Defense Media Network

ISS: The Program Managers Speak

The International Space Station (ISS) can trace its origins to the early 1980s and two previous planned orbital platforms: the U.S. Space Station Freedom and the Soviet Union’s Mir 2. While the United States and the Soviet Union had been Cold War and Space Race rivals, they agreed to a joint venture, including other international partners who had been involved with the U.S. program since the 1980s.

In 1994, a new NASA program manager, Randolph H. “Randy” Brinkley, was appointed to bring new leadership and a cohesive structure to the International Space Station effort, including ensuring the U.S. and Russian space agencies – NASA and Roscosmos – followed through on their commitment to fully cooperate in the design, construction, and ultimate permanent manning of the space station.

That also included sharing responsibilities for transporting crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit and meeting the requirements and expectations of America’s other international partners: ESA (European Space Agency, representing 22 countries), JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).


Randolph H. “Randy” Brinkley – 1994-1999

“ISS was a completely new space station. NASA spent a couple of months looking at redesigns, figuring out how to incorporate the Russian elements being built for Mir 2 and find a way that would ultimately work,” recalled Randy Brinkley, the first of five U.S. ISS program managers (PMs) to date. “Several months went by with three different teams looking at different configurations, with and without the Russians.

“At the end of the day, the configuration that exists today was selected and the decision was made to move forward, including how to get the Russians on board at the State Department level, intergovernmental agreements, MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding] and convincing the Japanese, Europeans, and Canadian partners as well! The U.S. owned more than 50 percent, but there were all kinds of things that had to be dealt with.”

ISS is not an official name, on the order of Freedom, Skylab, or Mir, but a description of the platform.

“They wouldn’t let us name the station itself, so we named every element ourselves. Zarya, which means ‘sunrise,’ was the Russian segment and the first element in space; Unity was the first U.S. node that recognized bringing the Russians on board; Destiny was the lab, referring to the science that was the reason it was being built,” Brinkley explained.

Randy Brinkley MPLM transfer ISS web

Participants pose for a photo at the Space Station Processing Facility ceremony transferring the “Leonardo” Multipurpose Logistics Module (MPLM) from the Italian Space Agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), to NASA. From left, they are astronaut Jim Voss, European Space Agency astronauts Umberto Guidoni of Italy and Christer Fuglesang of Sweden, NASA International Space Station Program Manager Randy Brinkley, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, ASI President Sergio De Julio, and Stephen Francois, director, International Space Station Launch Site Support at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). NASA photo

Brinkley believes establishing a good working relationship with the Russians and maintaining it was both his biggest challenge and his greatest achievement as PM. It went beyond politics and language to major cultural differences on top of the technical and operational challenges.

“Out of those efforts we came up with the slogan – ‘We Will Find a Way’ – that the Russians bought into. It came from a conversation with my Russian counterpart when I said ‘if we find a way,’ and he stopped me and said, ‘No, Randy, we must find a way.’ And that became our slogan,” he said. “The technical issues, frankly, were secondary to the bigger issues.

“We were in the middle of the change from the USSR to the Russian Federation. Then you had to use metric and do it all in real time. Not any of the space station elements had ever been tested on the ground to see if they would actually fit and work – the first time we did it was in space. Another huge problem was analytical evaluation versus test-to-failure. The Russian approach was to build 10 prototypes and test seven of them to failure, but we couldn’t afford that. So, we had to do design analysis, which they never did.”

Brinkley believes establishing a good working relationship with the Russians and maintaining it was both his biggest challenge and his greatest achievement as PM.

The cultural differences – flavored by each nation’s politics – ran deep. And while often frustrating – on both sides – Brinkley said all parties involved in the program knew the only way to get the station built “was to sit down, ignore where we came from, and figure out the right thing to do.”

“It really involved building trust and overcoming our cultural differences. I thought they would welcome it all because they were empowered, but it actually made them culturally uncomfortable. They couldn’t make a decision; every night they had to call back to Moscow to make sure every decision was approved. They were on a close leash. We couldn’t really get anything done Monday through Thursday, but on Friday afternoon they would do something. The politicians were no real help.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...