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On October 4, 1957, Sputnik was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, heralding the dawn of the space age and a period of intense international rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the same site on April 12, 1961 was launched Vostok 1, the ship that carried cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.
Yesterday a new age in space exploration began from that same launch pad, as an American-Russian crew of astronauts was launched to the International Space Station. Expedition 1 begins what is planned as a permanent human presence in space and marks a new era of international cooperation and exploration of the solar system.
The launch site and schedule are precisely those recommended more than seven years ago by the Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station, headed by Charles M. Vest, president of MIT. The committee of 17 civilians wrote the 78-page report that in June 1993 recommended that the United States cooperate with Russia, use a Russian crew-return vehicle and use the Russian orbital angle of 51.6 degrees, rather than the US standard of 28.8 degrees.
In addition to President Vest's leadership of the advisory committee, MIT has two other significant ties to the expdition: alumnus William Shepherd, who earned the OCE in ocean engineering and the SM in mechanical engineering (both in 1978), is commanding the crew, and the first major scientific experiment to be performed on the space station is MIT research.
"I congratulate NASA and the program. I am very pleased that we have achieved the major milestone of launching the first crew to begin a permanent human presence in space. It is a huge undertaking that has managed to keep on schedule, a considerable achievement," President Vest said as launch preparations began.
"MIT takes great pride in the fact that the commander of the first crew to live aboard the International Space Station is an MIT graduate and that the first active experiment chosen by NASA to be performed on the ISS was developed at MIT," said President Vest said.
The Vest report recommended "that NASA and the Clinton administration further pursue opportunities for cooperation with the Russians as a means to enhance the capability of the station, reduce cost, provide alternative access to the station and increase research opportunities." A key recommendation was to park a Russian Soyuz crew-return vehicle at the station in case of emergency.
In addition, the committee recommended changing the space station's orbital inclination to 51.6 degrees to allow launches from the Russian launch facility at Baikonur as well as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This recommendation was designed to increase the "safety, flexibility and redundancy of launch and crew-return vehicles" and to allow "access to the station by as many space-faring nations as possible," the report said.
Professor Edward F. Crawley, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the advisory committee, said, "I think the wisdom of the move [to a 51.6 degree orbit] is apparent. Under the current flight rules and budget, we would not have a space station now if it weren't in 51.6 degrees. We must have a lifeboat present, and the Soyuz is all there is available, and it only goes to 51.6 degrees (or higher)." Professor Emeritus Robert C. Seamans was also a member of the advisory committee.
President Clinton endorsed the Vest report's recommendations and asked NASA to consider Russian participation in the International Space Program.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin later told a congressional panel, "The distinguished Charles Vest panel reconfirmed that an international partnership including the Russians was the right decision. We would gain enormously from the Russians' expertise and it would give us critical redundancy in the functions of life support, attitude control, extravehicular activity and launch support."
The Expedition 1 crew is commanded by the 51-year-old Shepherd and includes two experienced Russian cosmonauts, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. The crew will live aboard the International Space Station for four months and will return to Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery in February 2001.
The first active scientific investigation to be performed onboard the space station will be the Middeck Active Control Experiment II (MACE II), a structural dynamics experiment developed by Professor David Miller of aeronautics and astronautics. The experiment is designed to test techniques for predicting and controlling motion and vibration in space.
MIT researchers expect to play major roles in future scientific investigations aboard the space station. For example, Professor Samuel Ting, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Physics and a Nobel laureate, is developing a particle physics instrument, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to search for antimatter and dark matter. That experiment is scheduled to be launched to the space station in October 2003.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 1, 2000.