Phillips Austin Distinguished Lecture 2011

Former astronaut speaks of its construction

By Kelli Hadley
Reprinted with permission from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

The ability to construct an international space station is a level of technology that's "never been seen before," former NASA astronaut John Phillips said Thursday night at a lecture in the University of Idaho Law Building Courtroom.

The lecture was part of the seventh annual Robert B. and Floretta F. Austin Distinguished Lecture in Science series, and was entitled "Heavy Lifting in Space: Building the International Space Station." Phillips talked about his three separate trips to space during his time as a NASA astronaut from 1996 to 2011 - a shuttle flight in 2001, a six-month stay on an international space station in 2005 and another shuttle flight in 2009.

The space station comprises hundreds of major segments and spans about 100 meters, Phillips said. The construction, which is almost finished except for one component, has taken 13 years.

"It's quite a decent piece of work that your tax dollars helped pay for," Phillips said. "... Most of these parts were never bolted together until we got them up in space, so you better get your measurements right."

Phillips said the space station is an international partnership between the U.S. and European agencies, as well as Canadian, Japanese and Russian space agencies.

"One of the real triumphs of the space station, besides the engineering, is the international partnership, and how we make this work," Phillips said. "We've carried on space construction in a way that's never been seen before and probably will not be seen again any time soon."

Phillips spent the six months on the space station with one other person consistently - a Russian astronaut named Sergei Krikalev, who, he said, has spent a total of 803 days in the space station over the course of several trips. He , and still holds the record for the most time spent in space.

Phillips said space construction is done in two ways: space walking and using robotic arms attached to the shuttle. The robots on board are the "workhorse" of assembly missions, he said, and robotic arms are essential to construction. For training, astronauts practice in a virtual reality lab with special gloves and goggles to use the robot arm. To prepare for space walking, Phillips said, astronauts must "train like crazy" in a swimming pool.

One of the most unbelievable parts of being in space, Phillips said, are the views.

"I loved to see places that were historically important, but I knew I'd never set foot on," Phillips said. "You get to see things like Hurricane Rita, which to me was actually very beautiful ... and things like the Aurora Australis, over by New Zealand. Looking at the world is a wonderful thing, you never get tired of it."

At the end of the lecture, Phillips answered questions and presented Scott Wood, dean of the UI college of science, with a montage of pictures from Phillips' old crew at NASA. It included a flag of the state of Idaho and a mission patch, both of which flew in the space shuttle in 2009. Phillips, who earned a Ph.D. from UCLA, retired from NASA this year and now lives in Idaho.