When the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February 2003, it was clear to the nation that the future of the Shuttle Program was placed in doubt. What many people may not have realized is that the Space Shuttle tragedy also marked the greatest challenge to date in the history of the International Space Station. But thanks to efforts led by Space Station Program Manager, William Gerstenmaier, the Space Station has survived, allowing continued research and preservation of its unique capabilities for the future.
The Space Station is a research laboratory in low earth orbit designed for conducting scientific research to help improve life on Earth and provide the knowledge necessary to enable human exploration beyond low earth orbit. The problem is that it was designed to be assembled and serviced specifically by the Space Shuttle fleet.
In the days immediately following the accident, it became clear that the Space Station crew of three could not be supported indefinitely without the Space Shuttle. Gerstenmaier and the Space Station program overcame enormous technical and programmatic challenges to develop plans to keep a reduced crew onboard the Space Station. Under his leadership, the Space Station support team developed innovative ways of continuing safe operations with fewer resources. Engineering teams reviewed onboard system performance status in light of the fact that some critical spares could not be delivered on Russian re-supply spacecraft. Hazards were reviewed to ensure that additional risk caused by the grounding of the Space Shuttle fleet was minimal.
Gerstenmaier’s guidance to the Space Station Program represents his strong commitment to the Space Station community. The Space Station Program had to overcome obstacles in working programmatic agreements with Russian partners to provide all the necessary re-supply vehicles, and with the other international partners over the delay in planned assembly. Gerstenmaier provides unending encouragement to the team when dealing with technical issues that arise. An example is a failure of the exercise treadmill, which had the potential to present additional risks to the health of the crew. Through Gerstenmaier’s leadership, the team identified risk mitigation measures and selected appropriate hardware that was quickly flown to the Space Station allowing the crew onboard to repair the treadmill.
All these measures taken together have allowed the Space Station to operate safely and stay continually crewed. Working the issues with limited re-supply capability has increased the knowledge base of how to sustain future spacecraft traveling farther from Earth. Continuing research onboard the Space Station has provided additional insight into physical and psychological impacts of long duration spaceflight on the human body.
The International Space Station and NASA’s new space exploration initiative are designed to answer profound scientific philosophical questions and inspire the youth of America to pursue scientific and engineering careers. Through William Gerstenmaier’s outstanding leadership, Space Station operations are continuing today to provide important scientific information in support of NASA’s mission and vision and the aspirations of our nation and humankind.