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Chapter 2:
The International
Space Station

When we started out making plans for the first season of Rocket City Rednecks I really wanted to build a spacecraft—an actual vehicle that flew into space and performed some task. Well, the budget for such a mission just wasn’t available. So, I thought hard about what might be as difficult and fun and entertaining to boot, as well as a build that we could learn a lot from. In the end, I decided on building a submarine.

None of the five of us “rednecks” (Daddy, Pete, Rog, Michael or I) had ever built a submersible vehicle before but to us, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it. It just means it is a big opportunity to learn how. Originally, I wanted to build a sub large enough to accommodate all five of us and something we’d keep around and use after the show. We brainstormed how to do such a thing. I thought about concrete, steel, fiberglass, and several other building materials. The problem with using those types of materials meant that we would be building everything from scratch. Now, keep in mind that all of our builds are scheduled to take only one weekend. There was no way we could build a five man submarine from scratch in one weekend. There was just no way.

Then, on the way home from work one afternoon I saw a polyethylene plastic tank sitting out in the edge of a cotton field and I had the idea. A plastic tank would work. The farmer’s tanks are rugged and water tight. The only issue was that they were designed to hold water inside, not keep it from getting inside. That meant we had to develop some structure to keep the walls from caving in on us. It turned out that this part of the design would be very important later on during our final test, but I’m moving ahead of myself.

The plastic tanks just so happen to come on pallets with steel reinforcement cages on the outside. We bought two tanks and left one cage outside and then cut the other down and used it for reinforcement on the inside. This wasn’t our original plan, but once we decided that two of us could fit inside one tank we had the extra just sitting about. Then my buddy Rog and I, actually on camera, had the idea at the same time to use the one cage from the other to go inside the sub to support the plastic tank from the inside.

We worked really hard mounting the tank to an old boat trailer of Daddy’s and then welding up ballast tanks. Our ballast tanks were stainless steel beer kegs with the bottoms cut out and an air hose fitting welded in the top. We could blow air into the keg and it would force water out the bottom and therefore increase the buoyancy of the sub. We added three of these to the sub design.

After two days of work on the sub we decided that we needed to test it. What you didn’t see if you watched the episode was that we took it down to the Tennessee River. My nephew, Michael and I drove it around for a good while above surface in the river and it all worked very well. The big and really only issue was that the carbon dioxide level went through the roof in just about fifteen minutes. We actually hit fairly dangerous levels extremely quickly. That meant that we needed to build a CO2 scrubber to remove the toxic gas from the cabin. I then did a calculation and figured out that the CO2 would be dangerous in about twelve minutes. Fortunately for us, we had planned ahead and had oxygen in the sub with us for the test. Once our CO2 meter started beeping we got on the air and stayed on it. But I didn’t want to do that all the time while in the sub, so, we decided to build scrubbers.

Apollo 13 had some serious issues pop up with the CO2 scrubber, and the astronauts actually had to repair it while on their way to the moon. With hindsight, I wish we’d just left the CO2 scrubber out of the build and stayed on a rebreather the whole time. That would have been less convenient, but the end result with the scrubber was even more inconvenient. But that is a show spoiler I’d hate to give away. Well . . .

If you insist . . .

The sub worked great at a depth of twelve feet. We stayed under for more than a half hour with no problems. Once we decided to go to sixteen foot is when we had an issue. We had built the scrubbers out of two five-gallon plastic buckets with lids. We put sofnalime material in the bucket and forced our air through those buckets from within the cabin, through PVC pipe, and then into the bucket through the sofnalime, which scrubbed out the CO2. Then the air went through another pipe and into a second bucket of sofnalime and then back into the cabin. It had been working all right. But at sixteen foot the seals on the plastic five gallon buckets gave way and they instantly filled with water.

The missing air volume of the buckets made us less buoyant and we sank like a rock right to the bottom. The walls started caving in and buckling and seals started popping! I told my nephew to add pressure to the cabin and that worked. Temporarily.

The pressure held the structure of the cabin intact but it also forced air through the scrubbers, which was at this point a sofnalime and water chemical mix. Some of this mix was calcium hydroxide gas—not something you want to breathe or even just hang out in. The toxic gas was forced into the cabin as a milky white, skin irritating, eye burning, lung searing fog.

At this point, it was time to evacuate. Fortunately, over-pressurizing the cabin had made us overly buoyant and we popped to the top like an Ohio-class submarine. We set to work undoing the hatch to get out. What we didn’t realize was that we had five full grown safety divers on top of us attempting to open the hatch from the outside. We hadn’t designed the sub for surfacing with that much weight. Needless to say, when I opened the hatch from the inside we were three inches below the surface of the water. The cabin instantly filled with about 350 gallons of water thus taking us all the way to the bottom at about twenty-two foot. We could do nothing but hang on for the ride. Once at the bottom we swam out and held our breath to the surface. It was a long twenty-two foot.

