Science

1998:A space odyssey

Part 1 of the space station goes into orbit

MARK NICHOLS November 30 1998
Science

1998:A space odyssey

Part 1 of the space station goes into orbit

MARK NICHOLS November 30 1998

1998:A space odyssey

Science

Part 1 of the space station goes into orbit

It was a scene starkly unlike the familjar spectacle of the U.S. space shuttle on its launching pad, embraced by a gantry and tended by scurrying technicians. At Baikonur last week, on the windswept plains of southern Kazakhstan, a Russian Proton rocket stood in lonely splendor during the countdown for a launch that would inaugurate a new era in space. Then at 11:40 a.m. local time, brilliant orange flames blossomed as the Proton majestically rose and vanished into the overcast Asian sky. Nine minutes and 49 seconds later, 200 km above the earth, the rocket’s third stage separated, placing a spacecraft into orbit. Named Zarya (Russian for daybreak), the bus-sized craft will not be alone for long. If all goes well, over the months and years ahead, U.S. and Russian missions will add pieces to Zarya to construct the 450-tonne International Space Station (ISS)—a sprawling assembly of laboratories, living space, service areas and solar panels the size of two football fields.

The Baikonur launch culminated years of debate, delay and false starts. The massive project, scheduled for completion in 2004, is a 16-nation effort led by the United States, with Russia as a major partner and 11 European nations, Brazil, Canada and Japan contributing equipment and financial support. The first U.S.-built component is to go into space next week when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shuttle, Endeavour, blasts off from Cape Canaveral carrying the U.S.-built central docking hub, Unity. In the initial construction phase, three Canadian astronauts—Julie Payette, Marc Garneau and Chris Hadfield—will go into space aboard shuttle flights, and Hadfield will become the first Canadian to float outside an orbiting vehicle and work in space.

First proposed under President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the project has been threatened over the years by opposition in the U.S. Congress. More recently, Russia’s economic collapse led to two postponements of the flight lifting Zarya into space. With the project finally under way, there was an overwhelming sense of relief at NASA’s Houston headquarters. “We’ve been looking at this thing for so long,” said a NASA spokesman. “And now, at last, it’s happening.”

Building the station will be a monumental undertaking, cost-

ing—according to varying estimates—anywhere from $63 billion to more than twice that amount, and involving 45 space flights by U.S. shuttles and Russian rockets. The principal elements in Canada’s $1.4-billion contribution make up a sophisticated system that will play a crucial role in constructing and servicing the station. The units, under construction by Toronto-based Spar Aerospace and sub-contractors across Canada, include a 17.6-metrelong arm that is an advanced successor to the workhorse Canadarm used aboard NASA’s shuttles. As well, Spar is supplying a smaller, two-armed robot and a platform that will run on rails so that the arms can move into position at almost any point on the station.

When Payette, a 35-year-old Montrealer, flies into space next May aboard the shuttle Discovery, she will be part of the second manned flight to the ISS. Payette, who was at Baikonur with officials of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for the Russian launch, will be in charge of transferring tons of equipment, including food, clothing and medical supplies for the first permanent crew members who go aboard the station in the year 2000. Experts say that as in any huge building project, construction in space is likely to involve accidents. That apparently does not worry Payette. “We know the risks—we always plan and train for failure,” she told Maclean’s. “But that’s not what we think about. Measuring up to what’s expected of me is more of a concern—it keeps me on my toes.” When Hadfield goes into space in April, 2000, his mission will carry Spar’s new remote manipulator system. He will have the lead role in getting the system into position and locking it onto the space station. To install the arm, Hadfield said, he will probably have to venture into space three times. ‘To me, it’s all like a surrealistic script for a movie,” he said, “except that it’s really happening.” Happening, that is, providing that financial headaches do not worsen irretrievably. With the Russian space agency virtually broke, NASA is underwriting construction of the second Russian component—a service module to be launched in July—to the tune of about $1 billion. Still, for Alain Poirier, the CSA official in charge of Canada’s contribution to the space station, as for others with a vested interest, the rationale is clear. ‘We need to do this,” says Poirier, “so that mankind can reach Mars and the planets beyond.”

MARK NICHOLS