“They’re very dedicated professionals, great engineers, highly educated. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with the Russians, but once you do, it will last a lifetime. But you have to earn their respect; you couldn’t just show up or, if you couldn’t make a meeting, send somebody else, because it was all about personal relationships. We never could have built it without them – and neither could they. So we all had to buy into finding a way to get it done.”
“It really involved building trust and overcoming our cultural differences.”
They also had to overcome doubt and criticism from politicians, the media, and the public in each team’s home country.
“There were so many critics who said there was no way to overcome all the obstacles. When we started, nobody believed we would ever build the space station, much less launch it or that it would actually operate. But we did build it, we did launch it – with no spare – and it actually worked. It’s probably one of the 10 great engineering feats in modern history, if not in history in general.”
For his part, Brinkley said getting there was a matter of “surrounding myself with the right people, listening to them and recognizing from day one that the only thing I knew was how much I didn’t know. I tried to provide leadership and expertise and be there for them. I was an engineer in the Marine Corps, but that’s not my expertise. That was being a squadron commander and fighter pilot, not so much on design. My forte was operational.”
Brinkley gave the Russians major credit for making the ISS possible and keeping the program alive through a series of problems that otherwise would have derailed it. He gives equal credit to the Space Shuttle, without which, he said, the station never could have been built. And he believes the ISS itself to be a vital part of any future manned space exploration – long-duration flights and habitats to conquer the known and unknown hazards of living and working on Mars, in the asteroid belt, and on the moons of the outer planets.
“I think the space station, in terms of what we’ve learned about being able to operate in low-Earth orbit for extended periods of time, will be better recognized when we leverage that experience for the next step in space exploration, venturing out to Mars and elsewhere. One hundred years from now, who knows, but I think history will be fairly kind to the ISS,” he predicted.
But first, the program must survive perhaps the most difficult and game-changing event in the history of manned space: commercialization.
“I think the space station, in terms of what we’ve learned about being able to operate in low-Earth orbit for extended periods of time, will be better recognized when we leverage that experience for the next step in space exploration, venturing out to Mars and elsewhere.”
“It will be interesting to see how NASA and the government transition the space station to a commercial entity and their ability not to think like a government, but to find a way for it to be commercially viable. To this day, one of the biggest impediments of the station returning the original investment is not the space station itself, but the cost of access to space, which remains extremely high,” he concluded.
“At some point in time, how the space station does overall will involve reducing the cost of getting to space and back – especially back. It’s still very costly to bring things downhill. And the commercial programs are breaking that paradigm. Pound-to-orbit is dramatically less today. Instead of paying $150 million to launch a satellite, now you can do it for half that. But it still gets really costly when that pound is somebody’s dinner.”
Tommy W. Holloway – 1999-2002
Space Shuttle Program Manager Tommy Holloway, who previously was the first director of the Shuttle/Mir program, was asked to move over to the space station program when Brinkley retired in 1999. ISS was nearing the end of a two-year hiatus that followed the launch of the first two major elements by Russia (Zarya, providing attitude control, translation, electricity, and communications) on Nov. 20, 1998, and the United States (Unity) two weeks later. The shuttle-delivered Unity mission also included the first crew to enter the ISS: shuttle (STS-88) Commander Bob Cabana, with Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.
Holloway was still settling into the job when the Russians launched the third module (Zvezda, providing sleep stations, toilet, kitchen, environmental control, exercise equipment, and communications) on July 12, 2000. The Zarya/Unity then rendezvoused and docked with Zvezda, making the ISS habitable for the first time. Permanent occupation began on Nov. 20, 2000, with the Soyuz launch of Expedition 1 (William Shepard, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko).
Although it may have appeared things were back on track, Holloway found himself addressing three significant problems.