Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The origins of the International Space Station

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When Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space, sets foot there on November 23 (except for delays in launch), the fourteenth anniversary of the continuous human presence on the International Space Station (ISS) will have passed for less than a month.

This long chain officially began on November 2, 2000, when astronauts Bill Sheperd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev became the first resident crew for a mission lasting a few months. But the history of orbiting stations and the ISS begins many years earlier.

At the origins the US-USSR clash

The first chapter of this story opens in the climate of the Cold War . At the beginning of the seventies, while the Americans are concentrating on the Apollo program (that of the conquest of the Moon), the Soviets are already working on the creation of the first orbiting space station with permanent personnel. This is the Salyut civil program, officially opened in 1971 for scientific research purposes outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Salyut 1 became the first space station to orbit the Earth as early as 1971, when it was brought into orbit by the Soyuz 10 mission.

The Salyut program beats several records, such as that of the first crew rotation on a space station, and continues to operate until 1986, when it is replaced by Mir, the program that will send the famous space station of the same name into orbit: the first station modular history. The Americans, however, take almost fifteen years to respond to the first Soviet results, that of the Salyut. It happened in 1984, when in January President Ronald Regan officially asked NASA to build a space station with stars and stripes: the Freedom.

American motivations, as well as prestige, could also have military motivations. The Soviet Salyut program, in fact, was flanked by another military project, the Almaz, which began even in the 1960s, well before Neil Armstrong took his famous little step. The Almaz had mainly purposes of reconnaissance of the enemy territory but provided for the presence of personnel on board and, even, the provision of cannons for defensive purposes. The three very secret launches of the Almaz program were carried out between 1973 and 1976 under the name of Salyuz to muddy the waters. The project also included the development of a shuttle capable of bringing astronauts into orbit and returning to earth.

Freedom vs. Peace

Reagan ‘s announcement was clear: the American station would be ready and orbiting in ten years. The reality turned out to be quite different, because between 1984 and 1993 the Freedom project was progressively resized and rethought. The story is complicated and also involves the change of presidency and the commitment of the Bush administration sr. in the First Gulf War. What matters is that Freedom was never built and the American scientific and technical effort converged in the 1990s in the design of the International Space Station, a chapter that only opened when the Cold War was finally over.

While Freedom was losing, not only metaphorically, the pieces in the street, stranded in the shackles of the US bureaucracy, the Soviet Salyuz program was closed not so much for lack of interest or failure, but because it was replaced by the more ambitious and modern Mir project (whose name means ” peace”). The first modular station was a success, because – some setbacks aside, such as the fire on board in 1997 – it was able to count on the decades of experience gained in the Salyut program and allowed, in addition to carrying out scientific experiments in space, also to test for the first time the consequences on humans of a prolonged stay in space.

Unity is strength. Economic

With the end of the so-called space race for the political dissolution of one of the two contenders, the USSR, and the economic asphyxiation of NASA, the individual national projects, both the Freedom and the Mir-2 that were to take the Russian baton, are deleted. Having disappeared, or at least greatly reduced, the element of technological dominance (and the consequent ability to threaten the opponent) typical of the clash between superpowers, the American administration decides to tour the seven churches and transform what remained of the Freedom project in a great international collaboration. We are in the nineties, with the Mir recently in orbit and functioning and, despite the difficulties, it seems to witness a new acceleration, without this time being the competition to imprint it.

The last Mir module was hooked up in 1996 and only two years later, in 1998, the first modules for the construction of the ISS were launched into space. The effort is a joint action of US, Russian, Japanese, Canadian and European agencies. A collaboration for space, as has been done for some time for the construction of large international laboratories and experiments on Earth, just think of the forerunner that was, in this sense, CERN in Geneva.

The PMA-2 module pops out of the Endeavor shuttle and is docked at the end of the Destiny lab

Most of the modules are brought into orbit through the American shuttle, but Russian rockets also contribute in the transport phase. During the two years of construction in space, the Russian government also kept Mir in operation, until, after the ISS work was completed, the structure was deorbitated in October 2000, sending it to destroy itself in the Earth’s atmosphere.

After the initial mission, Expedition One which brought in the first real tenants, the ISS continued to grow until it reached 15 total modules at the end of 2010. In addition to the Destiny laboratory, the main science laboratory on the Station, there are the living modules, the kitchen, the airlock, the docking sites for the supply and transport vessels, but also a whole series of service structures, such as photovoltaic panels and robotic arms. For an idea of ​​what the ISS is like, here’s the video that Commander Sunita Williams shot in 2012 just before the end of his mission:

Italy participated, as a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), in the development of different parts of the ISS structure. These include the multipurpose modules for logistics, the MPLMs, used as cargo and developed by Thales Alenia Space, as well as having participated in the construction of part of the observation dome and various other modules. Curiosity: even the water that is drunk on board is Italian and comes from the SMAT of Turin. The participation of Italian astronauts is also important: Cristoforetti will be the seventh Italian astronaut, after Franco Malerba, Umberto Guidoni, Roberto Vittori, Paolo Nespoli, Maurizio Cheli and Luca Parmitano.

A short time ago NASA and ESA signed the agreement to extend the activity of the ISS until 2024, but there is also discussion about reaching 2028. Which means that there is some more time for Earth nostalgia to inspire the artistic side of astronauts, as happened to Commander Chris Hadfield, who became famous for his personal interpretation of David Bowie ‘s Space Oddity :

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