Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What does the International Space Station look like?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I put out a call via twitter and facebook for quick drawings of the ISS from memory. Asking my social media friends for sketches wasn't some kind of contest about accuracy or skill, it was more an investigation into what sorts of visual responses come up when people think about the space station. The (totally unscientific) results reveal much about how we see and understand the built environment in outer space. The International Space Station is modular, and those modules have been moved around and added to over the course of its 16 year operational life so far. The station went through several redesigns, both during its conception and construction. Its image is also tied up with images of space stations in science fiction, speculative futurism, and alternate or parallel histories.

The International Space Station in May 2010, via Wikipedia
This image shows the state of the ISS in 2010, it reflects the current configuration pretty well. The shiny silver cylinders at the front are the American/European/Japanese modules, and the white, more complex pieces towards the rear are the Russian modules. The large truss extends out from the cluster of modules to hold the solar panels, radiators, and storage for more gear.

ISS Modules in 2011 (minus Pirs), via NASA and Wikipedia

Despite its existence in freefall, the station orients itself so that it flies like this all the time, with a clear up and down, front and back, left and right. The crew also uses these directions to orient themselves inside. The photo at the top of the post was taken during the second to last mission of the shuttle Atlantis, there were only three more shuttle flights after this, total, before the program was retired. This is the first problem with imaging the actual ISS, you need a spacecraft to do it, and there haven't been many opportunities since the end of the shuttle program. It's harder to take a good photo from the Soyuz ships, so we rely more on renderings.

Rendering of the ISS in 2011, via NASA
Note already another problem: the big solar panels, arguably the most prominent aspect of the structure, are moveable in two directions. They move to best present themselves to the sunlight as the station orbits the earth once every 90 minutes. The smaller folded radiator panels also move, to better stay in shadow.

Symmetry and Stacks

This drawing was maybe the most accurate one I received, if we think of the front of ISS as the right hand side of the drawing, then even the position of the Soyuz module near the rear is pretty good, although they usually dock on the bottom.

Another pretty accurate one, if we think of this as half the station only.

In the course of the station's construction, modules and other bits were continuously moved around to make room for new modules, so that the station was still able to best function at every phase. There were points in its existence where even the rough symmetry that we currently see was not present.

The ISS in 2006, via NASA

This drawing looks something like the stacked configuration of the station's very early phases.

The ISS in 2000, via NASA
The photo above shows a phase when the ISS consisted of, from top to bottom: an uncrewed Progress supply ship, based the Russian Soyuz design, the Russian Zvezda module, with the Russian Zarya module above, and the American Unity module on top. The drawing also recalls some of the earliest space stations built by the Soviets in the 1970s, the Salyut series.

Salyut 1, 1971
Here's another drawing of a stacked space station:

The Salyut series evolved into the Mir station, which lasted for 16 years until it was de-orbited in 2001.

Mir, circa 1995
The author of this drawing seems to be channeling the Mir's characteristic canted solar panels, which give it a kind of dragonfly look:

Hubble and Skylab

Others who responded may have been unconsciously referencing other existing structures in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope:

Here's the Hubble:

The Hubble Space Telescope
The above drawings also look somewhat like Skylab, which would have been symmetrical if the second solar panel wing had successfully deployed:

Skylab, ca 1975

Alternate Futures

Still other responders to the call may have been thinking of some classic spaceship and space station designs from the commercial world, science fiction, and speculative futurism:

The catamaran-like configuration of the above drawing is reminiscent of Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two / White Knight Two arrangement for air launching their commercial spaceplane:

White Knight Two with Spaceship Two carried in the center
The above sketch also recalls some of the alternate design proposals for the International Space Station. In the 1980s, the Americans at NASA were investigating the creation of a large orbital facility that, at the time, they were calling 'Space Station Freedom'.

