US Navy Captain and MIT alumnus William M. Shepherd recently completed his historical role as commander of the first International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 1 crew.
The mission fulfilled the goals envisioned nearly eight years ago by the Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station, headed by MIT President Charles M. Vest. The committee recommended that the United States include Russia in the international partnership, use the Russian Soyuz crew-return vehicle and incorporate an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees to allow launches from both the United States and Russia.
Capt. Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts were launched on October 31, 2000 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery on March 21, completing a mission of nearly 141 days in space.
"The desire to settle a frontier continent, build railroads coast to coast, the opening of the Panama Canal -- these are things that have strongly influenced who we are as a nation, and exploring space is a logical extension of that. We have to continue to extend our vision for space exploration," said Capt. Shepherd, who earned the ocean engineer degree and SM in mechanical engineering in 1978. "It's very likely that the day of our launch last fall will be the last day that humans will live only on planet Earth."
Capt. Shepherd was a manager on the ISS program when the Vest Committee made its final recommendations. "The recommendations of the Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station were important and helped show that the space station was technically feasible and could be accomplished with the resources we had available," he said.
"It's been a lot harder than we expected to work with the Russians. But [there's] great benefit in being able to compare our program and theirs. We're learning a lot from the Russians," he said.
Capt. Shepherd was responsible for operating the first scientific experiment aboard the ISS, developed by engineers at MIT. "MIT's MACE-II [Middeck Active Control Experiment] was the first active US scientific investigation performed on the International Space Station," he said. "We got a bunch of successful runs. I think MACE-II is characteristic of the kind of experiment you can run on the space station. Performing scientific investigations like MACE-II on board the station allows for successful interaction, almost in real time, between the astronauts in space and investigators on the ground."
MACE-II is designed to test techniques for predicting and controlling the motion and vibrations of space structures in microgravity.
"In the past, researchers have gone to great efforts to try to emulate the space environment in their laboratories on earth. With a facility like the International Space Station, we now have the opportunity to emulate the research laboratory in space," said Professor David W. Miller, co-principal investigator of the MACE-II experiment and Director of MIT's Space Systems Laboratory.
"MACE was really designed from a laboratory perspective, with highly reconfigurable hardware and software, to support testing under a variety of conditions and with significant real-time interaction between researchers on the ground and the astronauts in space," said Professor Miller.
Based on the successful operation of the MACE-II experiment, NASA made the decision to continue the experiment aboard the ISS. Astronaut Susan Helms, a member of the ISS Expedition 2 crew, is responsible for operating the experiment during the second long-duration mission. With the recent addition of KU-band telemetry capability on the ISS, scientists will be able to receive data shortly after the experiment is performed, rather than waiting weeks for the return of disk drives after the conclusion of the mission.
MIT is using MACE-II to test a variety of software techniques that could be used to operate the next generation of space telescopes. "Understanding how complex space structures behave in zero gravity will improve our ability to do accurate pointing of space telescopes and isolate the telescope optics from onboard vibrations," said Professor Miller.
With the completion of the first ISS mission, MIT graduates have flown on 47 space missions, or more than one-third of the nation's space flights.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 2, 2001.