Space Lab Under Construction

This is ground zero, the holy of holies of the U.S. space program. The flight control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston is instantly familiar from a dozen movies and a thousand newscasts.

Space Lab Under Construction

This is ground zero, the holy of holies of the U.S. space program. The flight control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston is instantly familiar from a dozen movies and a thousand newscasts. The banks of computer terminals; the three giant screens up front; the digital clock counting down to the next mission - this is where Earth talks to Space. If something goes wrong and an astronaut has to deliver the fateful message, "Houston, we have a problem," this is where it comes in. Towards the back of the room, Chris HADFIELD gestures to a workstation crowded with monitors. "Welcome to my office," he says.

From his spartan "office," Hadfield is the key link between the ground and astronauts aboard the space shuttles that are the pride and joy of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As NASA's chief capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, he is the man who talks to the shuttle - and who represents its crew to the scores of anxious officials below. He is also one of seven Canadian astronauts in Houston, a fact that gives his assignment next week a special edge. Hadfield will be in the CAPCOM chair the evening of Thursday, May 20, as the shuttle Discovery lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to dock with the spanking new International Space Station 400 km above the Earth. Aboard will be Julie Payette of Montreal, the biggest star Canada has put into space in years.

Payette will be the eighth Canadian in space, and not even the first Canadian woman. That honor went to Roberta BONDAR in 1992. But Payette, a 35-year-old engineer, jet pilot, scuba diver, linguist and accomplished musician, has brought a buzz to Canada's role in space. It helps that she is attractive, vibrant and does not shy from the spotlight. A Quebec publisher has brought out a book on her, and she was the focus of attention in Houston last week as she and her fellow crew members fielded questions at their last public appearance before going aloft. Eighteen of the 22 questions were directed to Payette - as the five Americans and one Russian who will fly with her sat smiling and mostly silent.

Their destination will be the space station - or at least the parts that have already been bolted together. By any measure it is a staggeringly complicated undertaking that will be one of the marvels of the engineering world once it is completed by the middle of the next decade. Sixteen nations are involved. More than 100 major components must be taken aloft aboard 45 flights and assembled in the pitiless environment of space. Astronauts will have to make at least 160 space walks - a high-risk part of any mission - totalling 960 hours. The finished product will be 108 m long and weigh 472 tonnes - vastly greater than anything ever put into orbit. Payette compares it to "assembling a whole cruise ship in the middle of an ocean during a storm," and that may be underestimating the challenge.

Eventually, possibly as early as 2004, it will contain six research laboratories and a total space equivalent to the interior of two jumbo jets - all orbiting the Earth every 92 minutes and 24 seconds. The best way to get an idea of just how big it will be is to visit NASA's Building 9, a vast hangar in Houston that contains full-size mock-ups of some of the station's key components. John-David Bartoe, the program's research manager, proudly shows a visitor through the Japanese and European labs, which will eventually be packed with experiments. The interior feels about as big as a modest mobile home - positively spacious by the cramped standards of previous space vehicles. But the key difference for researchers, says Bartoe, is that they can run experiments all year round: "On the shuttle, we were limited to about two weeks a year. Now, we'll go to 52 weeks."

To the true believers at NASA, this is the modern-day equivalent of building the pyramids or the great cathedrals of Europe. "What did the Egyptians or the Romans do?" asks Hadfield. "They let people do things that were just on the cutting edge of technical and human capability. And we are just now capable of leaving Earth. As far as significant events in history go, this is huge." Thirty years after the first moon landing, though, the public is mostly ho-hum about space flight - and the station faces a barrage of all-too-earthly criticism. It is, the critics note, way over budget and far behind schedule. The Russians, invited aboard in 1993 in a post-Cold War gesture of international collaboration, have become the planners' biggest headache as their space effort collapses for lack of funds. Worse still, the skeptics argue, the research that will be done aboard the station won't be worth anywhere near its cost - at least $58 billion and growing.

NASA has been kicking around the idea of an international orbiting lab since at least the early 1980s. In 1984, Ronald Reagan announced an $8-billion program to put a station with the Cold War name Freedom aloft by 1992. By then, the agency had spent more than that amount just drawing up plans. The following year, President Bill Clinton relaunched the program. Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency were already involved. Now, Russia would be brought in as well and the station would be built for $25.2 billion. The Russians' experience in long-term space flight aboard their Mir station would be invaluable, went the thinking. Moscow committed to building two major components of the station - a 12-m control module named Zarya ("sunrise") and a service module designed eventually to serve as living quarters for a seven-member crew.

