In my “spare time” I work as a full-time translator and interpreter for NASA’s International Space Station Program. Among the many marvelous secrets and surprises that lurk in the recesses of rocket science and the far corners of the near-Earth orbit, one thing about this program always stands out: the constant juxtaposition of the macro and micro.

Let me elaborate. The ISS is a 450 metric ton behemoth orbiting 16 times around the Earth each day. Billions of dollars, effort from hundreds of thousands of people, miles of cables, thousands of pounds of equipment are put into the station each year. At the same time, the station is a finely tuned work of art, a mobile dangling on a continuously changing center of mass, a fragile entity carrying in its belly an even more ephemeral crew. And the specialists who dream it, design it, build it and breathe life into it move from the macro to the micro with astonishing ease.

Take for instance the water specialists. At any given moment, the International Space Station has on it over one ton of water. Hundreds of liters are brought up by the Russian cargo vehicles, then the water is consumed by humans, used in cooling loops on the interior of the station, sweated and peed back out, processed and drunk again, or used as technical water in experiments, and so forth. The specialists may be discussing these large quantities of H2O, and then seamlessly transition to micro-liters of distillate or micrograms per liter of total organic compounds present in the liquid. The biologists who monitor the water quality talk about the number of CFU’s (colony-forming units) found in potable water, and are pleased if there are less than ten of these in any given sample. As an aside, CFU’s refer to harmful bacteria. The chemists’ work also thrives in the micro-units. How many micro-liters of sodium nitrate? How many micrograms per milliliter of the heavy metals…

A similar ability to zoom in and out a thousand-fold is exhibited by the rendez-vous and docking folks. On an average orbit, the space station flies at a speed of 17,239 mph, circling around the Earth almost 16 times daily. To be clear: this is fast. Very very fast. To think – at this speed the people working for the Space Station Program around the world manage to launch giant space vehicles, have them catch up to the station, and perform a gentle docking. To make this happen, the minutest details have to be addressed. For instance, usually a docking window, (the time where a docking is possible) is just a few minutes long. Multiple constraints drive this window to such a ridiculously small amount of time. They include the need for the perfect lighting (the cameras that tell ground control and the crew how the approach of the vehicle is going need to not be facing the sun, but need to have light, at a certain ideal angle), the availability of satellite comm. and ground sites which receive telemetry, wakefulness of crew, correct position of the station solar arrays, and so on. So again: the station’s flying at 17,000 miles, and a vehicle has to catch up to it, maneuver just so, and dock within a 5-10 minute window.

The powerful wings of the station, the so-called truss segments, extend to both sides of the pressurized modules and span the area of a football field. The strong steel construction holds the solar panels which collect and help generate enough electricity to feed the entire station. A structure seemingly so robust and yet, a single, targeted hit with a pebble-sized micrometeoroid and the entire station will go to vacuum in a matter of hours. The crew will have to depart immediately, and the whirring, living organism, with ammonia and current running through its cooling loops and cables, with gigabytes of memory stored on the 100+ computers onboard, with the hundreds of thousands of man-hours lovingly invested in it – will turn to a lifeless chunk of metal drifting aimlessly through space.

The engineers, designers, physicists, technicians, programmers, flight controllers and others who work the program do miraculous things daily. They are like general physicians who can assess the wellbeing of the entire person, and also just happen to know the person’s entire genetic makeup, know the names of the 40 bones in each foot, the number of vertebrae on his back, the number of hairs on his head. And if you ask them, they’ll even tell you by name the hundreds of micro-organisms happily dwelling in this person’s gut.

 

Advertisements