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Sun, 28 Feb 2010

Sleight of Hand

"Oww! Damn!"

Despite having spent more than a month on board, Mike Allen still managed to forget just how confined his rack space was. Not unlike being on board a submarine, his sleeping compartment was just adequate for his height, and less than three feet from bottom to top. Inevitably, each day's wake-up call resulted in Mike bumping his head as he sat up too quickly in the still-darkened space.

Mike unzipped his sleeping bag and opened the compartment door. He was the first one awake on this shift, and his colleagues were not yet up and about. As the commander, he always felt it was important to set a good example and be ready for duty when the daily updates started to come in from the ground.

Allen was the commander of the latest crew stationed on board the International Space Station, and he felt he was fortunate to be there. He had been accepted into NASA's astronaut corps in 2015, and had already served on two previous ISS crews. This was his first mission as a commander, and he was anxious to do a good job. As he pulled on new clothes for the day and floated over to the galley for breakfast, he reflected on just how the mission of the ISS had changed over the years.

Originally, the International Space Station was a destination without a formal mission, an outgrowth of Cold War thinking started in the Reagan administration. Eventually it evolved into an international partnership, ostensibly as a way to share the costs with NASA's international partners, but in reality as a kind of consolation prize to the Russians following the collapse of the Soviet Union -- a way to keep Russian rocket scientists employed in peaceful endeavors instead of selling their expertise to militants, terrorists, or rogue nations bent on acquiring advanced missile technology. The Americans provided the funding, contracting with the Russians for modules, systems, and equipment. In addition, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in late 2010, the Russians provided crew transportation on their Soyuz spacecraft back and forth to the station.

But the growing American budget deficits through the middle of the decade meant that there was less money to pay to others to provide taxi and trucking services to the station. The Russians, facing their own economic troubles, balked at picking up a larger share of the costs -- they joined the European Union in 2016, and were now subject to strict economic rules, so space exploration was an easy and obvious target for Russian budget cuts.

Enter the Chinese.

The Chinese had been involved in manned space flight since the flight of Shenzhou 5 in 2003. Their announced long-term plans had always involved lunar landing missions, a space station, and eventually manned flights to Mars. Around the same time as the Russians were backing down from large-scale participation in the ISS, China realized that joining the ISS effort would be a cost-effective way to acquire experience and technological spaceflight expertise, and offered to provide transportation services to the Station for less than NASA had been paying the Russians. In return, the Chinese were made full partners in the ISS. In fact, Allen's predecessor as the commander of the last ISS mission was Yang Liwei, the senior and most celebrated of all the taikonauts, China's first man in space. "I don't understand why your country would be willing to spend billions of dollars building this magnificent facility, only to abandon it and let it burn up in the atmosphere," Yang had told Allen several years earlier, when the two had met at a training class. "In my country we build for the future. In China, a dam is built to last for hundreds of years. And, of course, our walls have lasted for thousands of years," he added with a wink and a smile.

In addition, the Chinese wanted something practical in return for their support of the ISS effort. So besides using the station as a way station for their earth orbital missions, and learning the techniques and technologies of assembly in earth orbit, the Chinese also developed Kuafu modules for the station, man-tended laboratory modules that used automated equipment to do research and development on commercial projects, primarily physics and materials research on semiconductors and similar computer-related technologies. Because the modules had their own power supplies and were not pressurized, they did not need to be assembled into the station itself; instead they were kept close to the station using a system of tethers and small maneuvering jets. Mike always thought they resembled nothing so much as a small herd of obedient dogs being walked on a leash behind the ISS. When a laboratory's experiments needed intervention or were completed, the tethers were winched close to the station, where they could be serviced by a brief spacewalk, or simply grabbed by the robotic arm and carried to an outgoing cargo ship for return to earth.

Research and results were published and shared equally among all the ISS partners. This was one of the fundamental principles of participation, and one to which all the participating nations, including the Chinese, willingly subscribed. The Europeans (now including the Russians) demanded it as a minimum condition for their continued support of the project.

All this and more passed quickly through Mike's mind as he entered the galley to prepare his breakfast and catch up on the day's news, notes, and emails from the ground. Early on he had tried to separate personal activities like eating from "work", but found that there was just not enough time for that. Besides, he soon realized that reviewing the day's agenda around the table was a good way to get everyone on his shift "on the same page", getting questions answered and ironing out any potential difficulties. On today's shift, Mike would be joined by Qi Faren, the lead engineer of the two-man Chinese crew, and Valery Poliakov, a Russian now representing the European Space Agency. Allen and Poliakov would mostly tend to housekeeping duties, rerouting ammonia lines and power cables. Qi would be alone much of the time, monitoring the latest round of experiments in one of the Kuafu laboratories. After finishing his breakfast, Qi set off for the Columbus module, from where the Kuafu laboratories were operated; Allen and Poliakov chatted while finishing the last of their breakfast.

"I don't know how you can eat that stuff so early in the day," Poliakov teased Allen. He was genuinely puzzled by Allen's predilection for having shrimp cocktail for breakfast nearly every day.

