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Monday28 July 2014

International Space Station

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A few weeks ago, the final building block was delivered to the International Space Station, thus completing the first building beyond Earth. Here, one of the architects involved in its construction, charts the saga of the most technically advanced environment ever built

An important event has just taken place about 340km above our heads. A Space Shuttle mission launched on May 14 topped off the International Space Station with the final metallic building block delivered from Earth. It has taken 12 years and over 100 missions by assorted spacecraft to assemble, provision and crew it in Earth’s orbit. The completion of this massive task passed largely unreported by the media and press as the station has become old hat and is off their radar. It has been under construction for so long and its novelty value has worn off. It has become a big yawn unless something goes wrong and astronauts’ lives are placed in danger, when journalists would descend like a flock of pigeons to feed off news conferences and technical gossip. Thankfully that has not happened.

Surprisingly – for the station is the first really important piece of architecture beyond Earth – the architectural press has generally overlooked it. “It’s an orbiting lab isn’t it?” was the question of the editor of this newspaper when I suggested this article to mark the completion milestone.

But there is a reason. The fault lies with the station’s international partners – Russia, the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe – for doing a lacklustre and lukewarm public relations job on the project over the years. They have never learnt how to keep the station in the public eye, let alone sell its long-term research value and scientific achievements to the taxpayers in the nations who footed the astronomical bill for it.

The International Space Station is a building in space and possibly the most complicated piece of inhabited architecture yet created by mankind. It began on the drawing board in the early 1980s and president Ronald Reagan proudly showed it off to visiting world leaders at the White House in 1984. There is a photograph of Reagan explaining a large-scale model of it to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who looks dubious. In fact she was so dubious that she later pulled Britain out of all human space flight – a mistake from which Britain’s space programme continues to suffer.

Japan, Canada and Europe (without Britain) joined the project as partners in the mid-1980s. Progress was halted by the tragic loss of the Shuttle Orbiter Challenger in early 1986. The Space Shuttle was the delivery system for most of the station’s building blocks and the station was its raison d’être. By the end of the decade with an Orbiter replacement ordered, the project was in full swing again but costs had ballooned due to endless design changes. It began in 1984 with a humble budget of $8 billion.

The station is possibly the most complicated piece of inhabited architecture

By the early 1990s, when Russia joined the project at the invitation of president Bill Clinton during the warming trend after the Soviet Union’s demise, US costs had soared to an estimated $25 billion, excluding the shuttle delivery flight charges. Political grumbling turned to apoplexy and boiled over in a Congressional attempt to kill it in 1993 that was defeated by just one vote.

It was the participation of Russia and its willingness to underpin the project with Russian hardware and support that saved it. The European Space Agency has estimated the total cost to all the partners at a staggering $125 billion spread over 30 years. What does this figure mean in terms that we can grasp? The station has a total habitable volume of about 870cu m spread among its modules. In space it makes no sense to judge costs by square metre as there are no floors in weightlessness, but if we divide the $125 billion by the habitable volume, we get the breathtaking figure of $144 million per cu m. I will leave it to readers to compare this with building costs per square metre of floor area with which they are familiar.

After 14 years of design and engineering development, the first station building block arrived in orbit in 1998. It was a Russian module called Zarya, meaning “sunrise”, a name chosen to herald a new era of cooperation between the US and Russia, former Cold War adversaries and now close partners.

Zarya was followed by a succession of US and Russian spacecraft that delivered a new piece every few months. In October 2000, with the arrival of the first of a fleet of Russian Soyuz spacecraft, of which one would always be docked at the station to provide an escape lifeboat, the first three-person crew took up permanent residence. Assembly was proceeding well, with few problems, until a second tragedy struck in February 2003. The Shuttle Orbiter Columbia, on a science mission completely unrelated to the station, disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Nasa had now lost two out of five Orbiters and immediately grounded the remaining fleet. Half built, the station was kept alive by Russian missions until shuttle flights resumed in 2005. It was the second time that Russia had saved the project.

