The biggest and most expensive machines ever built

IN THE YEAR 1712 a strange noise, never before heard on Earth, started coming from a mine near Dudley in the West Midlands of England1. The noise was a repetitive chugging sound, and it set off the greatest change the world has ever seen: the Industrial Revolution. This machine had been made by Thomas Newcomen to pump water from the mine. It was fuelled by coal and worked by steam. It was the first steam engine.

The energy needed to do work of the kind being done by what was called the ‘atmospheric engine’ had up to that point mainly come from muscle power, either human or animal. Flowing water or wind power had been used to turn wheels to grind wheat into flour, but here was something very different. This machine didn’t rely on gravity or flowing water or wind. It relied on energy coming from coal. It made an infernal noise and spewed out noxious fumes. It set in train a cacophony of noise that has never abated. Many more machines have since been built that make modern life possible: trains, planes, automobiles, electricity generators, iPhones. Even noise-cancelling headphones to stop all the noise. They are a testament to the ingenuity of humans.

But two machines leave us gaping in awe at what we humans have been able to achieve: the International Space Station (ISS) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)2. The ISS is the most expensive single item ever made. The current estimated cost is $150 billion. The LHC is the most expensive single machine ever built, coming in at €7.5 billion. What are they and why did we make them?

The International


The ISS is a habitable space station in low Earth orbit. This means it is between 330 km and 435 km above the Earth, though sometimes it has to come in a little closer, usually during space shuttle visits3. It goes all the way around the Earth 15.54 times a day. The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998. It is so big that it can be seen with the naked eye scooting across the sky. There are human beings in it right now, and their job is to do experiments in biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology. It is visited regularly by Russian, American, European and Japanese vehicles. It is a marvellous example of countries on Earth working together instead of fighting or bickering. Astronauts or cosmonauts (as they are called in Russia) from 17 different countries have stayed on it and hopefully stayed friends.

The construction of the ISS was an amazing feat of international cooperation and engineering. Science and technology brought humans together as never before. It began in 1998 with the launch of the Russian modules, which were docked robotically. Yet again the Russians beat the Americans at something in space. All other modules, though, were delivered by an American-built space shuttle. There were 159 components laboriously added, involving more than 1,000 hours of space walks. In 2000, the Russian spacecraft Zvezda (meaning ‘Star’) was launched and robotically added sleeping quarters, a toilet, a kitchen, carbon dioxide scrubbers to clean the air, oxygen generators, exercise equipment and communications equipment. The first resident crew were Russian, and the American Bill Shepherd was then brought to the ISS on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-31. Shepherd asked that the radio call sign for the ISS be ‘Alpha’ instead of the more cumbersome ‘International Space Station’. The Russians, led by Sergei Krikalev, initially objected, as they said that their space station Mir was the first space station, and so the ISS call sign should be ‘Beta’ or ‘Mir2’. (There’s always something to bicker over.) The name ‘Alpha’ won out.

From then on, the ISS grew and grew. Soyuz-U brought a docking compartment. The shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour brought laboratory equipment and an airlock. Then the space shuttle Columbia disaster happened, stopping everything for two years. This accident happened on 1 February 2003 when the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members. Once the ISS programme restarted, more power generators were brought up, along with more pressurised modules and lots of solar arrays for power. In 2010 the Cupola was added, to give the astronauts great views and somewhere to relax. More modules are to be added for more space to carry out experiments. When it is finished the ISS will weigh 400 tonnes.

Inside, the ISS is split into two sections: the Russian Orbital Segment and the United States Orbital Segment. The names are to do with funding, however – anyone can stay in either segment. Both the Americans and the Russians have both guaranteed funding until 2024. There are no real guarantees, though (as with most science funding). Russia has said it wants to build another space station to replace it, but the US has yet to agree.

How do astronauts stay alive in the ISS? There are five things to consider: air, water, food, sanitation, and fire detection and suppression. The atmosphere is almost identical to that on Earth, with an air pressure like that at sea level. There is a chemical oxygen generator. The carbon dioxide breathed out by the astronauts is removed, as are various other waste products of human metabolism, such as methane from the astronauts’ bowels (delightful) and ammonia from sweat. They are removed by activated charcoal filters.

Electrical power is provided by the aforementioned solar panels. These are a very distinctive feature of the ISS, looking like wings. Power is stored in huge nickel-hydrogen batteries, which have a 6.5-year lifetime. This year they are being replaced by lithium-ion batteries, which will last much longer. All of the equipment on board generates heat, and this has to be handled. Ammonia is pumped through pipes to collect the heat, which is passed into external radiators.

