Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Disappointing End To The Russian Space Station Program

Thankfully no-one really cares about the Russian space program, or, ya know, they don't speak English, I guess. Everyone has heard of Mir but name any prior station. Go on, name one. Ok, that's easy, but how many space stations did the Russians have before Mir? I'll get back to you on that.

So what was the point of all these stations? We all know the reason why the US has the ISS, and anyone who watched the Augustine committee proceedings last year heard about why the "international community" is demanding it be extended until 2020 and beyond. Scientific research or something right? The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the ISS as a national laboratory. Oh sorry, the American segment of the ISS, because obviously the US can't designate the Russian segment as a national laboratory of the US, but that's what it is right? Well, no.

The Russians do very little scientific research on the ISS. They have only "mini-racks" on the Poisk module, and finding out what exactly they do is harder than finding out all the "world class research" that the US apparently does on their side of the station - and that's saying something. So what, maybe the Russians just don't care about scientific research. Ahh, no. (I should stop finishing paragraphs like that).

Starting before their first station the Russians flew a series of Bion satellites which contained a whole heck of a lot of biomedical experiments - most of them a lot more ambitious than what is apparently done on the ISS these days. In fact, people groan at me when I say they didn't go far enough with their rat life-cycle experiments because no-one has ever done anything like it since 1979. However I hear the upcoming Nauka module to the ISS will have rat experiments, maybe they'll continue that research.. and that has me worried. Although mammalian reproduction experiments in space are important - stop giggling children, we're never going to colonize space if we can't have babies out there - that's not what the Russian human space program is about.

Their first station was Salyut 1, and by all accounts it was an unmitigated failure. The crew actually died on the way back to Earth and no-one ever returned to the station, it was deorbited after just 6 months. This immediately set the tone for the Russian space program, if people had to die to do work in space then it better be important work. So the next station, although called Salyut 2 was actually a military station under the secret Almaz program. Many consider this a distinction without a difference, after all, everything was secret in the Soviet Union. To those people I say: the Almaz stations were armed with freakin' cannons! They actually shot down test satellites with it.

Of course, Almaz was also an unmitigated failure. No-one made it to the first one. Salyut 3 had only one crew, and although Salyut 5 had three crews, one of those crews couldn't actually get into the station and had to turn around and go home. But hey, space cannons!

Whereas, the "civilian" Salyut program was significantly more impressive, it had to be, the world was watching. The last, Salyut 7, was visited by 10 crews including French and Indian cosmonauts, and did 13 spacewalks. The experienced gained from in-space operations was considered the primary payoff of the program. They demonstrated the multi-module principle that led to the seven module Mir, with the goal of a permanently human occupied station.

Then the international cooperation started. Of course, the 30 years of experience the Russians had paid for, with both Rubles and human blood, wasn't worth squat to the Americans. Even now, 12 years into the ISS program, I'm regularly told that the US shoulda gone it alone with Space Station Freedom. Oh, and then there's the complaints that Russia hasn't spent as much building the station, because dollars are such a great metric of productivity. In my opinion, the ISS would be scattered over the Australian outback (or Canada) by now if it wasn't for the Russians.

Let's take a modern example. Recently, two Russian cosmonauts did a spacewalk to install a new homing beacon and throw away an old camera - the standard boring maintenance that you do on a space station. Watching the spacewalk on NASA tv was enthralling - yes, I just said that, NASA tv was enthralling. The cosmonauts were crackin' jokes, and making fun of the bad comms with mission control, oh, and making decisions. They were sent out the airlock with nothing more than the broad goals and a rough schedule, the rest was up to them. (oh, and they didn't "create space junk" by throwing away that camera, cosmonauts actually know how to throw stuff in space to put it into a degrading orbit which will burn up.)

Just three days later an ammonia coolant pump broke on the American side of the ISS. My first reaction was to wonder if they were going to scramble the Shuttle to fix it, or downplay the problem until the Shuttle gets there in November. But no, they're going to send two of the expedition crew out to replace the broken pump. What a unique opportunity to compare the two programs.

Whereas cosmonauts are both involved in the planning and have operational decision making responsibility of spacewalks, astronauts are not. Two days after the failure, ground control decided to cancel already planned spacewalks to focus on planning the "repairs". Five days after the failure, the spacewalk to replace the pump was delayed, "to give planners more time to fine-tune the required procedures." Yesterday, eight days after the failure, the plan for the spacewalk was released, tune in to NASA tv to watch the spacewalk, oh sorry, spacewalks and see how many jokes and decisions the astronauts make on their own.

Space is boring because there are no humans in space, they're just robots in human form. Humans make jokes and decisions, they get frustrated, they argue their opinions and have ambitions. Human space programs do too. Saying you want to go to Mars some day is visionary, but actually doing it involves cutting humans off from ground support. It involves trusting them to make the right decisions. It means actually fixing broken coolant pumps, not just swapping them out and sending the order in to BoeLockMart for a new one.

