Humans may be about to hang a permanent "occupied" sign in space.
Tomorrow, two Russians and one American are scheduled to leave Earth and begin a four-month stay on the International Space Station, becoming the first crew to occupy the largest peacetime international cooperative project in history.
The trio forms the vanguard of a small army of astronauts and cosmonauts from around the globe who will staff the $60-billion orbiting lab throughout its 15-year design life - or longer if the station holds up.
"I'd say there's a decent chance that Oct. 30 may be the last day we don't have humans in space," says John Curry, the station's flight director at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The building a home in space is the culmination of a dream that has existed at least since the dawn of the space age. But for the members of the crew, the beginning of this new era will be decidedly workmanlike, as they unpack, fix the plumbing, and throw out the trash.
Still, the expedition inaugurates something of a new role for NASA - one that it's largely learning from the Russians. Long used to taking its time in methodically planning each detail of its brief shuttle missions, NASA is now having to play the part of cosmic landlord, adjusting on the fly to the problems that arise during long-term habitation in the heavens.
Expedition commander Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev are scheduled to arrive at the station during their third day on orbit. When their Soyuz craft docks, the three will enter a three-section station, crammed with gear delivered during shuttle missions over the past two months. (Only the central section is shown at right.)
The first order of business will be to get the station up and running. That means making some final adjustments to the toilet system, activating equipment to scrub carbon-dioxide from the air inside the station, and activating devices that supply drinkable water.
Indeed, they'll spend the first four weeks installing equipment and checking out systems that the shuttle crews didn't have time to deal with. During down times, they can gaze out the window at more than a dozen sunrises and sunsets a day.
Like roommates moving into a new apartment, they'll be taking out gear, hooking up computer networks, and pitching all the refuse into a resupply capsule docked at one end of the station. Once the dumpster is full, it will be sent back to Earth to burn up on reentry.
In some cases, the first International Space Station (ISS) crew will have to make do with limping systems. For example, the station does not currently have enough battery power to manufacture oxygen for the crew. So they'll use special oxygen-generating "candles" until a resupply flight brings up an oxygen tank. Later, the shuttle will arrive with a US-made set of solar panels, which will provide enough electricity to run the main oxygen generators.
Moreover, when a space shuttle arrives in February to bring the first crew home and deliver a new crew, it also will carry a US-made laboratory module too noisy to meet NASA's specifications. But the agency waived its noise requirements for the lab, citing rising costs and schedule delays as the reasons for not fixing the problem. If the lab proves too noisy, additional insulation can be added on orbit, the agency noted.
James Van Laak, the station's manager of mission integration and operation, points out that the US is going to have to accept such glitches as a way of life during long-duration space activities.
Until now, he says, NASA has been geared to quick "sprints" of up to two weeks, followed by lulls that allow crews at the Kennedy Space Center to prepare the shuttle hardware for nearly perfect performance. Operating the space station, by contrast, "is a marathon" during which crews will have to fix balky hardware or adjust to it.
This mission also sends a signal to scientists and private companies that ISS is opening for business.
"For a long time, the station has not been very real to people," says Sandra Graham of the National Academy of Sciences' Space Science Board.
The real groundswell of scientific interest isn't expected to occur until the station's lab is fully operational. Yet the imminent arrival of a crew has sparked renewed interest among a broad range of scientists. Most are researchers who work in the life sciences or who study the effect of gravity on various materials and processes.
Even in its most spare form, the space station already has attracted some science. During their stay on the space station, the first crew will operate one experiment designed by MIT associate professor David Miller and colleagues. It will test new ideas for taking the jiggle out of devices that steer space-based telescopes, as well as new approaches to on-board computer software governing satellite operations.
Using the shuttle, which went up for only two weeks at a time, it might take as many as six years to get usable results from the experiment. With the station, "that's now cut to a week," he says.
If the station is drawing more attention from scientists, it also is prompting a few private companies to find ways to use the station.
In one such venture, a company called Spacehab is working with a Russian firm, RSC Energia, to develop a commercial module that will connect to the ISS service module. The module, which would be ready in 2003, would have lab space and a full multimedia studio, according to Spacehab CEO Shelly Harrison.
Meanwhile, the firms Boeing and Krunichev are working on a similar idea.
"You will probably see media as the first commercial entities," says Patricia Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington. This approach could stimulate public enthusiasm, because "it connects us with the spaceship on orbit."
But commercial interest in lab space could be slow in coming, she suggests, pointing to an agreement between NASA and Johnson & Johnson. The agreement was four years in the making because Johnson & Johnson had to look hard to find areas of its research that would benefit from a lab in microgravity.
Happy to be there
For now, however, many will be happy just to see the station's first crew arrive.
"This has been a long time coming," says Axel Roth, an official at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Mr. Roth's father was a member of Werner von Braun's team of German rocket scientists and engineers. In 1952, Dr. von Braun outlined a plan for space exploration in an article in Collier's magazine. A space station was a vital element to his vision.
Roth went to work for NASA in Huntsville, and played key roles in projects ranging from Apollo and Skylab to Spacelab and the International Space Station.
The prospect of seeing a crew establish itself on what will be the largest, most capable space station yet devised "is just incredible," he says. "It's a dream come true."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society