So, what does this have to do with the International Space Station? Mainly, our sub was a lesson in doing things we don’t know how to do yet. That is what building the ISS is all about. We are learning how to do construction in space which is something we have never done before. By doing it we are learning things that are important like, don’t use 5 gallon buckets to put your CO2 scrubbers in.

Like anything, the ISS has its warts and ugly spots just like our submarine. But, in the end, it was our submarine and it is our space station ugly spots and all. Honestly, I can’t wait to build another submarine and I most certainly would go to the ISS in a heartbeat.

* * * * *

So we quit going to the moon by the time I was three or four years old. Then we built the Space Shuttle to hold my adolescent and young adult interests. But that would only take us to low Earth orbit, or LEO for short. In all the dog-gone years since Apollo, we have not gone past low Earth orbit. We spent all of our space investment money on the International Space Station. Let me tell you, there’s nothing international about it. There’s a color-coded picture in the Augustine committee report on America’s space program that shows yellow as American components and other colors from other countries. And, lo and behold, about ninety percent of that thing is yellow. And what we don’t tell other people or admit to, is that we paid a lot of the countries to build those other pieces that don’t code in yellow. International my butt! Oh there was international cooperation and there were components and investments from other countries, but there would have been no station without America.

We also let politics dictate the orbital inclination we put the station in. It is up around fifty-one degrees so it could pass over the Russian launch site. An optimal orbit for an orbital ship building factory would be closer to the equator. But we’ll get to this part later.

Even though the space station is in a nonoptimal orbit to be a shipbuilding platform, it is still an amazing vehicle. It has been in space longer than any other manned spacecraft. It’s an amazingly large spacecraft. If it were placed in a college football stadium it would reach from end zone to end zone, from sideline to sideline, and would stretch all the way up into the second seating levels. It can dock with multiple spacecraft from multiple countries. And it even has a back porch.

So, no matter the orbit, the International Space Station, or ISS, is an incredible habitat. It has been in orbit for about twelve years now. During that time, it has been constantly growing and developing. As of this writing, it has a module length of 167.3 feet (51m) and a mass of 861,804 lbs (390,908kg), the equivalent of over three hundred cars. The truss measures 357.5 feet (109m) long and the eight solar arrays are some 239.4 feet (73m) long, generating on average 84kW of power. It is a small city in space.

I’m not truly concerned that the ISS is in the wrong orbit. Oh, I wish it were in a better one, but we can live with it where it is. We understand orbits really well and have docked with the space station many times even though it’s at the high inclination. It just requires a little more fuel to do the inclination cranking maneuver. We could still use it as a shipbuilding yard. The only issue would be whether we decide to launch to the moon or Mars (or wherever else we were going), we would have to crank down the inclination of our interplanetary vehicle. The other option would be to go ahead and move the space station as discussed previously. In the end, this means doing a little extra orbit calculations and maneuvers and spending money on a little more fuel. The saving grace the ISS has is that it is just so large and it is in space already. We shouldn’t forget that. The ISS is in space already and we paid a lot of money to get it there. We should keep it there.

It has a habitable volume of 13,696 cubic feet (388m3) but a pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet (916m3). In its twelve years of operation, that habitable volume has seen more than two hundred astronauts and cosmonauts living within it. It is almost four times as large as Mir was, and five times as large as Skylab was. Its living space is bigger than a standard five-bedroom house. It has two bathrooms, a gymnasium, and a three-hundred degree bay window, for a panoramic view of the heavens unequalled on Earth.

As of its tenth anniversary in 2010, it had made 57,361 orbits of Earth, covering over 1.5 billion statute miles (~2.5 billion km), or 16 astronomical units. Five different types of launch vehicles were used in its construction (the U.S. Space Shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and Proton, ESA’s Ariane 5, and Japan’s HII1), and fifteen nations substantially participated: the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and 10 nations of the European Space Agency, including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

More than 160 EVAs have been conducted in its construction, totaling over 1000 hours in space. It requires some 2.3 million lines of computer code onboard, and an additional 3.3 million lines on the ground, to operate it, with fifty-two onboard computers. It requires eight miles of electical wiring. It draws se of power, provided by an acre of solar panels. By contrast, the average home draws about one and a half kilowatts of power.2

The fifty-five foot long robotic arm is capable of lifting a Space Shuttle.

