Levy Lecture: Exploring the International Space Station

Michelle Nichols refers to herself as an “astroeducator,” and the label could not be more apt. In a comprehensive slide presentation for the Levy Lecture audience on Jan. 25, Nichols described the history of the International Space Station (ISS), the ingenious temporary home to a constantly changing group of international astronauts.

1869 novella by Edward Everett Hale

The idea of living in space has been a mainstay of science fiction for years. The first known image of a home among the stars appeared in the 1869 novella “The Brick Moon” by Edward Everett Hale. In 1928, Herman Potoĉnik, an Austro-Hungarian army officer, engineer and space enthusiast, conceived of humans living permanently in space on an orbiting spacecraft and drew the first architectural model for this structure.

In the 1950s, Wernher von Braun was a German aerospace engineer who worked for NASA after being recruited by the Americans. He was a major proponent of using rockets for space exploration and envisioned employing a team of scientists to build a satellite in space based on the same spherical shape advanced by Potoĉnik.

In 1971, the idea of a space station moved from fantasy to reality. The Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, the first space station inhabited by humans. It was tubular in shape and included a docking station to receive astronauts launched into orbit weeks or months later. The Salyut program lasted for 20 years, ending in 1991 with Salyut 7.

Nichols summarized the advances made by the Soviet Union during this period, including the transition from monolithic to modular stations, the use of multiple docking ports, orbital handovers from one crew to another, the use of unmanned resupply vehicles, and the viability of conducting long spaceflight programs, which were science experiments that lasted for many months. The international scientific community cheered these advances.

Using photos from NASA and other sources, Nichols took the audience through decades of spacecrafts and space stations, including U.S. Skylabs 1, 2 and 3 and the Soviet Union’s Mir space station launched in 1986. Mir was essentially assembled in orbit between 1986 and 1996. Later managed by Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it served as an example of international partnership and development as astronauts from several countries were sent to Mir to participate in building and maintaining the structure and conducting experiments within it.

The United States led construction of the ISS, which began in 1998. Over the course of 13 years, other countries including Russia and Canada built and supplied components of the station. Nichols marveled at the photo of the finished ISS, reminding the audience, “The International Space Station was constructed once. These modules were never put together on the ground, together as one piece. That would have been impossible to do. There were no second chances.”

The audience viewed photographs of various astronauts going about their everyday routines such as working on a laptop, shaving, exercising, getting ready for sleep, getting a haircut, conducting experiments, preparing food, eating, playing a musical instrument and moving from one module to another. One of the most challenging aspects of life in space is just knowing where everything is. There is plenty of storage space, but every inch of the structure has a purpose and every object must have a function or reason for being there. Within the ISS, weight and volume are too precious and too expensive to allocate other than purposefully.

Nichols noted that the three most frequently asked questions concern normal functions such as eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom. The physical processes of those three actions work the same in space as they do on earth, but the lack of gravity necessitates accommodations such as handholds and footholds, Velcro to secure items, and tying one’s occupied sleeping bag to surfaces at all four corners. Every aspect of the astronauts’ lives is measured and monitored; they are walking science experiments – and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Each of them worked for years to be selected as astronaut candidates, make it through training and be chosen to go to space.

Michelle Nichols

The audience response to Nichols’ presentation, her fourth as a Levy Lecture speaker, was overwhelmingly positive. Viewer Tom Wallace emailed saying, “Amazing! Thanks so much for this beautiful, inspirational and informative presentation!” One anonymous commenter was excited to watch the webinar with a grandchild. Several noted how much they learned by listening to Nichols. A particularly effusive audience member observed, “I wasn’t sure I would be interested in this presentation, but gave it a try. So glad I did!! Excellent speaker that held my attention! Taught me all kinds of new things. Fascinating! Thank you!”

The webinar is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.

By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.