The International Space Station is the most expensive structure created by people – and in just six years it may no longer be: it will fall into the Pacific Ocean. The BBC found a man who is trying to save her. Make a list of the most experienced and experienced astronauts in the world, and the astrophysicist Michael Fowl will be somewhere in the forefront. For six missions, the British astronaut NASA spent more than a year in space. Fole flew on the shuttle and Soyuz, lived on the Mir space station and commanded the International Space Station. He made four space walks, spending more than 23 hours in open space in Russian and American spacesuits. They included an epic eight-hour walk to upgrade the computer on the Hubble Space Telescope.
“I was very, very, very, very lucky,” he laughs. “Most astronauts envy me, so I probably will not be more in space.”
Fole was on board the “World” in June 1997, when the uncontrolled “Progress” crashed into the station, dashed the solar panel and broke the hull. Hearing an alarm signal warning of loss of air, power failure and rotation of the station, Foul worked with two Russian colleagues to prepare the Soyuz capsule and close the damaged module.
Holding his thumb in the station window and studying the movement of the stars, Fowle used his physics skills to estimate the station’s rotation speed so that the PCO could activate the engines and bring the station back under control.
Quickly thinking crew not only saved the “World”, but also guaranteed the continuation of the mission. Over the next few weeks, Foul worked with his colleagues, restoring the station, controlling its power, and also washing the condensate out of the inner walls for hours.
“I did not feel that our lives were being threatened for longer than ten seconds during the clash,” says Fowle. “I only felt that there was always the opportunity to save us, and this feeling told me that you do not need to panic, do not be afraid.”
20 years have passed, and Foul, after saving one station, wants to save another: the ISS.
For the first time, Richard Hollingham of the BBC met Fowle at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in November 1998 shortly after the launch of the first stage of the ISS, the Zarya module. He represented NASA astronauts, who were to defend the project. At that stage, he went beyond the budget released, got out of the schedule and was buried in political disputes.
ISS – a joint venture of the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada – has been providing jobs for people since 2000. During this time, the cost of the project has grown to an impressive $ 100 billion.
The station has proved that a person can live and work in space for a long time and conduct valuable scientific experiments in orbit. She also showed that countries that can not find a common language on earth – like the US and Russia – work together perfectly in the sky.
“It is in this cooperation, in this strengthening of the partnership, that the value of the project like the ISS lies,” says Fole, who, flying there on his own in 2003, is one of two astronauts from the international commission overseeing the ISS policies and operations.
But the station days are numbered. Financing by various space agencies involved in the project is stipulated only until 2024. This means that in just six years the most expensive structure in history will go to feed fish in the Pacific Ocean.
The countdown went.
“From year to year, Russia sends fuel to fill the tanks of the ISS service module, so that the space station can be removed from orbit,” says Fowle. “This is the current plan – and I think that this is a bad plan, a huge waste of a fantastic resource.”
But national priorities are changing, but there is no more money. With the approach of the 50th anniversary (in July 2019) of the first manned landing on the Moon, Donald Trump decided to instruct NASA to return to the Moon. The plan calls for the construction of a space station or a “lunar lock” in the Moon’s orbit, and then the construction of a base on the surface. This ambitious project is supported by Ian Werner, head of ESA, and Roskosmos. China has its own plans for the moon.
Although none of the proposals were fully appreciated, it seems unlikely that the space agency will be able to find additional funds for lunar missions in addition to its current missions. Now at the disposal of NASA about 8 billion dollars for the development of missions and 1.4 billion dollars for the maintenance of the space station and investment in a new spacecraft – Space Launch System. And if the US government does not find additional funds for NASA, or there will be cuts in other programs – both are unlikely – any money for the development of the moon and the construction of the lunar base will have to come from existing funds.
“There are too many projects, and all of them are fighting for money,” says Fowle. “NASA can not go to the Moon or Mars, while still providing the ISS with crews, cargo, food and supplies.”
Since leaving NASA, Fowl has been working in the private sector of new aviation technology and believes that commercial operators can intervene and provide the ISS with a future. “I hope that the business environment will be able to present a business plan that will partially support the ISS in space, preventing it from drowning in the Pacific,” he says. “You have to come up with innovative ways to keep it in space.”
ISS already supports some commercial operations. Private company NanoRacks conducts experiments with equipment at the station for private customers. The station is also increasingly used to launch small satellites into orbit, which are transported on commercial spacecraft like SpaceX Dragon. The Russian space agency provides an opportunity for tourists to visit the station and even plans to build a hotel module.
Although most of the space business is still directly or indirectly supported by governments and taxpayers, the real privatization of space is just beginning. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, recently carried out a successful test of its new missile. And space company Virgin Galactic is dreaming with suborbital launches of its Spaceship 2.
Meanwhile, Foul is developing his own campaign to rescue the ISS and says that he plans to launch websites to support his efforts. He says that we need to continue to put pressure on the space agencies to ensure that they continue to fund the program.
“Every engineer, manager, astronaut or astronaut who worked for the ISS considers it such a huge achievement for humanity that its work can not stop,” he says. However, unlike the private sector, Fowle fears that in 2024, space agencies – and politicians who finance them – will destroy the greatest creation of mankind, and at the same time invest millions of people from around the world.
“My hopes have been broken thousands of times,” says Fole. “I thought we would be on the moon by the time I hit 35 and on Mars when 45, but how naive I was.”