Its orbit is 250 miles (402 km) high, with an inclination to the equator of 51.6°. This orbit not only allows for easy access by all launch vehicles of the international partners, but it also enables viewing of eighty-five percent (and ninety-five percent of the world’s population) for scientific endeavors. If the ISS is implemented more for Earth science then the orbit isn’t so bad.3

We’ve been doing science experiments on the ISS pretty much since the first module was put in orbit. Onboard research has included protein crystal studies, tissue culture, low gravity medical and biological effects, metallurgy, flame research, fluid research, space environmental studies, and Earth observations of natural phenomena.

What good does a space station in low Earth orbit do us? For a start, it’s a close outpost. We can get there in a couple hours, and we can do lots of experimentation and training there that will allow us to go farther, and to learn how to do some things that will be beneficial, not just in space, but on Earth. Already there’s been some fascinating research on the ISS.

ISS onboard research has included protein crystal studies, tissue culture, low gravity medical and biological effects, metallurgy, flame research, fluid research, space environmental studies, and Earth observations of natural phenomena. Since gravity drives convection, solutions in a microgravity environment like ISS tend to be much less disturbed by unwanted motion than they do on Earth. This enables us to grow much larger crystals, because it takes an undisturbed environment to do so. The proteins being grown into crystals include those from bacteria, enzymes, and viruses. If the crystals are large enough to use X-ray crystallography to determine their chemical structure, then much can be learned about their chemistry and interactions that we couldn’t learn on Earth. In turn, this may enable us to develop cures for some diseases, such as HIV, cancer, and diabetes.

Likewise, the absence of convection causes flames to behave differently on orbit. Instead of the usual teardrop shape we are used to with a candle, which is formed from air convection around the flame, flames in the microgravity environment form spheres initially, then toroids as they burn outward from the original ignition source. If an air current is introduced (as if from a vent), the burn becomes preferentially upwind. Not only may this help us in better understanding the behavior of wildfires on Earth, it may aid us in designing warning systems for fire and smoke detectors when we venture beyond LEO.

The lack of gravity enables a normally immiscible (unmixable) pairing of fluids (the classic being oil and water) to mix, forming different types of emulsions. Should these fluids be, for instance, molten metals, then it becomes possible to make alloys in space that could never be made on Earth. And who knows what kind of salad dressings we could come up with?

As I mentioned previously, the lack of gravity enables crystals to grow much larger than they might on Earth. If properly isolated from accidental movement, they can grow for days, weeks, even months. This enables medical studies of specific proteins. It seems that we do not know for certain the chemical structures of some vital proteins, such as those which determine the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream, or that activate viruses such as HIV. The ability to grow large crystals of these proteins enables us to determine their structures using such techniques as X-ray diffraction spectrometry.

Having definite structures may, in turn, enable us to develop drug treatments that activate this protein, or deactivate that one. Hopefully, we could use what we learned in space to turn on or off good or bad proteins as the situation warrants.

Medical and biological research tell us more about how life forms behave and how they react to certain stimuli. Performing them in the microgravity environment of ISS enables us to isolate them to specific stimuli. It also tells us much about our own bodies and how they react to space travel, and enables us to begin planning for a safe journey to another planet—whether that planet is in our own solar system or another one.

While building the ISS and working in, on, and outside it we have really learned a lot about space itself. Space environmental studies tell us more about the world outside our world. “Open space” is a harsh environment, filled with radiation of all types (particles and photons), micrometeoroids, extreme hot and cold temperatures (depending on whether you are in the sunlight or in shadow), and other hazards. Not all materials respond to these conditions well. Even on Earth, the extreme cold in the polar regions can cause even the hardest metals to become very brittle. Being able to stick a new alloy sample on the outside of your home to expose it to space can be an easy way of finding out how tough it really is. For reasons like this simple test we need to maintain the ISS as long as we possibly can. We need to add to it. We should put every type of foundry, factory, and experiment we can think of up there so we can have better things down here.

And space-based observations of Earth phenomena such as erupting volcanoes, hurricanes, or even simple thunderstorms can help ground-based scientists gather more data on the subjects of their studies, potentially enabling better forecasting and prediction. We’ve learned more about the high altitude peaks of thunderstorms and the lightning up there from the continuous view from the ISS than we ever did before. The continuity ISS offers is like no other scientific platform.