One of several design proposals for Space Station Freedom, ca 1986
At the same time, the Russian space program was working on designs for the successor to Mir, which would have been called simply Mir 2. The ISS, as the result of primarily American and Russian partnerships, is effectively a merger between Freedom and Mir 2:

Russian design for Mir 2

This drawing, which seems to show some kind of battle or emergency, looks like some of the spaceship / space station mashups in the movie Iron Sky:

Space battle scene from Iron Sky
(Iron Sky was a pretty awful film, with some pretty great visual effects and design.)

This drawing of a rotating space station is clearly influenced by some of the large scale space colonization proposals investigated by NASA in the 1970s:

A Bernal Sphere, painting by Rick Guidice, 1975, courtesy NASA Ames Research Center
The Bernal Sphere shows up in popular culture a lot, as well, most notably in Babylon 5.

As a side note, I have no idea what's going with this drawing:

Even NASA gets it wrong.

The formal structure of the ISS is so complicated that even official representations of the station often get it wrong. This model by Dragon shows the ISS at its intended final buildout phase:

Dragon scale model of ISS at buildout
To date, the large umbrella-like set of solar panels on a tower at the Russian end of the station has not been built, and it's unlikely that it ever will be. In any case, even if it is built, there certainly won't be a shuttle orbiter docked there, since they have all been stripped for museum display, and will never fly again.

Even NASA's official Android tablet app for the ISS has at least one incorrect detail. The module labeled as 'Docking Compartment 1: Pirs' in the screencap below is in the location that Pirs currently occupies, but the rendered module isn't Pirs. Instead the app is showing Nauka, a Russian module not due for launch until 2015, at the earliest. When it's launched, Pirs will be moved elsewhere.

Screengrab from NASA's ISS Android app, showing Nauka in place of Pirs

Greetings, Humans!

Maybe the most revealing aspect of this exercise came from one responder on faceook, who posted a space station sketch with the note: "Sorry I forgot to draw a stick figure Canadian astronaut playing Major Tom."

This was a reference to the former ISS Commander Chris Hadfield, whose photos and tweets from the station arguably did more to raise awareness on Earth about the ISS, its activities, and its importance since anything past the end of the shuttle program. Commander Hadfield's skillful use of social media probably reached its peak when he posted a video, shot and edited aboard the station, of a cover version of David Bowie's song 'Space Oddity':

Commander Chris Hadfield performs his modified cover of 'Space Oddity', 2013
The poster then changed his mind, and made a drawing of Hadfield anyway, to submit to the experiment:

This brings up a set of important issues. Since the end of the shuttle program, space exploration has no central image to associate itself with. The International Space Station is probably the most complex, most important piece of architecture ever made, but no one knows what it looks like. If an image in our heads of the ISS constantly collapses into science fiction, history, and imagined futures, while the real thing is moving and changing everyday, what can we relate to about this structure, if not its human inhabitants?

Megastructures and Megafauna

A spaceship, especially a spaceplane with wings, with its closed contour, basic symmetries, and forward facing directionality, is something that is easy to have an emotional relationship with. Like classical columns, we empathize with them as fellow bodies in space, performing a task. A complex megastructure like the International Space Station has indistinct boundaries, blurry formal hierarchies, and is constantly changing over time.

The space shuttle orbiter was the last great mascot for outer space, it was a classic charismatic megafauna. The structures we're building now don't have that same capacity to enable us to understand them and form relationships with them as other beings in the world. The way these drawings operate within a complex web of popular culture and speculative history illustrates that there may be other possible relationships we can form with structures besides recognizing them as bodies. If we can learn, visually and emotionally, to empathize and engage with systems in a more meaningful way, we can maybe better understand the complex work that is to be done on Earth and elsewhere.

If humans (or nonhumans) are going to marshal the resources, capital, and political will to explore and inhabit the rest of the solar system, we'll need to get control over this need our minds have to see and understand things visually, as well as emotionally.

(Thanks much to the friends who responded to this experiment with drawings! Including Adam Hu, Andrew Liebchen, Angus, Evan Chakroff, Gary Kachadourian, Jay Owens, Lou Joseph, Michael Petruzzo, Mike Riley, Neil Freeman, and Noah Saber-Freedman!)