The other issues, while not as dramatic or life-threatening, nonetheless posed major challenges to the future of the ISS and manned space exploration.
“It was a challenging period because we had to stand up and say ‘the mission is important and we have to get on with it.’”
“The next most challenging thing was bringing on the commercial program. I was a big fan of the COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] effort, but the transition from when the shuttle retired to the first flight of those vehicles in a timely fashion took a lot longer than we had anticipated. Between that and the HTV [JAXA H-II Transfer Vehicle], we made it to the first commercial vehicle flight carrying cargo to the ISS,” Suffredini said.
“The last one, which they’re still working on, is transitioning to a station that works more on a commercial model. NASA typically plans things two years in advance and we had to recognize, with six or seven cargo flights a year, we didn’t need as much detail as we evolved to a more customer-oriented process. ISS changed the mindset. With the shuttle, if it wasn’t safe, we didn’t go. But with ISS, we are flying every day and can’t just stop. We decided maybe our experiments didn’t have to be built with such reliability and lack of risk.”
Becoming customer-oriented and implementing a commercial model also meant a change in NASA’s relationship with its international partners, as well as other potential customers of the ISS’ laboratory facilities, giving them a greater voice in future decisions.
“NASA typically plans things two years in advance and we had to recognize, with six or seven cargo flights a year, we didn’t need as much detail as we evolved to a more customer-oriented process. ISS changed the mindset.”
“We involved the partners in any processes we were changing to validate the safety of a payload or commercial spacecraft coming to the ISS. When it came to commercial spacecraft, we already had a sort of template in how we handled HTVs coming to the U.S. Segment. The partners had the latitude to build their launch vehicles and spacecraft however they wanted. With the HTV, the Japanese had to meet our requirements for redundancy, accuracy, reliability once they entered a 2-kilometer sphere around the ISS,” he said.
“That was a lot different than what had been done before, but when we did the commercial providers, that was the mindset we used. The cargo wasn’t really all that expensive, so that was the place to take the risk. The European ATV [Automated Transport Vehicle] docked with the Russian Segment. We were trying to get to a system similar to landing at an airport.”
The new paradigm did not just involve NASA and its international partners, but also all of the contractors working on the space station, another effort in explanation, negotiation, and persuasion Suffredini had to master.
“All of our contractors had to evolve with NASA on how to service our customers. The partners were in the position of seeing how we did it, then deciding what they wanted to do. So NASA took the first steps to encourage and support commercial users and, in the process, making necessary adjustments to do that in a safe way. The partners supported us along the way because we all shared the same environment, but they didn’t have to do it themselves right away. So that transition was a particularly challenging one, with the U.S. doing it first.”
Throughout all of those challenges and his decade-long tenure, the Russian space agency was a close and invaluable partner with NASA, despite a few problems, Suffredini acknowledged, from the unexpected post-Columbia grounding of the shuttle fleet to its planned permanent retirement five years later.
“They were critical. In the end, they were the backbone of the station until we got it assembled part way and were able to provide power; prior to that, from the early flights, they provided all the power. They built the first module, which was American-paid-for, Russian-built. They provided life support and the galley until we got ours up. After the Columbia accident, they stepped up and provided transport for our crews and cargo,” he noted.