But, like my grandma used to always tell me, “every frog has warts.” Unfortunately, despite all these wonderful things the ISS can do, there are a few flaws that should be pointed out. From what I’ve learned about it over the years working on or close to experiments that have flown up there and from what I’ve heard from some friends that worked the program closely, there are things the general public doesn’t know. There are things that would not have happened if the original, U.S. Space Station Freedom concept had been maintained. Because of politics and not sound engineering we made some design flaws acceptable.

You see, when President Clinton announced a change in the direction of the station project, sending down an administrative directive that it would be an international, rather than strictly an American, project, something got left out. An oversight group. Put bluntly, there was no single agency responsible for the overall design management of the construction of ISS. So when all of those international partners put together their segments of ISS, they did it to their own country’s standard specifications. And anybody who has tried to take an American hair dryer to Europe and plug it in and get it to work knows exactly what that means.

It means that power and voltage vary from area to area inside. To flow power from one segment to another requires converters. It means that computers within the Station don’t necessarily talk to each other, and can’t be networked together unless a “sneakernet”—yes, literally walking (or in this case, floating) a disk or flash drive from one machine to another—is used. It means that different segments have their own independent “air to ground” communications systems, although there is an internal “telephone” system installed.

Early on, I understand, they even had problems with the solar arrays—there was a tendency to build up static plasma charges around the panels. Doesn’t sound like much until somebody tells you that they had to power down lots of the Station before an EVA, shut off the solar arrays, and let the static charges dissipate before allowing an astronaut outside the hatch on a spacewalk. Why? They were afraid the arrays would arc and electrocute an astronaut. Think about it. That’s one heckuva big static charge, millions of volts even. But it was supposed to get fixed in time. I’m not certain if that issue was ever solved.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of payment. Just like with the launch vehicles, most of the modules ended up being paid for by the U.S. Not all, but way more than you’d expect, given an “international” station. One nation, who shall remain nameless, but who was operating their own space station, was actually reported to be using the funds NASA was providing (out of a limited NASA budget, mind you, about which we’ll talk more on) to maintain their own aging station. There was also a hushed-up scandal about high-level space and military officials in that nation (often said officials were one and the same) lining their pockets with the funds and purchasing vacation mansions in resort areas of their country. The end result was that the module that was eventually provided had been paid for by the USA several times over by the time it was actually put in orbit and installed. This is all hearsay of course, but it is hearsay, that is pretty much accepted as fact throughout the community.

Due to politics we can’t really say it is “our space station” but the other countries sure can, and do. The payload flight controllers were actually instructed that, should the flight controllers or crew from this other nationwe’ve been talking about refer to ISS as “THEIR station,” our controllers were not to contradict them. It was a “cultural thing.” And now this country is considering ditching “their station”—for reasons I don’t really understand, because despite its problems, it is still a viable base of operations and scientific research—within a year or two, and moving on to something else. They are even pushing for deorbiting ISS and letting it burn up on reentry. But they do intend to separate “their” modules from the rest of the ISS before deorbit, to use for their own independent, internally built station.

All of these problems could have been alleviated if politics had not interfered and politicians had not insisted upon an international “exchange.” Had ISS remained Space Station Freedom, it would be built to uniform specs throughout. It would have modules that communicated, shared power, and networked computers. There would be no need for converters or sneakernets or multiple air to ground links. There would have been a savings in cost by avoiding the diversion of funding through other nations. There would have, in systems engineering terms, been a Lead Systems Engineer, a Lead Systems Integrator, a Configuration Management Team, and one Program Manager.

There has also recently been some political talk within the Obama administration of letting the space station program die after a few more years—maybe five to ten or fewer years depending on budget. This would be a huge mistake. If we were to walk away from the space station the Russians would cannibalize it for their own Russian space station. Apparently, this is already in the plans that the Russians have. And at that point, what would keep the Chinese from flying up to the space station and cannibalizing it themselves, using salvage laws to support their claim?

Now our best hope would be to keep the space station alive, keep improving it, keep repairing, and keep moving forward with it. Build a module specifically designed for integration of an interplanetary space vehicle on it. We need a machine shop and shipbuilding yard in space. Having the platform in orbit with interplanetary transfer vehicles in place there would make traveling to and from the moon, and in the future to Mars, much simpler. The initial cost might be larger, but in the long run it would work pretty much like the hub concept in most transportation systems, including the airlines, trains, and subway systems. The local airports would be the launch sites around the world. And the interplanetary hub would be at the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. Then of course we would need to create a hub in orbit around the moon. And, using that hub at the moon, we would then transfer to local lunar sites and areas. And there would be no talk of deorbiting it now, when it was intended to operate until at least 2020, and possibly 2028. At the moment, however we can’t even get to the International Space Station ourselves without paying the Russians to give us a ride.

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