Archive for the ‘International Space Station’ Category

The Space Station, Kent Alexander

April 9, 2011

One of the interesting aspects of reading books about the Space Race and space exploration is discovering past space programmes that might have been. Perhaps in some alternative universe, they do indeed exist, the decisions which scuppered the projects in our history having gone differently. The Space Station by Kent Alexander is a relatively late – historically speaking – entry into this genre as it describes the plans and intentions of the US programme during the 1980s for a manned space outpost.

At that time, of course, the Soviet Union still existed and remained the West’s implacable foe. Indeed, The Space Station does not mention Salyut at all, names Mir only in passing, and incorrectly identifies Alan Shepard as “the first man to venture into space”. But then the book does read in place like more of a propaganda piece, declaring in the final chapter that “if the United States is to be the leader in improving the general well-being of humankind on Earth and in space beyond the twentieth century…” In the twenty-three years since the book was published, the USA can hardly be said to have successfully implemented that particular policy.

When The Space Station is not celebrating the US, it is celebrating NASA and its ambitions. NASA’s achievements are passed over quickly in an introductory chapter. The second chapter opens with Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address of January 1984, and his call in it for “NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and do it within a decade” (the speech is not quoted in The Space Station), before discussing the numerous studies and reports on space stations put together by astronauts, scientists and administrators at NASA. The book is copiously illustrated – with artists’ impressions and mock-ups – of space station concepts by US aeronautical companies. One chapter is titled ‘International Participation’ and discusses the role the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan would play in the US space programme. No mention, of course, of Russia – despite the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of thirteen years earlier. Much is made of the projected costs of the proposed space station – an initial estimate of $8 billion was revised upwards to $13 billion (and to $30 billion in 1989). With each new price-tag came a diminishment in the space station’s capabilities. It was these two factors which eventually led to the demise of the project. Incidentally, though the space station described by The Space Station is Space Station Freedom (as was), it was not given the name until June 1988, after the book was written.

Ironically, the International Space Station, which grew out of Space Station Freedom, has to date cost some $100 billion.

The Space Station describes an interesting might-have-been, which means it is of debatable usefulness as a history of the US space programme or US space stations. Its failure to look outside the USA also counts against it. While the illustrations in the book are interesting, the real world has turned too much of its contents into alternative history. This gives the book little more than curiosity value. A much better book on space stations is Roger D Launius’s Space Stations: Base Camps to the Stars (see here).

The Space Station, Kent Alexander (1988, Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-7940-3, 134pp + ‘Further Reading’ and index)

In lieu of content

December 14, 2010

It’s been a while since I last posted anything here, although this blog is by no means dead. I have several reviews lined up and hope to have at least one up before the end of the year. Meanwhile, here are a couple of cool space-related, er, things.

First, a gallery of sketches by Paul Calle of the crew of Apollo 11 drawn during their suiting up on July 16 1969 for their historic mission. See here.

Second, here’s a cool video of what the International Space Station would look like if it were travelling at its current speed, but only 300 m above the ground.

Superstructures in Space, Michael H Gorn

May 3, 2010

According to my dictionary, a superstructure is that part of a structure which is built on something else, or an over-lying framework. But the superstructures described in Michael Gorn’s Superstructures in Space are, well, not even really structures. They are satellites, robot explorers, space station modules and spacecraft.

This large coffee-table book is split into four sections: Human Spaceflight, Earth Observation, Exploring the Solar System, and Exploring the Universe. In those four sections are fifty-seven spacecraft, from Soyuz to the Hubble Space Telescope. There are, according to the book’s introduction, about 8,000 objects in orbit about the Earth at any one point in time. So Gorn has chosen to focus on civil space programmes, reflecting a “wide variety of countries, many sizes and shapes, a wealth of technologies, and numerous objectives”.

Superstructures in Space is informative and contains many excellent photographs. For some spacecraft, there are computer-generated artist’s impressions instead. The book is especially strong on those satellites which study the Earth, and gives a good indication of their technologies and aims. Other sections, covering the International Space Station, Soyuz and the Space Shuttle, are less detailed.

