Op-ed | Humanity’s Outpost on the Edge

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By Hugh Cook

Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama signed off on extending the life of the International Space Station for a few more years. The Russians and Canadians have followed suit, and the Europeans and Japanese will also, presumably, soon. The decision resolves important issues, enabling long-lead-time items to be bought, resupply missions to be scheduled and paid for, and limited life components to be replaced.

All this is well and good, but the construct of mission extension perpetuates a misguided perspective on the fundamental reality of the space station.

The space station is a monumental achievement of all Earthlings. It is a profound accomplishment of mankind. It is not a flight or a mission or some temporally transient expedition to space. It is a place, albeit moving with respect to us, but a place nonetheless. It is an outpost of mankind on a harsh frontier.

It is not American. We help run it, we pay for a lot of it, but it is of our entire world. We built it by working together, with our Russian, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Canadian, Dutch and other friends. It took a decade and a hundred-plus launches to haul the pieces into orbit and bolt them all together in a global barn-raising of staggering complexity. And before someone says we shouldn’t be wasting money in space, all this was accomplished on much less than a penny of every federal dollar.

Now complete, it weighs over 400 metric tons, it is bigger than a Zeppelin, and it goes 27,600 kilometers per hour, all day, every day. It has a picture window facing Earth where off-duty people watch the clouds, oceans, mountains and deserts fly by. Chris Hadfield created the coolest music video ever there. Sunita Williams took us on a fascinating tour of its countless rooms, taking nearly a half-hour just to fly through all the nooks and crannies, showing the astounding scale of the facility. It has a porch and a T-shirt cannon for launching student-built cubesats.

NanoRacks deployment of small sats from ISS
Cubesats after deployment from the ISS’ “T-shirt cannon.” Credit: NASA

Despite the incredible, improbable success, we treat this profound accomplishment as a perpetual probationer, whose death sentence is commuted incrementally by a skeptical and reluctant warden. Why?

Here’s my beef: The recent incremental extension of the “mission” belies a fundamental misapprehension, an error of perspective at a very fundamental level. We have not established the right vision for the station, or framed the achievement with the correct perspective, and until we do, we will fail to appreciate and capitalize on it.

We lost the vision long ago; while casting about for a winning argument for embarking on this staggeringly expensive and complex adventure, we finally settled on “science” as the reason. With a space station, we could develop magical medicines to cure cancer, solve the riddles of the universe and generally improve our lot on Earth.

Science provides our station’s safe harbor of purpose today. Science is an unassailable rationale for the enlightened. Who can be against science, right? Answer: lots of poor, disengaged, poorly educated people can be against science, and these people vote. So while science affords some top cover, it is a weak top cover at best. Science is not compelling, which puts the enterprise in continual peril.

It’s not too late to re-establish the vision, but first we need to shake off some of the wrong thinking. The space station is not a science platform. It is a sovereign outpost in a wilderness. The sovereign is mankind. The wilderness is the universe outside our gravity well.

Low Earth orbit is 90 percent to anywhere in the solar system. It’s like being perched on the edge of one of those monstrous sink holes in Mexico, the ones so big that people parachute into them. For millennia, man lived at the bottom of this metaphorical cavern, but through a gargantuan effort we managed to climb up and out of this enormous hole, and build a shelter on the lip at great cost. Why would we characterize that accomplishment as temporary? Why would we skulk back down into the hole? There is huge universe laid out before us, and we need to keep going.

Let us re-envision the space station as a cross between a shipyard and a frontier fort. We may do a little science there when it gets slow, but that is not what it is fundamentally for. It is for logistics — dull, boring logistics. It is a depot for outfitting exploratory expeditions that come and go from there. Think “Star Trek” space dry dock, where they outfit and refurbish starships in between their sorties. Think St. Louis in 1803, helping Lewis and Clark outfit their expedition. St. Louis still exists, never canceled or terminated.

Seen in that light, we would never talk of its mission ending. We would just go do whatever the maintenance schedule called for — buy some new solar arrays, send up some more toilet paper and light bulbs, whatever. We would basically never let it go, the way we settled Antarctica at the height of the Cold War, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958. We have never left, and we never will.

Credit: NASA/JSC
Two Soyuz spacecraft docked with the ISS. Credit: NASA/JSC

In the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” while the captain goes about his geopolitical business, his good friend, the ship’s doctor (and resident scientist), begs, pleads and extorts a side trip to observe the birds on Galapagos. That should be the rightful relationship between science and the space station — not in charge, not the sole purpose, but a worthy hobby for the station. The main purpose is to advance the interests of all mankind, a geopolitical act writ large, Earthlings asserting their sovereignty in our local corner of the galaxy. It may be modest when viewed from a few hundred years in the future, but it’s a start. And once we make the paradigm shift, ideas for using it will gain traction, and a renaissance of space exploration will ignite.

Let’s dispense with talk about when we will end our space station mission. It’s not a mission or even an expedition. It’s an outpost on the way to the stars. Let’s use it. We are not climbing back down into the hole.

Hugh Cook is an engineer. He developed several space transportation systems during his career.