Assembly (Nearly) Complete

NASA’s space station manager looks back with satisfaction at one of history’s greatest construction projects.

Almost finished: NASA's Michael Suffredini, with a model of the International Space Station. (NASA/Paul E. Alers)
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Suffredini: I don’t know. It hinges on two questions: Do we as a nation or world want to explore? And are we getting something out of the space station? We believe there are going to be enormous discoveries on board ISS. We don’t know what we don’t know today. When you remove gravity from the equation, we’re learning a lot how metals behave, when they’re solidifying, what makes bacteria more or less virulent, and other things. If we realize that belief and we have a need for something in low Earth orbit, then we may build another one. But this one will last a good while.

A & S: If you had the chance to go to the station, what would you do there?

Suffredini: I would want to stare out the cupola window at this wonderful planet we live on. The perspective you get in low Earth orbit really makes you a richer human being. There’s a deep emotional, permanent feeling you get from having looked at Earth from afar.

A & S: Will stations ever be available for tourists?

Suffredini: I believe that’s very possible. Whether it’s ISS itself or whether commercial companies figure out there’s a business for that and put their own vehicles in orbit, that’s a very possible outcome. I’d like to see that, absolutely.

A & S: What was your most worried moment during the program?

Suffredini: There was a very short period of time when we were watching the [STS-120] crew redeploy the P6 array and it ripped. That was also the same mission where we discovered that one of our rotational joints had eroded to the point where it was having a hard time rotating. Right when that thing ripped, I thought to myself ‘I don’t have a replacement array’ and I really wondered how we’re going to get out of this one. I knew what we had trained for and what we were able to do, and broken arrays is not something we know how to do. So we all sucked it up and forged ahead and the team did a fabulous job [with a spacewalk by Scott Parazynski to repair the rip] and we were able to recover. That was a defining moment for the program.

Another thing is, we fly around in an environment that is not friendly. We fly around with some debris. Our shields are good to [protect against debris] about an inch or two in size. If you get a hole, it would be a small one. But there is debris somewhere between 10 centimeters square and an inch or inch and a half in size that we can’t track that would put a significant hole in the space station. Every once in a while I wake up at night and find myself worrying about that.

A & S: What was your proudest moment?

Suffredini: Maybe it was that day that Parazynski put those cufflinks in [the array] and we redeployed it. That certainly was one of my prouder moments as a program manager. I’m very proud that we’ve done something humanity has never done before, and on a global scale with multiple partners, with technical challenges greater than we’ve seen before, overcoming them, and making it look relatively easy.

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