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Miles O'Brien: ISS is an engineering, geopolitical marvel

December 7, 2000
Web posted at: 5:48 p.m. EST (2248 GMT)

CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien describes the difficulties ahead for the International Space Station.

Q: Could the problem with the solar wing be a harbinger of more difficulties ahead for the space station?

O'BRIEN: No question about it. This project is very difficult I think even for those of us who have been looking at it very closely for the past several years to get a handle on.

The engineering task is astounding. What I hear time and again from some of the veteran astronauts, flight controllers and engineers at NASA that by comparison, if you just look at it purely as an engineering exercise, this is harder than going to the moon. That's because what you're trying to do is put together thousands of newly engineered, never-been-used-before parts, many of which are manufactured on opposite sides of the ocean and launched into space with all the rigors involved there. The parts then meet each other for the first time 230 miles above the planet and fit within tolerances about the width of my hair.

This is a project that really when you get down to it and start thinking about every last little switch, every last little wire, every connector, every solar array, every antenna, it boggles your mind how many things have to go right for the station to work.

Yes, there will be problems with solar wings, and there will likely be problems down the road with even more significant consequences.

The real issue is how NASA, Russia and the remaining ISS partnerships respond to the problems. I think what has happened here on this mission is the classic case of NASA kind of unleashing that can-do karma they pride themselves on.

Q: There have been wire service reports of tensions between the International Space Station crew and Russian mission control -- acrimony, sarcasm and swearing. How are things going up there?

O'BRIEN: It's not pretty. The bottom line is that if you take away the engineering issues, there is a tremendous cultural and geopolitical undercurrent here, which tends to sometimes be more than just an undercurrent and more like an overtone to the whole project.

What is happening is that the space station doesn't have the clearest lines of authority that it probably should. Because of the nature of the partnership and the nature of the agreement, it's kind of a multi-headed monster. Technically, right now, ultimate authority for the space station rests at the International Space Station Flight Control Center in Houston, but that just simply isn't the case. The Russians are running the space station out of Moscow, because they have the modules that provide the living quarters and are keeping the space station from dropping out of orbit. So, by virtue of that, it is their space station right now.

What is difficult about it is that they have a very specific set of tasks that they think are important and need to be accomplished in order to keep the station going. Their set of priorities doesn't always jibe with NASA's.

This kind of thing is going to happen on the ISS. I think the whole thing is exacerbated with the shuttle docked at the station. You have a three-headed monster there: You've got the shuttle flight controller, the International Space Station flight controller in Houston and the Moscow flight controllers. All of them are used to calling their own shots themselves on their own spacecraft, and now they're kind of coordinating with each other. Then, you throw in some language, cultural and geographic barriers and you've got the prescription for a lot of tense moments.

Q: What lessons are people to learn from this mission?

O'BRIEN: The lesson on this mission, first of all, is that there's no way this thing is going to go off without a hitch. For those of us sitting on the ground who are surprised about problems, both technical and geopolitical, it really shouldn't be that surprising.

This is an incredibly unwieldy and difficult project. What makes it interesting is how all the parties involved are going to try to work this out, because in the end they have to. There's a real commitment up there: We have Cosmonauts up there, we have a NASA astronaut up there full time.

There is no running away from the partnership anymore.

What this particular mission brings to head is that this relationship has to work in order for the space station to stay afloat, and it is not going to be easy any step of the way.

Astronauts successfully repair space station wing
December 7, 2000
NASA mulls remedy for balky space station wing
December 4, 2000
Shuttle set for launch -- loose bracket won't cause delay -- and weather is 100% "Go"
November 30, 2000
Space station astronauts pause to give holiday thanks
November 23, 2000

HSF - International Space Station

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