ISS – important first step to NASA exploration

by Chris Bergin

STS-115 Commander Brett Jett and Pilot Chris Ferguson noted their “Return To Assembly” mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is an integral part – and important first step – towards the US’ future mission to set up a permanent moon base.

The ISS has many critics, mainly over its growing costs in relation to the real science – or lack thereof – that’s been carried out on the orbital outpost. However, those tasked with its final construction disagree.

‘Any time you, you take off on an exploration, typically you take steps in a gradual nature,’ said Jett. ‘You know, space station has given us the ability to establish a permanent presence fairly close to home but still, in low Earth orbit, in a weightless environment in a vacuum. That’s a good first step.’

Jett and his crew will be riding Shuttle Atlantis to the ISS, carrying the P3/P4 truss segments and solar arrays for installation on to the station. Those arrays will provide power to the projected expansion of the ISS over the coming four years.

The ISS was classed as an important element of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which tasked NASA with returning the Shuttle to flight, in order to complete the assembly of the outpost, before heading back to the moon.

It’s taken three and a half years to get to a re-start of assembly missions, following the loss of Columbia on STS-107 – and the following two test flights to ensure the Shuttle was safe to return to regular flight operations.

‘115 is the return to the assembly sequence, and I think that’s significant,’ added Jett. ‘We have a mandate to finish the station by 2010 and retire the shuttle. So we need to shift from the Return to Flight mode back to a more operational assembly sequence, where we’re flying hopefully four to five times a year and, completing the assembly fairly quickly.’

Finishing the ISS is an essential element of the roadmap to explore the solar system, the Commander noted, with an established presence on Mars the target, albeit an extremely challenging one.

‘When you explore the solar system, you’re going to need to establish permanent presence, or at least temporary presence on the moon, perhaps; on Mars. So I think the way we’re going about it seems fairly logical.

‘You could almost draw an analogy between the Apollo missions and some of the early explorers who came from Europe to North America. Initially they sort of went, touched base, came home. But really it was establishing the permanent presence, over in North America, that proved to be a huge challenge. So I think we’ll see, as we try to establish a presence on the moon and then move on and establish a presence on Mars, that it’s going to be extremely challenging.

‘We’ll learn a lot from our presence in low Earth orbit, to make that successful. The other piece of that whole question is, why are we going? Well, I probably fall in the camp that says it’s just our nature. It’s human nature to want to explore and, and I hope that the United States leads that effort, among the entire world.

‘We’re going to prove that we can meet our obligations and build an International Space Station, and that will be important to leading an effort to explore the solar system. It’s not just the U.S. but other nations as well.’

Sitting next to Jett on the flight deck of Atlantis will be Pilot Chris Ferguson, who also believes in the stepping stone analogy described in the VSE.

‘I’d like to think we’re going to end up on the moon on at least a semi-permanent basis, and that’s a good thing. There’s (a) lot to be gleaned from the moon. A lot of people talk about helium-3, which could be a fuel for fusion; we talk about solar energy, collecting solar power on the moon and sending it back to the Earth. But I’d like to think that we would use the moon more as a stepping-stone to learn how to live and work off of the planet yet close enough that we could get home if something happened and we needed to do so.’

Ferguson also dismissed the ‘been there, done that’ criticism noted by some sceptics when referring to the return to the moon, currently targeted for 2018, while also dismissing the gap of nearly half a century since man last stepped foot on our orbiting neighbour.

‘We’re going to learn how to live and work on an extraterrestrial body, with the hopes of someday pressing on to Mars,’ he added. ‘A lot of people say, ‘hey, we’ve been to the moon; we’ve planted a flag there and we’ve come home.’ But the parallel I like to draw are the European explorers. Christopher Columbus came to the New World in the late 1400s, but we really didn’t settle here until over 200 years later.

‘So going to the moon and taking a break for 30, 35, 40 years is insignificant. This is not a program that will take place in one generation. This is a multi-generational thing in which we are going to move forward from the Earth and spend some time on the moon and beyond.’

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