The Joy & Wonder of Space Stations
Last night, I stood on my front porch in the chill March air a scanned the darkening skies for
a glimpse of the International Space Station as it flew overhead. The scene reminded me of
my own childhood, when my father and I would stand in the dark backyard watching for the light
moving across the sky, too slowly for any aircraft, that would be Skylab. In some ways this
was different, my daughter was inside, too young to appreciate what I was looking for, but in
other ways it was the same, for I had the same sense of wonder that mankind could put an
environment into orbit. More so, this time, because rather than being built by a single
country, the ISS is the achievement of several countries working together.
While looking for the small dot, several thoughts and memories raced through my mind. The most recent memory was of something that occurred at the beginning of February, when my wife, daughter and I were visiting a friend in Houston. My friend has a friend who works at NASA, perfecting the robotic arm which will eventually be able to maneuver across the exterior of the space station to perform repair work and scientific experiments. We were able to go into her lab and watch them run some tests on the robotic arm. It was nothing you couldn't see in any of hundreds of factories around the world, except for the knowledge that these tests were being conducted for something that would be a part of mankind's journey away from the home planet.
Later, we were able to go into the room just behind her office. This enormous hangar, which can be seen from an elevated observers' gallery during tours of NASA, houses two full-size replicas of space shuttles, two additional full-size replicas of the shuttles' living quarters, and a full-size replica of the International Space Station. This is one of the rooms in which the astronauts, cosmonauts and mission specialists train for their missions into space. Just being on the floor of that room was staggering as the enormity and smallness of these spacecraft was brought home. Enormity because they are huge when you stand next to them and merely look at them. Diminuativeness because you realize that people (plural, more than one, a whole bunch) are going to be living in these overgrown tin cans for weeks and months on end and they can't go down the street to the 7-11 when they need a break from their cohabitants.
We did a lot on a trip to Houston and saw many friends, but our few hours at NASA will always be the high point of that trip.
The last space station which America built was Skylab. As I mentioned, I remember watching Skylab fly overhead when I was a young boy, envisioning myself flying weightless in space as the astronauts were doing. Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, who had walked on the moon together during Apollo 12, Joe Kerwin, Paul Weitz, Owen Garriott, Jack Lousma, Gerry Carr, Edward Gibson and Bill Pogue, after all these years, I remember their names.
I have personal links to Skylab as well. I've had the privilege to meet Alan Bean, who is now an artist trying to capture the beauty of space in his work. For anyone interested in space exploration, I would highly recommend tracking down his recent collection of artwork, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account. On July 11, 1979, when Skylab returned to Earth, I was, perhaps, ironically, working on an archaeological dig in Southwestern Illinois, wondering where the spacecraft would impact. A few years later, I was able to see portions of the charred wreckage as NASA sent the remains on a tour of major museums.
A third space station is located relatively near where I live. A couple of years ago, an entrepreneur in Wisconsin purchased an unused Mir module from the Russian government. The public can now tour this functional piece of space hardware in the Wisconsin Dells, hundreds of miles below earth orbit. Two other manned space stations have orbited Earth, the Salyut 6 and Salyut 7.
One of the things all these space stations have in common is their appearance. They all look like they were put together from leftover modules of other spacecraft. Of course, in many cases, this is what happened. Skylab began life as an S-IVB stage with a docking adapter attached. Salyut was put together from pieces of the cancelled Almaz Space Station and proven Soyuz systems.
All of these stations, no matter how successful, are, of course, a betrayal. Everyone has seen the image of a space station from 2001: a space odyssey: a giant ring connected to a central spindle which would house the docking station. Kubrick's vision was much more elegant, sleek, and futuristic than the mazes which the US and USSR have managed to orbit over the years. These are the Platonic ideals after which all real space stations are modeling themselves, in the public's mind if nothing else.
No matter what the space station looks like, the fact that humans are able to design a craft which can be launched into orbit and maintain the lives of men and women, the fact that men and women would entrust their lives to those crafts, demonstrates that our race is progressing.
Skylab, Salyut, Mir, and ISS are all stepping stones on our quest to understand the universe around us. They give life to the science fiction we read and hope that we can carve out our own interplanetary civilization.
About four minutes into my vigil, I eventually saw a brief bright flash of light in the West Southwest, about where I expected the station to be at that point. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track it after that flash. Perhaps I saw it, perhaps I didn't. I do know that as the International Space Station continues to grow, in size and brightness, over the coming months, many clear evenings will find me on my front porch, straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of mankind's latest, and greatest, achievement.
Steven H SilverSteven H Silver is a Contributing Editor to the SF Site, and one of our most prolific contributors. At his own website he has posted over 300 lengthy reviews of genre books. He is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, is the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000, and maintains the official Harry Turtledove website.
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