The ISS has elaborate radio telecommunication systems, which mainly use ultra-high frequency (UHF). It is in constant contact with Earth, most notably with Mission Control in Houston (where hopefully they won’t hear that most famous of space phrases: ‘Houston, we have a problem’). There are 100 commercially bought laptops on board. The heat they generate doesn’t rise, but stagnates over the laptops and special forced ventilation is needed when they are being used. The astronauts can communicate via Wi-Fi with Earth. Try communicating via Wi-Fi in an aeroplane …

Astronauts spend up to six months on a mission. One cosmonaut, however, holds the record for the longest time in space. Sergei Krikalev, who was a member of the original crew, has spent 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes in space. He has been awarded the Order of Lenin, Hero of the Soviet Union, Hero of the Russian Federation and four NASA medals. Scott Kelly, meanwhile, holds the record for an American, at the rather risible 340 days. (Come on America! Make space great again …) Kelly is a big fan of the Irish Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose story often helped him on the ISS, when he felt lonely or uncertain. In his memoir Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime in Discovery he describes looking down on the Earth and being struck by one thought: ‘every person who has ever lived or died’, minus the crew on the ISS, is down there4.

Space tourists can also travel to the ISS provided they pass the medical examination. Price per seat? Forty million dollars. But get in line as there is a waiting list. And people who go resent being called space tourists. Everybody hates a tourist. They are often scientists and participate in experiments. Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari paid for herself, but did Russian and European studies, as well as medicine and microbiology, during her 10-day stay.

Life on board begins with a wake-up call at 6 am. Following breakfast (which hopefully doesn’t involve an alien coming out of someone’s stomach), there is a planning meeting for the day ahead. The crew start work at around 8.10. They stop for specific exercises and then have a one-hour lunch break from 13.05. The afternoon then involves more work and exercise. What is called ‘Pre-Sleep’ activities then begin, which include dinner and another crew conference. They turn in at 21.30.

The crew usually work a 10-hour day during the week, with five hours on Saturdays. The rest of the time is for relaxation. The time on board is Greenwich Mean Time (or as it’s now called, Coordinated Universal Time, or, annoyingly, UTC). Windows are covered at night to create darkness, because the ISS has 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. Each crew member has their own sleep module, which is private and soundproofed. The visitors, in spite of spending all that money, attach their sleeping bag to a space on the walls. Ryanair have allegedly denied any involvement in this. It is possible to sleep floating freely through the ISS but this is generally avoided, in case the sleeping person bumps into equipment. Early missions discovered that ventilation was important, otherwise astronauts woke up in a bubble of their own carbon dioxide.

What about food? It is brought vacuum-packed in sealed bags. Taste is lower in zero gravity, and so more spices are added. Fresh fruit and vegetables are occasionally delivered, which is a source of great excitement. The crew cook their own food. This means less argument, and gives them something to do. Any food that floats away must be caught, as it might clog up equipment.

Hygiene is tricky. There used to be showers but astronauts were only allowed to shower once a month, whether they needed it or not. This has been replaced with a water jet and wet wipes. The crew also have rinseless shampoo and edible toothpaste to save on water. There are two toilets, both designed by the Russians. Solid waste is stored for disposal, and urine is collected in anatomically appropriate funnels allowing men and women to pass urine. It is collected and recycled into drinking water.

The astronauts have to be careful about radiation exposure. Levels on board are about five times that which airline pilots are exposed to, and there is a risk of cancer and cataracts in the eye developing. The astronauts’ immune systems are also somewhat compromised, further increasing the risk of infection and cancer. Shielding and special medicines help to ward off these potential problems. Whatever about these physical ailments, there is a real risk of psychosocial stress. Key issues include maintaining high performance under public scrutiny (if you have a major screw-up all Earthlings will find out) and isolation from peers and family members.



What is clear is the first three weeks are important – once they get through that, stress levels fall off. The astronauts also have access to a psychiatry support group, who help from the time of training all the way up to the end of the mission and beyond to post-mission acclimation. The counsellors involved get to know the astronauts and their families very well. They conduct a private video conference every two weeks when the astronauts are on the ISS. Leisure activities on the ISS are especially important for destressing. The future may involve artificial programmes that will provide cognitive behavioural therapy for astronauts on the ISS.

