The International Space Station (ISS) is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It is the largest and most complex structure ever flown in outer space and one of the most ambitious projects ever conceived in the history of the world. Right now, as you read this, a team of six astronauts, are hurtling around the planet at 17,500mph. They will complete a circle of the globe every 90-minutes, 16 orbits a day, a sunrise or a sunset every 45-minutes. To date, the ISS has orbited the Earth more than 90,000 times.
It cost more than $100 billion dollars to produce and had to be assembled piece by piece, while in orbit, requiring the skills of more than 100,000 people for more than a decade of work. Perhaps most impressively, it has been continuously manned since November 2nd, 2000. Most of the world’s children alive today have never lived without a permanent settlement of people orbiting above them. The ISS, in this sense, is our first colony in space. And no country could have done it alone. Building it required the cooperation of a family of nations united in a single endeavour: to enrich the knowledge of all humankind and take our first steps towards our destiny in the stars.
Stretching 335-feet across, about the length of a football field, and weighing nearly one million pounds, it is the biggest object ever put in space. Attached to the centre truss are 16 enormous solar panels, more than an acre across, and compartments where the crew work and live. There are no politics up here. Half of the station is run by America, half by Russia, with astronauts from Canada, Japan and Europe regularly on board, and the role of station commander alternating between a US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut.
For much of its early years, the crew were engaged in building the station itself. Components had to be flown up on rockets one at a time and then assembled in orbit. This meant dozens of complex space walks each year, in which delicate engineering operations had to be performed in the vacuum of space. Each walk was potentially lethal and so had to be rehearsed in underwater simulators back on Earth for up to two years previously. That required an enormous logistical undertaking. And it’s still ongoing. Supply ships must regularly drop food and materials, maintenance is constant and plans for expansion are in place.
But now that it’s complete, its primary purpose is to do science. The microgravity environment on board enables a range of unique research opportunities, from developing new kinds of pharmaceuticals and combustion systems to collecting data about climate change, cosmic rays and dark matter. But perhaps most important of all is the work involved with studying the effects of space exploration on the human body. If the ISS is humanity’s first step into outer space, the next is almost certainly Mars. But reaching the red planet would mean at least a two year round trip. Aside from the psychological challenges, such an undertaking would exact an enormous toll on the human body. Even relatively short stints in zero-G result in astronauts losing significant amounts of bone and muscle mass, as well as other complications. Learning how to lessen these effects is vital to the future of long-term space exploration.
Astronauts onboard today must counteract these physical side effects with a minimum of two and a half hours a day, six days a week. In between they are working flat out on maintenance, experiments, cleaning and repairs. They can’t shower, they have to sleep tethered to a wall, eat vacuum packed food and wear the same clothes for a week. It’s hard work. But the pay off is they get to fly. Living in zero gravity means being liberated from the laws of physics. Astronauts spend their three, six or even 12 month long quotas floating through the ship, utterly weightless, performing flips in mid-air. They describe it as sheer joy.
And then there’s also that view. Looking at the Earth from space has had a profound, and often spiritual, effect on the few men and women lucky enough to see it. There is the exquisite beauty, of course: the dark blue oceans, storms of swirling white clouds, the faint line of turquoise and violet on the edge of the atmosphere, all the cities of man lighting up in the night. But more than that is what it all means. Almost without exception astronauts come home with a profound sense of humanity’s shared destiny, that all the wars, all the conflicting ideologies, mean nothing when the Earth is viewed as it really is: a solitary sphere of life, alone in the vastness of space. Looking at the Earth from the outside there are no borders; the differences of race and nationality seem ludicrous, and the fragility of the Earth more apparent than ever.
That’s the real wonder of the ISS. Not the science, the technology or the sheer achievement that it exists at all, but the fact that it is the beginning, perhaps, of the next phase of humanity’s story. And we did it together. Not one nation, but many, working together in peace to pursue our shared future in the stars.
WHERE: Low Earth orbit.
HOW TO SEE IT: It’s possible to watch the ISS pass overhead from several thousand locations around the world. It appears as a fast moving star and can be seen easily with the naked eye. Check www.spotthestation.nasa.gov for details of where to see it near you.
TOP TIP: Follow a live video feed of from the ISS here: www.ustream.tv/channel/live-iss-stream
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Swiss Space Systems offer zero gravity flights at various locations around the world. Participants experience the weightlessness of real astronauts on board a specially designed jumbo jet. www.zerog.s-3.ch
Aaron Millar’s latest book, 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, is available on Amazon and other retailers.