|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|
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|
|Salyut 1, 1971|
The Salyut series evolved into the Mir station, which lasted for 16 years until it was de-orbited in 2001.
|Mir, circa 1995|
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|
|Skylab, ca 1975|
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|
|One of several design proposals for Space Station Freedom, ca 1986|
|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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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!)