"Valery Mikhailovitch, you have to understand that out of all the food they send up to us, the shrimp cocktail is absolutely the best, for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it's got that cocktail sauce, which is a lot tastier than the stuff that comes in a lot of the regular meals. Second, in order to fit into the packaging, the food techs literally hand-pick each one of the shrimp that go into it, so they're whole, unblemished, perfect. Third, shrimp cocktail requires only minimal processing so it's closest in texture and taste. Fourth, I just really like shrimp. And fifth, it beats that canned slop you have to eat every morning."

"Okroshka? What's wrong with Okroshka?" Poliakov demanded, feigning being insulted.

"Ugh! Sour milk, turnip, parsley, boiled chicken, and pickled cucumber soup? For breakfast? I'd need at least four revs to get my mind used to the idea of putting something like that in my stomach," Allen retorted, grinning.

"Ah, as the old Russian proverb says, 'All your taste is in your mouth.'" And Poliakov laughed, deep and hearty, slapping Allen on the back hard enough to send him flying out of the stirrups they used to stay anchored to the table. Allen laughed too, although he did not completely appreciate Poliakov's ebullient physicality in a zero-g environment. And the two pushed off together for the Harmony module and their chores.

"Qi was awfully quiet today -- again," Allen remarked as he and Poliakov wrestled with a recalcitrant power cable deep in the station's bowels. As station commander, he was always concerned with anything going on with any of the crew that might effect efficiency and morale. And he also knew that it was usually better to get a second opinion about such things.

"Qi has never been a great one for small talk," Poliakov replied.

"Yes, but haven't you noticed that neither he nor Sun talk much anymore about their experiments? It's only if they have a problem or need something that they even talk about it." Sun Laiyan was the second member of the Chinese team, a physicist, who was, if anything, more introverted than Qi. "And having to hook up that liquid nitrogen tank to Kuafu Number 4 a few weeks ago? That was odd. What's going on that they need low temperatures like that?"

"Mikhail Petrovich," (Poliakov always referred to his American crewmates in the Russian familiar form, using a Russianized version of their first and middle names), "it is not for us to worry about. We are doing a disservice to our agencies and our crewmates if we are anything other than simply being efficient at our jobs. So the Chinese lab wants liquid nitrogen? Who cares? Makes no difference to me."

"I don't like it. It's just weird how in the last three weeks we hear less and less from the taikonauts. Even their ground conversations with the Beijing control center are carried on encrypted channels now."

"We too use encrypted channels sometimes."

"Only for private medical conferences. Any pretty rarely at that. I don't like it," Allen repeated. Secrets, he thought, have no place in space. It was just too hostile an environment for anyone on the crew to hold back any information from any of the others. Yes, a lot of the research that went on by the Chinese crews for the last several years was ostensibly labeled "Commercial", but even with that, most of the scientific results from it were still disseminated publicly. And in spite of all that, the crews themselves always discussed freely whatever projects were currently underway. But now that seemed to be changing for the Chinese crew. Not knowing what was going on bothered Allen, and he decided to do something about it.

Later in the shift, Allen drifted over to the Columbus module to chat up his Chinese crewmate. Careful to announce his impending arrival, Allen called out, "Hello, Qi!" brightly and cheerfully as he floated through the module entryway. Qi turned his head slightly and replied quietly, "Yes, Commander." The Chinese were always very formal, addressing themselves and their crewmates by their mission titles.

"Well, you've been up here pushing buttons all day and Valery and I haven't seen much of you. Just wondering how things are going. Everything all right?"

"Yes, Commander. Everything is proceeding satisfactorily." Allen noted that Qi had quietly brought up the computer's screen saver as he floated closer to the console. It wasn't that he could read a lot of the Chinese ideograms on the screen anyway, but he could certainly understand tables, charts, and graphs.

"How are the experiments going in Number 4?"

"The apparatus is working properly and we are achieving the desired results, Commander," Qi responded -- a little formally and stiffly, Allen thought.

"It is an experiment involving the low-temperature physics of ceramic materials. The exact details of the research are of a commercial nature, and I am not at liberty to discuss them in more detail. I am sure you understand, Commander."

"No issues or problems? Anything we need to worry about?"

"No, Commander. The research program underway in Kuafu Number 4 has been reviewed and approved by the ISS Scientific Committee. There is no appreciable risk or hazard to the station itself, Commander -- as I am sure you are well aware."

Yes, that was true, Allen thought. Nothing got anywhere near the station that hadn't been throughly vetted by numerous teams of scientists and engineers. So somebody on the ground clearly had to know what was going on in the Chinese lab. Well, if it was commercial, industrial research, then it probably was none of his business, and something he probably didn't need to worry too much about. But mission commanders tended to worry about everything, and Allen just didn't like secrecy on his flights. He turned and headed back to Columbus to finish his work with Poliakov.


"Ow! Damn!"

