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The Webfooted Astronomer - July 2001


An International Space Station Smorgasbord

By John Waters

THIS article is not a discussion about a spread of vittles to be served aboard the International Space Station (ISS), perhaps to celebrate the departure of space tourist Tito, for better or worse. Instead it is a modest attempt to provide you with a purely terrestrial ISS experience, by giving you station information from a number of different sources. This will save you $20 million for the actual trip.

Several months ago I wrote an article for this newsletter on the ISS, when the first two pieces were being joined. It is truly heartening now to see a project that is progressing nicely. Having revealed my bias, I will acknowledge there are others who feel the goals of space-based technological/scientific advances and international cooperation could have been done differently, perhaps more economically with unmanned approaches. But now that we've taken the ISS path, most would concede this road is as likely as any to give us some space-related benefits, in addition to learning how to work together as an international community.

Terrestrial benefits of ISS

To get an idea of the terrestrial benefits of technical and scientific work aboard the ISS, let's review some contributions from pre-ISS era space exploration and experiments. For example, consider the following (as Bill Nye might say) space spin-offs, which I learned about when I visited a mobile exhibit NASA had at the Puyallup Spring Fair.

Advances in battery technology during the Apollo program made portable power tools and laptop computers possible. Improvements in materials during the shuttle program have resulted in better bike helmets and tennis rackets. Smoke detector technology comes from Skylab, the first U.S. space station. Medical experiments in space have engendered a technique for creating spare tissue on Earth and have been the source of simple heart valves and cooling suits for people with no sweat glands.

Astronomical science in space has helped inspire magnetic resonance imaging and an infrared-sensitive thermometer that measures body temperatures by being placed in the ear. Optical coatings have been a spin-off from the coatings used to protect materials in space. So I invite you now to take a second look at the ISS, a truly worthwhile endeavor.

NASA's ISS Web site

A rich source of information about the ISS can be found on the primary NASA Web site for the space station,¹ The following are some of its features.

To get an accurate picture of what the ISS looks like now and how it got that way, you may want to investigate the "Image Chronology of ISS" link, near the top of the page on the left.

Part way down the page on the left is the "Blue Flight Control Room" link. This is for those with a thirst for the details of ground-based space mission control rooms. The view shows the ISS control room consoles. By clicking on a console you get the title and acronym of the person who sits there and a description of the job he or she does. Go ahead and find out who CATO is (no relationship to the similar sounding guy from the Green Hornet TV series, to be sure).

At the bottom of the page are eight links. "Where is the Space Station" provides a map of the world with the present location of the Station. If you watch for a few minutes you can see the ISS inching along. Regions of the world experiencing day and night are indicated. The ISS orbit is plotted several hours ahead of the present location. It seems like it would be a good way to graphically show viewing opportunities, instead of looking them up in a table.

"Can I track the station" scratches your astrophysical itch by giving you the orbital elements of the ISS, such as inclination (51.5662 degrees) and eccentricity (.0017747). "Can I see the space station" gives you an international list of major cities, including Seattle. Clicking on a city gives you a list of ISS viewing opportunities for that location for the next few days, if there are any. "Space Station Ham Radio" is a good link if you want to know details about amateur radio operations associated with the station, including frequencies.

The next two items are virtual reality tours of the ISS that you can run online or download. If you do the latter you will need some basic familiarity with WinZIP or other archival program. If you follow the download directions given and choose the default directory names and structure, the download process will automatically create subdirectories and store the downloaded files in them. Both of these tours, either the downloadable or online version, work on my relatively old computer with Internet Explorer 5.

"Station VR Tour" gives you a horizontal arrangement of two windows. The one on the left shows an exterior view of the station with several modules labeled. The right window shows you a slowly rotating view of the inside of the module you select from the left window. When a small red circle appears on your right window, clicking it is an alternate method of navigating between adjacent modules.

"Space Station VRML" is a simulation that will give you a feeling of omnipotence in navigation. It not only gives you the ability to position yourself anywhere outside the ISS looking in any direction, you also get a ghost-like ability to penetrate any structure. However the interior views of the cylindrical modules show a bare minimum of detail. The previous program is much better at showing you this. You can view the whole ISS or just a magnified view of a part of it.

The Web site gives you the option of downloading a required 3D viewer if you do not already have one. I downloaded the Blaxxun version. After the VRML program starts, right-clicking in the large window will get you a menu with options for navigating using the Blaxxun viewer. In this regard the program seems a little buggy; if you do not get a menu after right-clicking, you may also need to drag your mouse down and to the right slightly with the left button. Selecting the "Online Manual" option from the Help menu will take you to the Braxxon Web site for navigational operating instructions, which copy flawlessly into Microsoft Word.

"Video Tour" takes you to a few short videos about the ISS, primarily astronaut interviews. "Meet me at the Space Station" is a humorous cartoon video about the ISS. Great for kids or young-at-heart adults.

Museum of Flight

The mobile NASA exhibit at the Spring Fair had ISS information although that mini-museum is possibly several hundred miles away by now. The Museum of Flight, however, has a full-size mock up of a one of the ISS cylindrical modules. It actually consists of a composite of two modules, a laboratory module and a habitation module. The interior has a hall-like appearance that you can walk through. Even the floor and ceiling are covered with various devices. As expected, the lab portion showed technical items. But the habitation area seemed equally interesting. Here you can see a clothes washer, oven, bed (sleeping-bag-like restraint) and unisex toilet. The shower is called a "full-body cleansing compartment." (I think it's a conspiracy to get rid of all words even vaguely suggesting gravity. I never saw the word "floor" used in the exhibit, either.)

The exterior cylindrical walls are identical to that used in the actual ISS. A cutaway shows the outermost material to be a hard, white plastic about inch thick, similar to the material used in bulletproof vests. This is the space debris and meteor shield. Inside of that is a layer that looks like aluminum foil, providing thermal insulation. About 3 inches from the debris shield is a metal wall that provides most of the strength.

For the videophile, a computer is set up off to the side that shows the ISS and provides some interaction. The graphics may be better than the VRML tour described earlier, but the latter allows a considerably deeper level of navigation.

The interior living space of the ISS is limited, about that of three average houses or one 747. This naturally means you have to dump the trash periodically. The recyclables typically return in the Shuttle. The other trash is elegantly disposed of by putting it aboard a rocket that is sent plunging into the atmosphere where both the garbage truck and cargo are completely incinerated. The exhibit calls this garbage truck a return vehicle, perhaps giving the word return a different flavor.

Whether learning about the ordinary aspects of life aboard the Station or marveling at the technology and science, I hope your ISS experience is as interesting for you as it is for me.

¹ This site may be experiencing difficulty. Try for more information.

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