Has the ISS Suffered Structural Damage?


NASA canceled a re-boost of the International Space Station scheduled for tomorrow (Feb. 4) and is investigating whether engine firings last month to put the orbital outpost into a higher orbit caused any structural damage that could possibly reduce the station’s useful life. On January 14 the service module (Zvezda) main engines on the station were fired for 2 minutes and 22.4 seconds. The engines cut off abruptly instead of gradually, causing higher than usual structural oscillations. The extra vibrations may have caused damage to the station that could affect its longevity, said NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries in an article in USA Today. “Anytime you impart a vibration to the station it has potential implications” for the station’s solar panels and the connections between the station’s parts, Humphries said.

The cancelled reboost was supposed to bring the station into a better position for the arrival of the Progress M-66 re-supply vehicle, which is scheduled to launch on February 9 and dock on February 13. According to NASA, the decision to cancel the reboost will not affect the Progress flight or the STS-119 shuttle mission, which is scheduled for launch on February 12.

Reportedly, after the re-boost abruptly ended the station’s solar arrays began swaying back and forth, and an interior camera showed views of equipment and cables flopping back and forth.

NASA’s on-orbit daily status reports stated on January 29 that “As of now, evaluation of the external video survey conducted over the last weekend and a review of subsystem data have not shown any off-nominal results” from the higher oscillations. The station was built with extra structural strength, Humphries said, and the current analysis is “just making sure we haven’t eaten into that margin.” Engineers also want to make sure the abrupt stop by the engines won’t occur again.

A view of ISS modules and solar panels.  Credit: NASA
A view of ISS modules and solar panels. Credit: NASA

A Janaury 26 report said that engineers in Moscow “reported that the root cause of the observed strong structural oscillations was an error in parameter settings uploaded to the service module (SM) engine gimballing control system, which then caused a malfunction of a dynamic (frequency) control filter. Both the MCS (Motion Control System) and the filter itself are continuing to function properly. Corrective measures are underway.”

The mean altitude increase was for the January reboost was 5.36 km (2.89 nmi).

The rockets on the station are also used to move the station out of the path of any oncoming debris that could puncture its exterior shield. Humphries said he did not know whether such maneuvers would be performed given the current uncertainty over the rockets’ performance.

The station also needs another reboost in March so it can receive the Russian Soyuz TMA 14 spacecraft carrying two new residents and space tourist Charles Simonyi to the ISS.

Later in 2009, the crew size for the ISS is supposed to increase from three to six to allow more science activities, finally bringing the station to its full potential.

NASA is hoping no structural damage occured that could possibly shorten the life of the station. However, how long the station will be in operation is unclear. NASA has no firm plans to make use of the orbiting laboratory after 2015. Many of the other 13 nations that helped build and operate the outpost want to keep it going until at least 2020.

Sources: USA Today, ISS On-Orbit Status Reports

31 Replies to “Has the ISS Suffered Structural Damage?”

  1. I did not imagine until now how flimsy the ISS
    is! The higher than usual structural oscillations caused by the engines cut off abruptly instead gradually- I would have thought since the ISS is ‘free falling’ in an orbit around the Earth would cause virually no stress and know the propulsion system is a gradual process, whether or not it shuts off abruptly –not the shattering movements of a F22 or M35 fighter/bomber jet. I realize the ISS is a much larger structure, but, that flimsy, and out of most of Earths Atmosphere!!!!! My head is still spinning!!! lol
    I have to get to another ‘of my 3 home ‘puters into another unrelated research so I can clear my head from this feed, Lol

  2. Remember this, the nest time you hear someone proposing turning ISS into a Mars (or other interplanetary) ship.

    Quite apart from a dozen other technical issues, you might use ion engines to do the job, but it would mean slowly spiraling out from Earth as it gradually gets up to escape velocity…and that means spending far too much time in the Van Allen belts. Neither living things, nor solid-state electronics like ionizing radiation very much.

    Apollo, and unmanned probes use high thrust departures which cut across the belts, quickly. ISS could never handle that.

