Navigating Through the Cosmos: A Closer Look at the International Space Station's Unseen Challenges

The International Space Station (ISS) – an engineering marvel nearly 220 miles above the Earth, symbol of human ingenuity, brainpower and collaboration – is under threat. Without renewed efforts, it could slip into irreversible failure. The future of the ISS is being undermined by the gritty reality of ageing infrastructure, by time and space. It’s not about the plucky adventure thrill of an astronaut.

Unveiling the MATRIX of ISS's Systemic Struggles

The PrK module is located in the Russian segment of the ISS, but this little room is at the root of most of the recent problems there. Roughly the size of a large refrigerator, and somewhat inexplicably housing the station’s oxygen generator, cracks started appearing in the module’s droop hinge. The sight of these fractures led to concerted efforts by NASA and Roscosmos, their Russian counterparts, to send up control parts via Progress resupply ships. But no one has been able to find a permanent, long-term solution.

The Leaks: A Persistent Threat

The cracks, which could get worse over time, could eventually compromise not only the safety and continued function of the ISS but also threaten the lives of its occupants. Measures to mitigate the situation included locking the hatch leading to the PrK module a few times before resuming investigation, among other procedures, although these simply constitute a stopgap response to an issue that requires more of a response strategy.

The RISK MATRIX in Action

NASA underlines the gravity of the situation by turning to something called a 5x5 ‘risk matrix’. This, a two-by-two grid, quantifies the importance and consequence of risks that could affect spaceflight activities. Such a risk is deemed to have a high likelihood (5) and high consequence (5), a ‘5’ on the risk matrix. This is most definitely not some ‘hyperbolic, internet-speak’ panicky wringing of hands. Instead, it is in reference to a ‘catastrophic failure’ in case of ‘irreversible loss of [ISS] functionality’.

Cooperation Amidst Growing Tensions

Seemingly the most serious of all the leaks, they would be widely denigrated in the public sphere. Yet, we are told they are not particularly alarming and, for good reason, in a situation in which the fragile international partnership that keeps the ISS afloat is of paramount importance in the face of soaring geopolitical tensions, even if it is under the management of a new, more millennial and apparently more amiable Roscosmos president than Dmitry Rogozin.

A Glimpse into the Aging Infrastructure

The Zvezda module (launched more than 20 years ago) is a cruel reminder of the ISS’s ageing plumbing. Recent cracks in 2019 have placed a spotlight on durability and maintenance; without a diagnosis of the problem, mitigation is little more than a guessing game.

Band-Aid Solutions vs. Permanent Fixes

Rather than fixing underlying problems, the current approach depends on short-term patches, a strategy that is not sustainable in the long-term, particularly when there’s not much money to spend, thanks to politics and economics. As the space agencies get ready to bid farewell to an aged space station, with no available manpower to fix the problems, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will be the order of the day.

The Future of International Cooperation in Space

That is not to say that resolving these challenges, and literally keeping the space station in orbit, will not be difficult. The technical challenges are real. But, ultimately, it will take more than technical solutions to ensure we can successfully navigate these complex challenges. The continuing operation of the ISS, despite its ageing infrastructure and the cracks widening in its foundations, offers one example of how international cooperation can support mutual exploration and discovery.

Looking Beyond the Horizon: The ISS and Its Legacy

Looking ahead to the ISS’s inevitable retirement, it’s critical that we don’t squander the hard lessons that the ISS has already taught us, as the future of space research looks increasingly towards new commercial space stations and international projects.

A Deeper Dive into the MATRIX

Yet the hard calculus by which NASA assesses and mitigates the risks to the ISS is worth a close look. The 5x5 risk matrix is not just a tool; it is an emblem of the careful managerialism without which an ISS or a cargo ship or an astronaut stood no chance in a hostile environment. The matrix’s placement of numbers on a potential hazard helps to distinguish situations and to set a course of action. It is about the kind of expertise and managerial prowess that quantum leaps in tech do not guarantee.

For its part, flying over our heads, one of humanity’s most challenging projects, there are these rather magnificent technological weave marks forming a delicate matrix all around: the ISS. The journey of the ISS across the sky highlights ingenuity, cooperation and the uncertainties of collaboration to overcome enormous challenges. This matrix of issues adorning its hull is a very humbling reminder of the vulnerability of human endeavours in the greater cosmos. In cooperation, the ISS’s legacy will serve to inspire generations to continue this work. It is a testament to what we can do when we work together. This essay is based on a talk given at the first event in the Space We Can’t See series on the ISS, held at Science Gallery London, 17 April 2019. If you’re interested in attending or have feedback about future Space We Can’t See pop-up events in London, please drop me an email. This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Space Policy Exchange or our Contributors.

Jun 08, 2024
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