Superstructures in Space is not comprehensive enough for a reference work, but contains more than enough information for an introduction to the subject. As will no doubt seem somewhat odd several years from now, an epilogue covers Project Constellation, with several illustrations of the Orion spacecraft. A good book.

Superstructures in Space, Michael H Gorn (2008, Merrell, ISBN 978-1-8589-4417-3, 185 pp + acknowledgments and index)

Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius

April 11, 2010

In less than a century in space, humankind has built only four inhabited outposts in orbit – Salyut, Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station. Since 31 October 2000, there has been a continuous human presence at the ISS, although Mir was permanently inhabited between September 1989 to August 1999. Given that the first person to leave the planet, Yuri Gagarin, did so on 12 April 1961 – nearly half a century ago – that’s a surprisingly short, and recent, period of time.

But then, not everyone has agreed that space stations are useful; and even now there are those who consider the ISS a waste of money better spent on other space-related projects. Yet a space station captures the imagination in a way that’s only been surpassed by the Apollo Moon landings. If you look up at the sky, there are people up there, some 340 kilometres above your head – that’s about the distance between London and Liverpool. As I write this, there are in fact thirteen people in orbit: six in ISS Expedition 23‘s crew and seven on STS-131 Space Shuttle Discovery.

Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars by former NASA chief historian Roger D Launius captures the appeal of the space station. In seven copiously-illustrated chapters, Launius presents a history of space stations, focusing chiefly on the US’s Skylab and Space Station Freedom, and the ISS. The opening chapters outline the origins of the concept and NASA’s various early plans, featuring a number of illustrations of space stations from the 1930s to the 1950s. An entire chapter is devoted to the political wrangling which killed Space Station Freedom. In truth, Space Stations is chiefly a political study of its subject. It’s the reasons for their existence, rather than the technical achievements they represent, which Launius documents. Certainly I agree that space stations are a vital first step in the move off-planet. And we need to eventually move off the Earth, if only to provide room for the planet’s ever-increasing population and to find the resources necessary to maintain that population.

But Launius’s books is not about the commercial or scientific development of our Solar system, and the role space stations will play in that development. As Space Stations‘ subtitle suggests, Launius is documenting further visions – missions to other stars. Those early visionaries – Tsiolkovski, Oberth, Noordung, von Braun – all looked to the stars. And space stations were a necessary component of their visions.

Although Space Stations was published in 2003, Launius foresaw the increase in space tourism following Dennis Tito‘s flight to the ISS in 2001 (there have been eight space tourists to the ISS to date), and concluded that the commercial sector would play an increasingly larger role in the development of space. While not an especially prophetic conclusion, President Obama’s recent cancellation of Project Constellation and directive for NASA to use private space companies can only mean more of the commercial sector in space. Which Launius sees as positive, especially in relation to the role of space stations in future interstellar exploration: “But this path into the future, although seemingly stalled, may already be in the process of becoming.”


Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius (2003, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 1-58834-120-8, 230pp + appendices, chapter notes and index)

Reference Guide to the International Space Station, Gary Kitmacher

November 30, 2009

With a title like Reference Guide to the International Space Station, this book doesn’t really need a back-cover blurb. It has one, however; and it says, “This book is designed to provide a broad overview of the International Space Station’s complex configuration, design, and component systems. As well, the sophisticated procedures required in the Station’s construction and operation are presented”. But this is not strictly accurate. The book’s overview is actually quite detailed – it gives, for example, the physical dimensions, and other related facts and figures, about every module of the ISS. It is also copiously illustrated (see sample pages here and here), with lots of wonderful photographs.

In fact, if I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it needs updating. It was originally published in 2006, so it’s already three years out of date. Given that the ISS was originally planned to be de-orbited in 2010 – although that’s likely to be extended to 2016 – it’s certainly time for a new edition of Reference Guide to the International Space Station.

Although the copy reviewed here was published by Apogee, Reference Guide to the International Space Station is actually a reprint of a NASA document – available in parts as PDFs on the NASA web site here. All the same, it’s an excellent resource and belongs in every self-respecting enthusiast’s collection.

Reference Guide to the International Space Station, edited by Gary Kitmacher (2006, Apogee Books, ISBN 978-1-894959-34-6, 98pp + appendix)