What kind of work happens up there? Just like sailors of yore scrubbing the decks and keeping things shipshape, maintenance is an important activity. Research also happens. One of the missions of the ISS is to prepare us for trips back to the moon or to Mars. Humans are therefore being tested in all kinds of ways in zero gravity. A lot of space medicine is happening up there. Several things happen to our bodies in zero gravity, including muscle-wasting, bone loss and fluids in our bodies behaving strangely. A recent study has shown that if humans are in zero gravity for six months, their bones will fracture when they land on a planet like Mars, or indeed come back to Earth. Astronauts therefore have to make sure their muscles and bones are subject to pressure by exercising regularly. In spite of this, astronauts still suffer when they return to Earth, reporting nausea, fever, rashes and aching joints, which take time to resolve.

Scientists are also testing how plants grow in zero gravity. They have found that crystals form in a strange way, which is proving useful for protein crystallography. To get the shape and structure of a protein, which can be useful say for finding drugs to interact with proteins that might have the makings of new medicines, crystals are needed. These are then shot with X-rays, which bounce off in ways that allow us to see the structure. Protein crystals are being grown on the ISS with this goal in mind. Scientists are also growing cells in space and scientist-come-astronaut Kate Rubins is the first person to sequence DNA in space.

The ISS also has an important educational role. Students on Earth can design experiments and can communicate with the astronauts via radio, videolink and email. The European Space Agency provides lots of free teaching material to use in classrooms. One interesting project organised from the ISS was to map exactly the path of Vostok 1, the mission that brought the first person into space in the form of Yuri Gagarin. Students could track the route and see what he saw. In May 2013, Commander Chris Hadfield played David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on the ISS, and the film was released on YouTube5. It has garnered over 35 million views, and is the first ever music video shot in space.

It is also probably the most expensive video ever made. The total cost of the ISS is estimated to be $150 billion, with the US bearing the brunt of it (at $58 billion). You can calculate the cost per person on the ISS per day. This is $7.5 million. Let’s say it took Chris Hadfield 30 minutes to make the video; that would mean it cost $625,000. Was it worth it? If the ISS means great science and world peace then yes, even if we had to watch Hadfield floating in a most peculiar way.

The cost of the ISS makes the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) seem cheap, coming in at a mere €7.5 billion. It is, however, the largest and most expensive single machine ever built6. In many ways a direct line can be drawn from Newcomen’s steam engine to the LHC. Its job is to smash protons together. That is all it does. It is therefore called a particle collider. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1998 and 20087. It is a huge collaboration between 100 different countries, involving over 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities. Who would have thought that such a thing could be built, by people who aren’t that far removed from the humans who emerged from the plains of Africa. It involved (and involves) cooperation of a very high level. Humans have come together, not to hunt down a large animal and eat it, or to fight each other, but to discover the secrets of matter itself.

It is so big because it has to be. It comprises a tunnel 27 km in circumference beneath the French-Swiss border near Geneva. Its big success story thus far was to discover the Higgs boson, an elementary subatomic particle. And it is trying to find other particles, as well as answer big questions in physics. These include addressing why gravity is such a weak force, whether the proton is fundamentally stable and what the mass of a neutrino is. This is science at its most fundamental.

The LHC keeps breaking records. First, for the amount of energy in its beams of protons, which beat previous world records four-fold. Also for the data it collects. CERN of course is famous for the World Wide Web, which was invented by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989, who also invented the first ever website. Data has always been important for CERN, and the LHC generates tens of petabytes per year. A petabyte is one quadrillion bytes, or 1015 bytes (this number is 1 with 15 zeros after it). This amount of data is handled by 170 computing centres in 42 countries. An awful lot of bang for your buck.

So what is a hadron? The term refers to particles held together by what is called the ‘strong force’. May the force indeed be with you. Atoms and molecules are held together by the so-called electromagnetic force. But particles like protons and neutrons are hadrons (which could almost be misspelt as hardon, given the level of excitement this all generates among physicists). The ‘collider’ part is obvious – it means it accelerates particles and then smashes them into each other to break them up. An early example of a collider was one used by Irish Nobel laureate Ernest Walton, who with John Cockcroft and Ernest Rutherford had a more primitive collider in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. They smashed together atoms of lithium, breaking them apart and making helium – the first time an atom had been split. Their original atom smasher is now in the reception of the LHC for all to see. It looks puny, but is a very important forerunner of the LHC.

