Married in space

The recent Atlantis-Mir docking in space, only the 2nd of its kind, is the first tentative step towards Mars

 
By Kajal Basu
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Married in space

Photocopy feat: Atlantis-Mir i (Credit: AP /PTI)THERE comes a day when every American president has his shot at immortality. Twenty years ago, in August 1975, Jimmy Carter, one of bullyboy America's rare presidential doormats, desperately wanted an unique event to pump steroids into his image of a gentle, bumbling urpacifist. He also wanted something to immortalise his contributory squeak to history's clamour -- that shortlived but radical political aberration, detente. And what better than a danse de deux between 2 enemy spacecraft, the American Apollo 18 and the Russian Soyuz 19?

And so with the latest Atlantis-Mir docking 395 km above Earth. History photocopied itself for the benefit of beleaguered presidents Clinton and Yeltsin when American commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson and Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Solovyev met after the docking: these were the 2 ex-fighter pilots who had warily shaken hands 20 years ago.

Gibson's first words were relics from the mothballed dictionary of the Cold War: "We have capture." Utterly anachronistic -- because this time round in a much-prophesied but glum unipolar world, the orbital handshake was less a gesture for media snapshots and more the sealing of a compact which will probably, given that the present temperate status quo is maintained, culminate in an early 21st century landing on Mars.

And it is Russia that has the experience -- of Valery Polyakov's mindnumbing 438-day-long space solitude, of unaccustomed no-gravity anatomical upsets, of spaceship endurance in the face of a constant hail of marble-sized meteorites -- and a lot of the hardware for a Mars landing (including a gigantic dust-covered Energia rocket, discovered at the rusting Baikonur facility, capable of the 3-year round trip to Mars). What it doesn't have -- pity its threadbare space budget of US $200 million -- is the money to attempt it. America has the money.

(Not surprisingly, there is a canny financial side to NASA's willingness to cohabit with the Russian Space Agency, its catchall hostile bogeyman ever since President Yeltsin created and demilitarised the Agency in 1992: with Congress recklessly budget-cutting with a cleaver, the US $400 million that NASA will pay Russia for the 6 forthcoming Mir dockings is piddling compared to its Cold War space imprest account of US $40 billion.). The US has also saved more than a fortune following the virtual shelving of former President Reagan's trillion dollar Strategic Defense Initiative, which had rechannelled to itself substantial funds that would have otherwise gone to the space programme, which in any case was still in shock over the 1967 Apollo 13 fire that killed 3 astronauts and which set back the American space programme by a decade and a half.

Moreover, in the absence of mutual malice to keep their political systems harassing each other for internal stability, both countries have the need for a shared, unipolar, giant challenge to tide them over what looks increasingly like a bleak fin de siecle. What better than space, the final frontier?
Hello Mars The recent docking, the first in a series of 7 till 1997, will culminate in a gigantic 460-tonne, football field-sized space station funded by global participants, a trampoline to Mars, perhaps beyond. It went better than expected. There was only one glitch, the seriousness of which was curiously downplayed by both parties.

A computer failure on an uninhabited Mir, when the Soyuz was undocked, left it unable to switch on its electricity. The station drifted dangerously as attitude control was lost. It took tense hours for Russian cosmonauts and ground control personnel at Kaliningrad, near Moscow, to reset the wayward computer and enforce their orders.

What the Americans observed and learnt this time was what NASA flight managers call a "3-body" exercise, which the Russians are far more adroit at: the 112-feet-long station Mir suckling and releasing the 122-ft-long, 8-person shuttle Atlantis and a small launch-and-landing craft, the 2-person Soyuz. The safety record of the Russians is better than that of NASA: it has had only 15 prangs in over 2,400 launches.