  3. I think this serves as a good reminder of where our space construction abilities lie. The space station is a delicate thing. It wasn’t meant to last forever or be yanked around from orbit to orbit indefinitely.
    This is a difficult thing to do and we need to temper our expectation of perfection on every attempt.

    Unfortunately the only way to make better space stations and outposts is to practice building them the best ways we know how, studying our mistakes, and then making repairs while planning for the next generation.

    Its a long road ahead.

  4. Max-now that my head cleared, you are right about space construction abilities. It was unfortunate the ISS was not build to the original size envisioned due to drastic cutbacks in funding. The envisioned ISS appeared to be a far more robust structure that the current ISS. Far more practice, many more mistakes will be made-but to me, the funding must be there and not suddenly downsized drastically during the partial completion process as this possible structural damage will happen again and again. I am certain of humans abilities to create a very stable,very large, safe ISS, but political forces can hamper our ability to create a such an ISS

  5. Mr. Bill, If you think the ISS is an “enormous waste of resources”,
    look at the total economic impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being estimated at $1.6 trillion.

  6. Hmmm….I read on MSNBC that it was the rockets were gimbaling back and forth that set up the jiggling. I guess we’ll keep watching and see what it was.

  7. Robby: It probably wouldn’t have mattered.
    First, second, and third attempts were (are) almost assured to meet disaster when there is so much we still don’t know about working space.
    The only way to learn is to do it… and do it again, and again until you find out all about the devils in the details.

    My opinion about space is that its no longer about doing one big thing. It has to be a development. A progression of experiences that teach us all the little details so we can build things better.

    It may actually a good thing the ISS has a short lifespan.
    We need to build new outposts and incorporate everything we’ve learned into them, and we won’t get around to that if this stations mission keeps getting extended indefinitely.

  8. Mr. Bill Says:
    February 3rd, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Schultz Says:
    February 3rd, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Now now people – you’re both right! Think of how much actual science such vast sums of money could buy!

  9. The scientific and technical knowledge we’ve gained from constructing, maintaining, and staffing the ISS is invaluable and unique, and we could have obtained it in no other way. We’ve gotten this far with manned habitats, and now can go farther because of the ISS and what we’ve learned from it. It’s no more a waste than any other successful endeavor — and it *has* been successful, a team effort among many nations to create a space station in which good science can be done and we can gain a better understanding of how to live in space. Not a waste at all.

  10. > Think of how much actual science such
    > vast sums of money could buy!

    OK, so what exactly do you suggest? Not doing any space exploration at all, or going directly to Mars (or further) and learning from the mistakes there? I do not think that any of these alternatives is wise. I wholeheartly agree with Max, that the space exploartion is a long process.

  11. Max, you’re absolutely right.

    In any case, it would be nice to get out of it something more than an exercise to hone our space-building capabilities. It would be great to have finally some science done, which can only happen when there’s enough crew up there to allow them to do something other than maintenance.

    Still, the simple fact that the ISS is the largest and more complex structure ever built in orbit is in itself a success. No question about it.

  12. Max, I agree on your statements- construction in space is extremely dangerous and far more difficult than most people can imagine.Sudden exposure to the Sun then sudden exposure to the chill of outer space is
    very stressful for any manned space vehicle, and this happens so many times per day!!.
    I would just like a project even if it is small, to be completed to see what stresses and problems will occur for further development- but if the funding is abruptly cut drastically while in the 1/2 stage of construction, then any possible data can be lost or deemed worthless. As I’ve indirectly inferred on other feeds, safe traveling throught the solar system is centuries down the road. Thank you for the information you’ve state to me.

