The Importance of Asset Optimization in Space

Sept. 29, 2008
NASA’s Jack Bacon Discusses the Unique Challenges of Doing Research in the International Space Station’s Zero-Gravity Environment

Dr. Jack Bacon, the United States’ lead system integrator of the Zarya, the jointly built spacecraft that forms the central bridge and adapter between all U.S. and Russian technologies on the International Space Station, spoke on the importance of asset optimization in research projects conducted in space in his keynote address to the 2008 Emerson Global Users Exchange.

“Once you get into space, you have to recreate the human condition,” explained Bacon. “In a spacecraft, we start worrying about the problem that we’re using more mass than we have to. You’re sitting inside an aluminum ball. Everything gets miniaturized to fit into the space available, and much of that technology ends up getting commercialized and made available to the public.”

Making all of the necessary materials and components fit into the available space and getting them to their destination orbiting Earth is the delicate balance that must be struck.

“The rules of physics as they exist on Earth no longer apply.” NASA’s Jack Bacon discussed the unique challenges of doing research in the International Space Station’s zero-gravity environment.
“You start with absolutely nothing—that’s the definition of space,” said Bacon.” You are recreating your world, and you have to do it all because nature isn’t going to do it for you. When you think of the technological progress we’ve made over the past 5,000 years, it was because we were able to control nature—fire, wind, electricity and now gravity. Higher-level organisms behave in different ways when you take gravity away.”

Bacon defended the space program and its efforts by acknowledging that as long as 5,000 years ago, our ancestors were trying to connect themselves with the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets. “We’ve built on the shoulders of giants for 5,000 years,” he said, explaining that those who criticize the decades we’ve spent without further exploring the moon need only look at what’s happened in the past 24 hours to see how far we’ve come. “The first commercial operation to put its own payload in orbit, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies), has succeeded in its fourth attempt,” he said. “We are making history every single moment.”

Bacon is a self-described technological historian. His published works include My Grandfathers’ Clock and My Stepdaughter’s Watch. “I use the framework of my family to come to grips with how technology is moving,” he explained. “My grandfather had a career in aviation, and he was seven years old when the Wright brothers flew. My father saw Sputnik fly, and the world was stunned. We are part of the generation that grew up knowing space is a part of our lives.”

What space provides, explained Bacon, is an experimental lab that can only be approximated on Earth. “Once you’re in space, everything changes once you take the gravitational field away,” he explained. “Everything moves around governed by other forces of nature. Without gravity, water, for example, snaps into a cylinder because of surface tension. We go to space in order to try to understand the basis of life on Earth. The rules of physics as they exist on Earth no longer apply.”

Bacon gave several examples of problems on the International Space Station that are specific to conditions in space. The filters have to be cleaned all the time because of floating debris. “A ‘slurper bar’ was created to collect the moisture that comes out of the air conditioning system. We have challenges that constantly need to be fixed, and they often coincide with challenges that we’re facing here on Earth in third-world countries.”

The space station has bus control, explained Bacon, but wireless communication plays its role too. The problem is the spacecraft is constantly bombarded with radio frequencies coming from Earth and from the satellites in orbit sending signals back to Earth.

“In the lifetime of most of us, the space shuttle has been built and has been used to build the largest single item ever put into orbit, the International Space Station,” said Bacon. “It weighs about as much as a freight train. We have eight solar arrays, each one larger than a football field end zone. We have to track the sun to keep our solar arrays pointing at it. We have pieces the size of tennis courts that have to be controlled and moved around. We are finding that the joints on the big solar array are now becoming gummed up with fine dust, so the Chinese are now working on a new lubricant for those joints.”

The International Space Station is a joint project that now includes 15 countries. “We have a blending of cultures,” said Bacon. “But everyone in the program has one common language—risk. Every time we send a crew up, they know they have a one-in-fifty chance of not coming back. Those people risk their lives to increase human knowledge.”

One of the risks, large radiation events from the sun, can be so hazardous, it’s like going to the doctor and getting X-rays every day, he explained. Micrometeoroids, which are the size of sand grains, can tear through the material used in space gloves, so astronauts have now started wearing mittens over the gloves to protect them.

“In the 1980s, we designed a spacecraft that’s very modular and then learned how to assemble it in space,” said Bacon. “We have now been living in space for nearly eight years. We took all of the world’s space efforts and combined them into one spacecraft. We are making enormous progress. We are changing this world day by day by day. We keep looking for answers out there in space. It’s nothing we haven’t been doing for 5,000 years.”