Zarya is now orbiting the Earth, attached since last December to a U.S.-built "node" called Unity. Together, those components form the core of the space station that Payette and her fellow astronauts will travel to on their 10-day mission. But the Russian service module, crucial to completing the station, is far behind schedule. It was supposed to be ready for launch in April, 1998. Now Bill Bates, chief of staff of the space station program, says he does not expect it to launch until October or November, a year and a half late. The program is like an intricate jigsaw; if a key piece is missing, other parts cannot be installed.

The problem, simply put, is money. As Russia's economy collapses, its space program has been starved for cash. Scientists are not being paid; corrupt officials have creamed off whatever cash comes in. NASA has transferred $145 million to the Russian space agency to keep it afloat. James Oberg, a former NASA engineer and leading expert on the Russian space program, accuses NASA officials of blinding themselves to the problems because of the political goal of keeping the Russians onboard. "They've gone from denial about this to deception," he says.

The delay in launching the Russian service module forced a radical redesign in the mission that Payette will undertake next week. Commanded by Kent Rominger, an American veteran of three shuttle flights, the crew was originally supposed to outfit the service module. Instead, it will take some 2,250 kg of equipment up to the embryonic station - everything from laptop computers, clothing and cameras to a U.S.-made crane and parts of a Russian crane to be used by future astronauts.

Payette has other key tasks. She and a Russian astronaut, Valery Tokarev, will replace 18 power cells in the Zarya module that are already malfunctioning. She will act as onboard co-ordinator while two other astronauts conduct a six-hour space walk, attaching equipment to the outside of the station. And she will "fly" Discovery's Canadarm, the robotic manipulator arm that is Canada's main contribution to the shuttle program.

The mission may, in some ways, seem banal: much of it involves transferring bags of equipment from the shuttle to the space station in precise order and sequence. Payette, after years of training and months of intense 15-hour days leading up to launch, will spend most of two days aloft in effect changing the batteries aboard Zarya. Doing it all 400 km above Earth, of course, puts a different spin on things. Anyone who thinks there is anything routine about it, insists Hadfield, is making a big mistake. "People have fallen for the fact that we make it look effortless," he says, "when it is just barely possible. I know what goes into all this, and I'm not blasé about it."

The station's critics don't deny how complex it all is - or doubt the courage of the astronauts. What they do question is how useful the station will ultimately be. Two scientific organizations, the American Physical Society and the American Society of Cell Biologists, warn that the benefits of experimenting in the micro-gravity of space have been vastly overstated by NASA. The billions invested in the station, they contend, would be better spent on unmanned robotic probes that could explore deep space for a fraction of the cost. (The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates it could reach a staggering $140 billion to build and operate the station throughout its projected 15-year lifetime.) "We could be so much further along if we hadn't squandered all this money," contends Robert Park, a physicist and director of the APS's Washington office.

NASA, in fact, does not try to justify the space station on scientific grounds alone. It lists half a dozen reasons for building it - including the basic human desire to explore new frontiers, to expand international co-operation, and to inspire young people to follow scientific careers. Research in orbit is just one factor, but one that is close to the heart of another Canadian, Dave Williams of Pointe Claire, Que. Williams flew on the shuttle last spring and is now NASA's director of space and life sciences. He ticks off a list of areas that he argues can benefit from research aboard the station, such as learning how humans adapt to micro-gravity, growing tissue cultures in three dimensions and making purer protein crystals that could lead to treatments for cancer, diabetes and other diseases. "We'll have a world-class orbiting lab," he says. "All areas of science will benefit."

Payette's mission will mark just the start of Canada's role in building the space station. Next March or April, Marc GARNEAU, who became the first Canadian in space in 1984, is to be aboard a mission that will install solar panels to power the station. Late next year, Hadfield is to return to space as part of a flight that will install Canada's main contribution to the station - the 17-m Mobile Servicing System. It is the next generation of Canadarm, a robotic arm that will be used to assemble the station, dock the shuttle to it, and be able to "crawl" around it to service hard-to-reach areas. Developing and operating the MSS until 2004 will cost Canadian taxpayers $1.4 billion. It's a big bill; the question is whether the returns will be as large.


Maclean's May 17, 1999