Allen was getting really tired of bumping his head every morning. He also felt a little stupid about forgetting about it every morning. He remembered the scene from the movide 2001: A Space Odyssey showing the stewardess on a space shuttle wearing a hat that looked a lot like a small pillow wrapped around her head. Allen knew it was intended in the film to protect the wearer from bumping their heads, and he realized that he could probably adapt something like it to use in his sleeping berth. Despite months in space in three earlier missions, he had never quite acquired the knack of sleeping without a pillow. He always thought that zero-g would be the most comfortable way in the world to sleep, but he found he missed the pressure of a pillow against his head. Allen figured that with a few strips of velcro on a padded helmet, he could achieve the sensation of sleeping on a pillow, instead of wedging his head into one corner, as he often did.

But upon entering the galley and making contact with Houston for the morning, Allen was surprised to get a hail telling him that he needed to return to his quarters for a "UHF-6 test". Allen knew that "UHF-6" was code for a private conference with the ground, usually reserved for medical issues. He hurried back to his quarters, closed the door, and put on his communications headpiece and microphone.

"Good morning, Mike. Are we in private?" the Capcom in Houstion asked.

"Roger, Houston, we are alone."

"Okay, Mike, please go to Channel 3, and we'll pick up the conversation there." Channel 3 was an encrypted communications band, only used on rare occasions. Allen threw the switches on the console and after a moment, the hiss of static was replaced by the beep of the carrier signal.

"Okay, Houston, standing by on Channel 3."

"Roger that, we read you five-by-five, Mike. Thanks for joining on such short notice."

"Okay, Houston, what's going on? Do we have a medical issue of some kind?"

"Negative, Mike. We only used the UHF-6 code so as not to alert anyone else who might have been around, or who might have been listening on the open comm channel. We need to discuss some of the research currently being performed by the Chinese team in Kuafu Number 4." So there was something funny going on there -- suspicions confirmed, at least, Allen thought to himself.

"Roger, go ahead."

"Okay Mike, here's the situation. We have been remotely monitoring the activity being performed in Number 4."

"How are you able to do that, Houston? The Kuafu modules don't broadcast, they're connected to the station by fiber optic cables. And the Chinese monitoring systems aren't connected to the station infrastructure."

"Mike, the Chinese have been very careful to protect the movement of commands and data back and forth from the station to the lab. But they forgot to provide sufficient EMF shielding to the equipment in the lab itself. Kuafu Number 6 is supposed to be an observatory for intergalatic radio sources--"

"It's not?" Allen interrupted.

"That's affirm, Mike. It is a series of very sensitive antennas which allow us to detect EMF energy being emitted from any sort of machinery in any of the Kuafu modules. We get help analyzing those signals, and we're able to get a pretty complete picture of what's going on out there in those labs at any given time."

"Are we in any danger, Houston?"

"Negative, Mike, there's no danger to the station or crew from anything being done in Number 4."

"Okay, Houston, so what's all the cloak and dagger about?"

"Roger, Mike. Here's the situation: we've determined that the Chinese have been using Kuafu Number 4 to complete the development of a true room-temperature superconductor. Needless to say, the political and economic implications of should a development being held exclusively by the Chinese would clearly be unacceptable to the United States and to our other international allies."

"I thought the Chinese were full partners in the ISS project."

"Being a partner is an entirely different thing from being an ally, Mike. As partners, we are perfectly happy to have the Chinese conduct whatever research they like on board the ISS. But neither we nor the Europeans nor the Japanese are happy with the way that the Chinese have been classifying more and more of their research projects as "Commercial" and hiding their results behind a veil of trade secrets. It's contrary to the spirit of the agreements that govern station operations, and the authorities have decided that it will not be tolerated from a strategic standpoint either."

Now Allen was really confused. He understood the situation, but he had no idea why they were telling him about it. "It is not for us to worry about", as Valery Mikhailovitch often reminded him. So where were they going with this? It sounded more like industrial intelligence gathering than science, and certainly didn't seem to have anything to do with station operations or spaceflight. And he was galled by the realization that for the past year the station had been towing around a spy satellite! Who was responsible for that, he wondered? The CIA? The NSA? Some other super-secret government agency practically no one had never heard of? The Cold War was long over.

"I'm not very comfortable with what you're telling me about all this, Houston," Allen responded coolly. "What's our involvement in this? Sounds like a job for the CIA or something."

"Actually, Mike, we have been working closely with the CIA ever since we received word from them regarding the activities underway on Number 4. For example, you should know that while Valery is a member of the Russian Air Force and does fly for the European Space Agency, the Russian authorities are cooperating with us on this mission, and he is considered a CIA operative. You and he will work closely together over the next several days to carry out your new assignment."

"So what's the nature of this assignment, Houston?"

"A week from now, before the next supply ferry docks with the station to return Kuafu Number 4 to China, You are going to steal Number 4 and make sure that the module and its contents, including the new superconducting material, wind up in our hands and not with the Chinese."

Oh, is that all? Allen thought to himself.

(To Be Continued)

Posted Feb 28, 2010 at 22:58 UTC, 3179 words,  [/richPermalink

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