for the astronaut. As it stands the Americans have that on their crew compartments. They have no windows but they have soundproof bunks. The Russians have windows and limited sound proofing on their bunks. It’s looking toward a future where commercial tourists pay for slightly improved quarters to what we give our astronauts.
Fraser: But I think this whole concept of these inflatable space station modules is pretty exciting and there has been a lot of development work. I know NASA is taking it very seriously because you can launch something that is fairly small and then inflate it and it can provide what you require in space. It provides the pressure. It’s like a space suit that you hang out inside.
Pamela: Bigelow is building all of these with an eye toward being able to partner with SpaceX using their dragging capsules, standard rockets, the Falcon Series. So as we look toward the future it’s not NASA, NASA, NASA. It’s NASA contracting private companies to build the space components and to build the space craft. So this is a completely new model that is starting to parallel more with what the military does when it buys airplanes from Boeing or Lockheed.
Fraser: The big country we talked about that was absent from the International Space Station is the Chinese. They were left out or chose to not be a part of…
Pamela: No, they were banished by the US Congress. They’re for a variety of reasons I have to admit I don’t understand. America’s Congress has written a number of policies that make it almost impossible to partner with the Chinese. We can’t use NASA funding to go visit China. The Chinese are absolutely are not allowed on the International Space Station. Because of this, China basically took their toys and went away. And you can’t blame them for that. So they are working on building their own space platform that is built on the history of the Salyut Series space stations, but takes them in new directions as they work towards having a multi module space station that will have multiple surfacing missions, multiple crews able to come and go. So far they have followed the Salyut plan in terms they have launched space stations that had a single crew. They have done that twice now. But their next one they are looking to have will be that multiple crews coming and going, bringing supplies type of space station.
Fraser: Their space station, the Tiangong, is it still orbiting?
Pamela: I believe it is still orbiting but it is not still being used.
Fraser: It is not inhabited right now.
Pamela: Yeah. It had only 20 days of life support. So Tiangong 1 went up, it had a single crew. They are planning a second one that will be a single crew. But it is with Tiangong 3 they are going to move into that multiple crews, multiple module space future following very much the plans for what was done with Salyut and Mir.
Fraser: I definitely wouldn’t count them out. I think they are doing this on a shoestring budget? It’s absolutely copied Russian hardware, but then with modern improvements and they are following almost the Russian methodology very carefully and closely – the cost savings there. I think they are going to make some pretty significant advances. The question is where are they going to go next? Are they going to be the ones to return to the moon? Who knows?
Pamela: It’s unclear and the thing is they have a nation that can throw an entire industry at innovating space technologies. While they don’t think they can get the launch process down to be as cheap as what SpaceX is doing they are producing a much more educated society and they have a much larger consumer base and a much larger tax base. That all adds up to a very bright future for their space agency.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. Well we’ll be keeping an eye on that and give you an update a few years down the road from now.
Alright. Well that was a bit of a longer show. Thank you very much Pamela!
Pamela: Thank you.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity.

Follow along and learn more: