“If we decide to go to Mars – and when I say we, the U.S. can’t do that by ourselves – it should be an international partnership, like the ISS. Behind everything we did in space, the overriding thing was flying people into space for the glory. But that day has passed for this country, and now it needs to be a benefit-driven system, which means commercialization paying a big part of it is probably a good thing. It is a transition that is hard for some of the elements in NASA to make, but I think it will be huge from this point forward.”
William H. Gerstenmaier – 2002-2005
Despite problems with funding, support, language and cultural differences, and the metric system, the most difficult – and potentially program-ending – event in the ISS’ history during its first decade was the loss of Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. The resulting two-and-one-half-year grounding of the shuttle fleet consumed most of the tenure of the ISS’ third program manager, William Gerstenmaier, who later became associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
ISS assembly had continued on schedule until the Columbia accident. The hiatus on assembly that resulted was accompanied by a reduction in crewmembers to two at a time to decrease the logistics required to support the station. For 29 months, until shuttle flights resumed with STS-114 on July 26, 2005, Roscosmos was responsible for all ISS resupply missions, and for crew rotation for 41 months, until STS-121 on July 4, 2006, when the number of crew aboard the station returned to three. The work by the NASA team to assess the consumables needed was a huge undertaking. There was no idea when shuttle flights would return. Keeping a crew safe on ISS for this period was a tribute to the amazing ISS team.
But the post-Columbia grounding was merely a preview of what was to come – and what Gerstenmaier and his team had to prepare the program to incorporate.
“It was an interesting time. We were given the decree that the Space Shuttle was going to be retired at some point fairly soon. The Space Shuttle was a critical element of being able to supply the space station, as well as to actually assemble the space station. We were really scrambling on how we were going to replace the capability of the shuttle with a new system and a new vehicle. We had to figure out the right phasing and work through all of the political activities associated with that,” he recalled.
Despite problems with funding, support, language and cultural differences, and the metric system, the most difficult – and potentially program-ending – event in the ISS’ history during its first decade was the loss of Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003.
“Under [NASA] Administrator Sean O’Keefe, the Vision for Space Exploration was established, and the Vision framework involved retirement of the Space Shuttle and a goal of lunar exploration. Under Administrator [Michael D.] Griffin [O’Keefe’s successor], the details of Vision were developed. This included the exact number of remaining shuttle flights and details of an exploration strategy – Ares I, Ares V [rockets], Altair lunar lander, and Orion [Crew Exploration Vehicle] – that began with the Moon.”
The plan included designing and building a new four-man spacecraft – the Orion, part of the Constellation Program – to complete assembly of the ISS, return to the Moon no later than 2020, and eventually take humans to Mars. Work on the Orion spacecraft and its Ares rockets, named after the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mars, began in 2005.
“Mike wanted to expedite that activity to actually move a little bit faster than what had been done under O’Keefe. He was looking to try to ramp down the Space Shuttle Program even faster than the previous administrator had done. We were under a lot of pressure to try to figure out creative ways to finish construction of the ISS and keep the space station supplied and functional and able to do research,” Gerstenmaier said.
“We also had to convince our international partners that NASA would support their module delivery with shuttle and that we had a way through commercial cargo to support long term ISS research for NASA and our partners.”
“We were under a lot of pressure to try to figure out creative ways to finish construction of the ISS and keep the space station supplied and functional and able to do research,” Gerstenmaier said.
The new approach also required major changes in the way NASA did business. The ISS was designed with hardware that was intended to be returned to the ground, repaired, then flown back up on the shuttle. Without it, a completely different tactic was required for ISS hardware.