The handful of architects who worked on the project fought a losing battle for improved living accommodation

Despite the station’s staggering cost, physical comfort for those on board was never a serious design objective. The interior is cramped and clinical, a cross between a submarine wardroom and a surgical operating theatre. The ethos of the “Right Stuff”, when astronauts were trained to tolerate hardship in return for mission glory, dies hard. But the glory has vanished since human space flight became routine. In the 1980s, the station’s design challenge was to solve myriad formidable technical problems. Human needs were overshadowed by hard-edged engineering solutions. The handful of architects who worked on the project then, of which I was one, fought a losing battle to improve the accommodation design.

Six individuals of both sexes must harmoniously coexist, sealed inside several oversized tin cans, and work productively every day for six months. At 870cu m, the station’s gross pressurised volume is roughly equivalent to two three-bedroom homes. This seems spacious for six people but the modules are crammed full of banks of metal racks containing equipment and experiments. The resulting net pressurised volume – the free movement volume for occupants – is about 33% of gross and formed into central corridors measuring only 2 metres square in cross-section. The metal racks are bathed in bright white light and line the corridors on all sides. Switches, knobs, screens, dials and keyboards are everywhere. The resulting decor – for want of a better word – is ultra-spartan. Some corridors are festooned with floating weightless cables that look like monster cobwebs.

For a decade, station crews had no proper personal sleeping quarters. They camped in the corridors and shared a little porthole window to look at the Earth. Only in early 2010 was a full complement of soft padded private sleep compartments – about 2cu m per person – and a large observation bay window called a cupola added. Astronauts have said for a long time that their favourite relaxation is to gaze down at the Earth, yet they were deprived of a decent window to do it for the first 10 years.

Though physical comfort was sacrificed at the altar of engineering expediency, the space station replicates a benign Earthlike atmospheric environment to keep the astronauts alive. The environmental control and life support system maintains air pressure, composition, temperature and humidity at familiar terrestrial levels. At its heart is an oxygen generation system that electrolyses water to produce breathable oxygen and a carbon dioxide removal system that uses filters called molecular sieves to trap carbon dioxide and vent it into space.

Water on the station is very precious and is recycled as much as possible. Cabin air condensate and waste water from crew use, including urine, is recovered and processed back to potable water, prompting a crew joke about “drinking yesterday’s coffee”. There is no such luxury as a shower with hot water (as there was on the earlier US Skylab laboratory) and astronauts have to wipe themselves down with wet towels. A $125 billion research facility without a hot shower for the researchers seems like a big engineering failure to me.

Now the International Space Station is almost complete and fully operational, what does it signify? It is like a great wine that cannot be opened and appreciated until years after its vintage; its research reputation is barely adolescent and it has yet to mature into a great scientific facility.

Architecturally, it ranks alongside constructional wonders such as the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower and the Panama Canal; but unlike them its site is utterly hostile to human life, a fact that strengthens its stature. It has added aluminium alloy to the vocabulary of materials of great structures – stone, concrete and steel. It has raised to new heights the craftsmanship of transforming blocks of metal into intricate hardware at technology’s cutting edge. Above all, it has demonstrated the willingness of many nations – some former enemies – to work together in a commonwealth of learning. This may be its most important lesson. The International Space Station passes vertically over London every 24 hours, 16 minutes, just short of Potters Bar. It will continue to do so until 2020 and perhaps 2028.

Vital statistics

Length 73m
Width 109m
Height 20m
Mass 290 tonnes
Pressurised volume 870cu m
Internal pressure 1 atm
Power generation capability 110kW
Orbital inclination 51.6 degrees
Orbital altitude 181-189 nautical miles
Orbital period 91 minutes
Ground speed 7,707m/sec
Estimated cost $125 bn
Estimated cost per cu m of pressurised volume $144 million

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Readers' comments (4)

  • fantastic.

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  • Congratulations to all involved- I assume that the defects liabilty period is now running.
    I believe David Nixon has done a lot of work on space items- does he ever give talks about his work?
    Iain Meek DipArch RIBA

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  • $360/m sq - not bad! What was the agreed fees percentage for the architectural part I wonder ;)? I am sure in time there will be a module added providing creatures comforts to scientists on board. In 150 years time it will be a venerable museum and a popular destination for school trips, unless alloys the station was designed from have much less vacuum decay time?

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  • William Brand 16th July 2010 16:15

    When are we going to build on the Moon:then Mars
    Infinity and beyond

    Wake up nations the technology and the profit is there!

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