The recent multi-docking exercise was just the first paragraph in any -- necessarily complicated and finely-detailed -- future manual on spaceflight. Over the coming decades, the International Space Station will be like an interplanetary airport, an intermediate travellers' inn between Earth and outer space. NASA hopes that, as more and more appendages are added to it over decades, it will become a flagship factory for, among other things, alloys that can't be created on Earth, and of biomedical research. For the moment, though, all this is rather adventurous conjecture -- the history of spaceflight is milestoned with sudden changes of political direction and technical setbacks. (The shuttle, in fact, had to be taken off the launchpad and returned to the hangar for emergency repairs when 2 diligent woodpeckers hammered 137 holes, some the size of oranges, in the shuttle's booster shell. Even sonic guns couldn't drive them away.)

The International Space Station will take at least 5 years and 70-odd shuttle trips to rivet and weld together. A working consensus will have to be arrived at between funding partners of often rudely differing economic and technological priorities: there will be Japanese and European science laboratories -- the former working with chips and alloys for computers and robotics, the latter with technology-based social engineering -- a Canadian complex prosthetic arm, Russian solar power plants. Astronauts and cosmonauts -- and this exclusivity of nomenclature is only one of the more benign differences between the 2 major partners -- will have to undertake at least 600 "spacewalks".

But the spacewalks and the future use of the space station dogmatically exclude -- so far -- countries other than the Northern developed participants today. "The colonisation of space is not politically and economically neutral," says a scientist at the Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO). "Space has mineral and energy wealth we cannot even begin to imagine. The ones who colonise it first will be the richest nations in the next century -- perhaps for all time to come."

Economic privations
Inevitably, it is this promise of uncounted wealth that has prodded private corporations into actively considering kicking into orbit with satellites to be rented out: 33-year-old Jamie Floyd, once employed by a NASA contractor in cardiovascular science and now running the 4-partner General Space Corporation in Houston, is in the process of cobbling together about US $150 million that he says is enough to put a "decent" satellite into orbit by 1997.

Floyd deliberately circumvented NASA, apprehending that it would bureaucratically stonewall the project. He went straight to 3 Russian contractors -- Machinostroenia, Energia and K B Salyut/Kurnechev -- for a Salyut-class space station and a manned Soyuz launch-and-landing spacecraft for starters. The station being designed is a 12 ft diameter, 45 ft long burnished canister with solar panel wings. He hopes to rent out time and space to "pharmaceutical companies, materials manufacturers and life scientists, plus" -- at a stretch -- "beer and soft-drink companies".

This is business of another kind, the prototype perhaps of future space negotiations: what Floyd is aiming for is not venture capital -- the risks are too high, even by the most conservative gambling standards -- but foolproof customer commitments from companies which will have to pay General Space Corporation only "about 1/5th to 1/10th of what they would have to pay NASA for the same job".

He's got the usually composed NASA in a dither, which says that Floyd is chasing an improbable dream. Floyd retorts that "Hewlett-Packard started in a garage". NASA is said to be extremely apprehensive of the private sector coming into the space business on a start-to-finish basis: R&D, rocket and satellite construction, launching, orbital stability, maintenance, and virtually unprecedented long-term forward planning.

Says the ISRO scientist, "NASA is paranoid, understandably. The entire space business has been secretive and paranoid from the day it started. It has always had to keep the military aspect of space exploration and materials R&D in constant view." In fact, the design of the shuttle series had to be radically modified under pressure from the American Defense Department, which threatened to prune funding to the space programme if NASA showed the least signs of rebellion.

As for the Russians, as far back as late 1989, when Russian-American joint programmes were still being debated to tatters, Bruce Murray, former chief of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had said that the problem was one of "general purpose production orientation, not design orientation", which is what the Americans believe should be the basis for a one-off construction of a space station; which is why the Atlantis crew was shocked to find the interior of the Mir a spit-and-gum affair, with hypersensitive electronic equipment taped to the walls to prevent them from floating off and ventilation ducts fashioned out of hosepipes.

Fortunately, the Americans also saw this tacking together as evidence of a Russian ability for on-the-spot innovation -- that there are many ways to get things working. This multidirectional approach to problems, together with American exactitude for detail to the last decimal, is probably what will keep the Mars programme going in the face of a difficult end to a difficult century.

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