Atom smashing is one thing, but proton smashing is quite another. The LHC is trying to address very fundamental questions in physics. The first one has been cracked. What gives elementary particles mass? Without mass, nothing would exist. It turns out the Higgs boson is a particle that gives everything mass. This was predicted by Peter Higgs and Satyendra Bose (after whom the boson was named) and is true. It’s a great example of science at its best. It’s an example of something that was predicted with very complex mathematics, and then was proved to be true using science.

The Large


Other ongoing questions include, Are there more dimensions (i.e. more than the four we know about – the three dimensions of space and the fourth being time)? What is the nature of dark matter? (This stuff makes up 27 per cent of the mass-energy of the universe and yet we don’t know what it is.) Why is gravity so much weaker than other fundamental forces? What is the nature of the quark–gluon plasma, which was the type of matter that existed just after the Big Bang? (This is what the early universe might have been made of.) These are fundamental questions in physics, and the LHC is trying to answer them.

The LHC is one long circular tunnel. It has 1,232 ‘dipole magnets’ to keep the beams on the straight and narrow, each of which weighs in at 27 tonnes, and another 392 magnets to keep the beams focused. It has a further 10,000 superconducting magnets, which drive the speed for the collisions. The magnets must be kept at a temperature of -271.25°C. This is achieved with superfluid helium-4. It makes the LHC the largest cryogenic facility in the world.

When it is up and running, protons can get around the 27 km in 90 millionths of a second. This is 0.999999999 times the speed of light (as in very very close to the speed of light, which Einstein predicts can’t be reached by matter – or can it?). The numbers then get even more remarkable. When running the energy stored in the magnets equals 2,400 kg of TNT (one Tomahawk cruise missile, the standard atom bomb in the US army, has the equivalent of 500 kg of TNT, so five atom bomb equivalents are being stored in the magnets).

And in spite of spending €7.5 billion on it, there is thrift. It only runs in the summer, when electricity costs are cheaper. Also, as with all projects, there were cock-ups in its construction. Broken supports for magnets, the leakage of six tonnes of super-cooled liquid helium and faulty electrical connections (you’ve got to plug it in properly) have all occurred, and all led to delays but were overcome. And then the results started to come.

On 24 May 2011, the quark–gluon plasma was detected. This is the densest matter thought to exist outside black holes, and arose soon after the Big Bang. One gram of quark–gluon plasma has enough energy to power the whole world. Imagine if it could be captured? And then came the glorious day of 4 July 2012, when the Higgs boson was detected, providing us with an explanation of what gives matter mass. In the complex world of physics, this had to achieve a statistical significance of 5 sigma, and it did.

What about the dangers of these experiments? There was actually a real fear of the LHC becoming a doomsday machine. It might produce a black hole and suck all of the Earth into it, or produce dangerous particles which had been theorised called ‘strangelets’. There was a fear that these strangelets would convert the entire Earth into a ‘hot, large lump of strange matter’. Two safety reviews concluded that these were unlikely, since what is happening in the LHC actually happens naturally in the universe without hazardous consequences. What a relief … But this hasn’t stopped the LHC from featuring in science fiction and even in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, where the antimatter created by the LHC is used as a weapon against – guess where? The Vatican. Antimatter as Antichrist?

And the experiments continue. Upgrades are now needed if the LHC is to continue to make important discoveries. Scientists always want more. Upgrades are planned for 2018 and 2022, and the future experiments will continue to reveal the secrets of the matter that makes up our world. Who knows where the new knowledge might lead? One obvious output is perhaps safe energy for ever. When Faraday first demonstrated the mysterious force of electricity it had no application. He was asked by the then prime minister what it might be good for. He is said to have replied ‘I don’t know sir, but I am sure you will tax it.’ Similarly, when nuclear physics began as a science, it wasn’t that obvious that this would lead to the atomic bomb or nuclear fuel. As the physicist Richard Feynman has said, ‘Physics research is like sex. Procreation may well be the result, but is not necessarily why we do it.’



The megamachines that are the ISS and the LHC are the culmination of the work of hundreds of thousands of people over thousands of years, building bit by bit on what has gone before. Both are propelled by the relentless and restless curiosity that drives the human race. When Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon, there were many many people behind him whose work allowed him to make that small step. All that maths, science and engineering. The engineering part can be traced back to that new noise down the mine near Dudley that was the Newcomen engine. Who knows what these two machines will continue to tell us? And who knows what marvellous new machines will be built? Let’s hope they continue to typify the cooperative and peaceful nature of our species as we move towards the future.

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