To the Russian people I say: keep demanding humans in space doing important work to prepare humanity to go out into the solar system, leave the "science" and "spinoffs" and all the other justifications to the US.


  1. Victor Moraes6:47 PM

    Very interesting. But a little disappointing. Not considering military matters, has always been involved for many years the U.S. and Russia, former Soviet Union, I believe that ISS is a symbol of good will. Both Americans and Russians give, even today, an example of harmonious coexistence with good purpose only of all human imperfection, cultural differences and opposing views on the same subject. ISS is above all an example of what humanity can unite in a great cause. Then come the scientific issues, themselves. It's a spectacle. May be delayed by years, but maintaining this goodwill, understanding the differences, the exchange of virtues, mutual correction of defects is crucial for peace in the third millennium. I believe that one could never leave the Russians out. A human community off the ground will certainly be represented by human types of all nationality, culture and language. The experiences and complexities of the different modes of procedure are critical to the improved performance of the human condition, which limited individually and collectively dependent. In truth, as the Americans outnumber Russians in some respects, the Russians outnumber Americans in other ways. I particularly admire how are objective, simple and lean, the Russian constructions. I believe this is an admirable quality. How to live without the Russians? Moreover, how to live with all the international community? We can only learn new things with it, and most importantly, we must learn to perceive the beauties of the international community of nations, since the distinctions embellish, enrich, make you smile, even if it is to smile of innocence of who you judge smaller than you. ISS should continue. It is the portal of the heavenly city where all people will meet, which will be constructed to the corners of the cosmos.

  2. Thanks for the coherent comment Victor.

  3. Can you really create enough delta V by throwing something in space that will significantly reduce the time it takes for the piece of stuff to degrade? I was under the impression that even the "space junk" US astronauts create when things float away fall into the atmosphere within six months.

  4. First, I think this is a great post and it's a nice illustration of the different approaches that are inherent in international collaboration. But why would the ISS be 'disappointing', or even an end to the Russian space station series? I see the ISS as a win-win solution of the early nineties. Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union was basically bankrupt, Energia was struggling to keep the Mir operational and certainly could not afford any new space station investment. On the American side, Freedom was in serious danger of being cancelled. Plus, the US got access to decades of space station experience.

    I've been to Russia a couple of weeks ago on a student summer program that was all about space ( I think the Russian approach to space is really like the spacewalk you describe. Very 'down-to-Earth', practical minded. The Russian cosmonaut (the man with the most days in space) Sergei Krikalev told us a similar anecdote of he discovering a problem on the STS-60 mission, reporting it to his captain, Charlie Bolden, together with a very simple solution, after which they had to talk with ground control for several hours before Bolden just said to Krikalev 'fix it'.

    Maybe you know of the book 'Selling Peace: inside the Soviet conspiracy that transformed the US space program'? It's a great insider story of the ISS history and the Russian way of doing things in space. I think it shows that when you want international collaboration to work, you have to at least try and understand how your partner's industry works, and not just assume that it works like your own. If not, you get ISS modules that are years late and a Mir space station that needs to be deorbited under American pressure...

  5. Hmm.. maybe I didn't make it clear enough. I think turning away from the goal of gaining autonomous experience in space operations to justifications like science and spinoffs would be a disappointing end to the Russian space program.

    Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll check it out. Most of my appreciation for the Russian program comes from the book 'Dragonfly: NASA and the crisis aboard the Mir'.

  6. Ian, to answer your question:

  7. Anonymous5:51 AM

    This is good ilustration of different attitudes.
    One day I heard story, I dont know if it is true, but I will tell you.

    At the beggining of space programs Americans and Russians had to invent how to make notes on paper in space. You know, in space ball-pens dont work.
    So Americans spent several millions of dollars to inent super-sophisticated ball-ben that worked in space.
    Russians used pencils.

    Thats why shuttle kills people, whereas Soyuz does not.

  8. Anonymous5:55 AM

    One more thing.

    And thats why Americans need commercials in space. Because american govenrment does not understand this, but they do (SpaceX):
    "Make things as complicated as necessary, but not more" A.Einstein

  9. I concur with the suggestion that you read Jeff Manber's book, Selling Peace.

    It is a marvelous read.

  10. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Space Programs of both countries take a start from the development of intercontinental nuclear missiles. The Soviet leadership in space in 1960th is an indirect consequence of nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's needless to explain the causality, I suppose. Soviets were in fear and had to defend the USSR.

    Andreyev Igor. St.Petersburg.

  11. Anonymous1:51 AM

    I've always felt that the main difference between Russia and the US was that Russia had a space program and the US had (emphasis on "had" I suppose) a launch vehicle.