  13. Yael Dragwyla- Yael, you along with Max I agree it is very invaluable source of knowledge and experience with the ISS program, it was just the beginning when I said I didn’t realize how ‘ flimsy’, actually I should have used the word ‘delicate’, such a large station can be, the more I thought about it, the more I have to remind myself about the environment for such a station and is very harsh and unforgiving.- although I am a serious amature astronomer and knew about the dangers above most of our protective atmosphere. No, I never said it wasteful, just a momentary shock. There will have to be many stepping stones in research and development and a long time before such a station is deemed relatively safe and suitable. (far too much dangerous space junk out there to say ‘safe’-but that’s another matter) Thank you for your post.

  14. when was the last time we as a people built something that lasted? if you want to explore space, an extremely hostile environment, build a vehicle that can stand up to more than a vibration or two

  15. Why is everyone so pessimistic?
    The ISS has not fallen apart.
    All that has happened is
    that there has been some vibrations and NASA is
    is investigating IF there is structural damage.
    I am betting that the lifespan of the ISS has not
    been shortened.

  16. I love people who complain about the space industry. They have absolutely no idea, they probably rely on 15 things this industry has made available to them, and if they were taken away, would gripe about that as well.

    If you think we aren’t still learning things from the ISS, then you aren’t doing enough research to make an accurate statement.

    Also, we are nowhere near being able to send humans to Mars. Heck, we are at least 8 years away from sending anyone back to the moon.

  17. This is why people won’t be interested in space exploration. They want to see trips to the Moon (which were possible WITHOUT a space station) and trips to Mars. Low earth orbit is getting quite boring.

  18. “This is why people won’t be interested in space exploration. They want to see trips to the Moon (which were possible WITHOUT a space station) and trips to Mars. Low earth orbit is getting quite boring.”

    Research and engineering tend to be. While inspiration is somethig one hopes for, we don’t do it for ‘excitement.’ Everyone loves Hubble, for example, because it produces (mostly) visible-light pictures they can all relate to. Likewise Mars rovers.

    But how much are we aware of assorted research satellites and deep-space probes whose work and results are far more esoteric and not at all ‘sexy,’ but just as important. (Huh? Cosmic Microwave Background? Heliopause?)

    Even when there’s more ‘science’ done on ISS, it’ll also mostly be un-sexy laboratory stuff. IT *is* a lab, after all…

  19. Oh, I don’t know about that. Microgravity experiments, especially in the biological realm, do tend to have a high level of “sexyness”.

    Particularly if they involve reproduction, of course 😀

  20. Frank Grover-After reading posts on this feed and have gained more knowledge about issues not related with ISS, as far as technology is concerned, we have learned much what the assorted reseach satillites
    have given us-the last 20 years of data from these reseach satilites has given us far more data about the real Universe than the combined years since the invention of the telescope. Every new discovery made has given me a much better appreciation how violent the real Universe is, on some other feed, I’ve stated I doubt if humans or other advanced lifeforms can travel outside their protective ‘cocoon’ of the Sun or other type G or K heliosphere. For anyone to say low Earth orbit is ‘boring’ , I would say most people would love to be in low Earth orbit. Too many people believes in these rediculous SiFi movies as the real thing- if they knew how real ‘boring’ it can be day after day of drifting about halfway to Mar and the timeframe, and the ever present dangers involved , most people will decline. If there is a serious deadly problem with a manned craft halfway to Mars, the people will have to be aware they will NOT be rescued!!! Every problem with satillites gives us more data for research to build it better, there will be many, many steps to take to have a relatively safe ISS or the incredibly much more difficult manned flight to Mars

  21. Mr. Zvezdichko, did you interview Dr. Park in person or did he send a robotic mission of which he claims that they can do better than humans?

  22. Is that interview also published somewhere on the web? (I cannot understand Bulgarian) What did you or your employer make of it?

  23. Yes, it’s published on my website (click on my nick). You can use Google translator.

    This interview gave me no money. My website is open and all information is freely available for use.

  24. “Frank: Bob Park told me that there’s no science aboard ISS, when I interviewed him”

    This suggests otherwise:



    ‘Spaceflight,’ the monthly publication of the British Interplanetary Society also lists ISS research (and other) activities Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find an on-line version of it, even at the BIS site.

    But this is exactly why I said *more* science…

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