On many nights, you can see the International Space Station (ISS) whizzing by overhead. You have to know just where to look, though, and you have to be quick. It only takes the station about 90 minutes to orbit the Earth, so it may only be visible for a few minutes at a time. As it passes over your head, know this: The ISS is marking its 10th anniversary of continuous habitation in orbit this year. That means people have been living in space now for 10 years, approximately 220 miles above us, passing overhead several times a day.
The floating laboratory, a cooperative effort between 15 international partners and 5 space agencies, now supports a multicultural crew of 6. The 6 currently on-orbit are just some of the nearly 200 astronauts, cosmonauts, and space tourists who have ventured to the station, a spacecraft that over the last decade has grown to a massive 800,000 pounds, with a habitable volume of more than 12,000 cubic feet. Approximately the size of a five-bedroom house, this remarkable testament to human will and engineering prowess uses sophisticated systems to generate solar electricity and recycles much of its of water (nearly 85 percent) and oxygen supply.
The ISS is the most advanced spacecraft ever built, and unlike the space race of the 1960s that culminated with American astronauts landing on the Moon, this is an international partnership, a team effort. In addition to station assembly, the international partner agencies (NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Russian Federal Space Agency) train and launch crews and provide ground support for the orbiting research facility.
Ten Years in the Making
Construction of the ISS began when the Zarya Control Module was launched atop a Russian rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on November 20, 1998. The Zarya module provides battery power, fuel storage, and rendezvous and docking capability for Soyuz and Progress space vehicles. Just a few days later, on December 4, 1998, the U.S.-built Unity node launched aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor. During three spacewalks, the crew connected power and data transmission cables between Unity and Zarya. The Unity node had two pressurized adapters, one of which was permanently affixed to the Russian unit, the other was designed for space station docking. Inside Unity were a series of additional ports and passageways, each with a sign designating where additional modules would be attached.
In October 2000, approximately 2 years after assembly began, the first crew to live on the station launched aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. With the Soyuz capsule docked, the crew, referred to as Expedition 1, had a way to return back home. In March 2001, Space Shuttle Discovery carried an Italian-built component, the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, the first of three large modules designed to serve as moving vans for the station. Approximately 21 feet in length and 15 feet in diameter, these canisters can be carted back and forth between Earth and the station in the cargo bay of the space shuttles, or can serve as workable living space aboard the station. With delivery of the first module came the second crew to live aboard the station, Expedition 2. This was followed by a series of additional shuttle deliveries, including infrastructure for enabling spacewalks, stowage racks and life support systems, racks for experiments, and Canadarm2, a robotic arm that would prove useful for future station assembly. The next handful of missions involved delivery and assembly of the truss systems and solar arrays and the rotation of more crews.
Delivery of large structural components to the station was interrupted for a 3-year period following the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew after the craft disintegrated during atmospheric reentry in early 2003. During this time, the Russian Soyuz crafts continued to ferry expedition crews back and forth between Earth and the orbiting laboratory.
It was not until the space shuttles were again flying in 2005 that construction of the orbiting laboratory truly resumed. With the return to flight came designation of the U.S. portion of the ISS as a national laboratory by Congress as part of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, signaling a renewed dedication to full utilization of this structure for science projects. Additional truss segments followed, as did several large solar arrays. These were followed by installation of the Harmony Node 2, which in addition to creating extra work space provided couplings for connecting the European Columbus Laboratory and the Japanese Kibo Laboratory.
In 2008, Space Shuttle Endeavour delivered supplies and equipment, including additional crew quarters, exercise equipment, equipment for the regenerative life support system, and spare hardware, inside the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. The 2008 mission also saw delivery of parts for Kibo.
In May 2009, the STS-119 crew of Space Shuttle Discovery delivered and installed the ISS’s final, major U.S. truss segment, Starboard 6, and its final pair of power-generating solar arrays. Later that year, astronauts attached the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility and Experiment Logistics Module Exposed Section, providing a “front porch” for the facility where astronauts could conduct experiments outside of the spacecraft.
NASA then delivered life support and science racks. In November 2009, the space shuttle made its last delivery of crewmembers to the ISS.
In 2009, the ISS Program received the Collier Trophy, considered by many to be the top award in aviation. In 2010 it also received the Aviation Week “Space Laureate Award.” Perhaps more significant, though, is that 10 years of assembly is coming to an end, Congress has extended the life of the station, and full-time scientific experimentation will now begin in earnest.
Current research aboard the ISS is steadily progressing, such as experiments to understand the muscular deterioration of astronauts’ hearts in the reduced gravity environment, which will add to the understanding of heart function here on Earth, particularly among patients who are confined to beds for long periods of time or wheelchair bound; and experiments to grow and harvest new crops in space that show promise for producing biofuels that can be used as energy sources for future space missions or here on Earth. More on these projects in progress, and additional information about recent missions, expeditions, and assembly can be found in the Space Operations Mission Directorate portion of the Aeronautics and Space Activities chapter-.
International Space Station Spinoffs
High above Earth, the ISS provides a research platform where nearly 150 experiments are underway. Over the years, more than 400 experiments have been conducted. Taking advantage of the unique environment of microgravity, these experiments cover a wide variety of disciplines, including human life sciences, biological science, human physiology, physical and material science, and Earth and space science. These experiments are developing new ways to fight disease, advances in understanding food-borne illnesses, growing crops for alternative energy usage, and the development of superior materials for use in both space and on Earth.
Many of the technologies developed for the ISS have resulted in practical, tangible benefits that we find here on Earth.
Bioreactors Advance Disease Treatments
A NASA device used to cultivate healthy cell tissues for space station and Earth experiments is now enhancing medical research. Treatments developed using bioreactor-grown cells may be used to counter conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and sickle cell anemia (Spinoff 2009).
Image-Capture Devices Extend Medicine’s Reach
An ISS experiment led to the development of medical ultrasound diagnostic techniques for long-distance use. Technology created to capture and transmit these ultrasound results over the Internet allows patients from professional athletes to mountain climbers to receive medical attention as soon as needed (Spinoff 2009).
Resistance Systems Provide Healthy Workouts
Developed to help astronauts perform vital exercise during long stays on the ISS, stretching elastomer technology now serves as an effective source of resistance for workout machines on Earth, replicating the feel and results—but not the unwieldy bulk—of free weights (Spinoff 2001).
Programmable Ovens Let You Start Dinner from the Web
Engineers who designed the ISS Electric Power System created “embedded Web technology” which allows users to control devices remotely, including a commercial oven. With both heating and cooling capabilities, this oven can refrigerate a prepared dish until the programmable cooking cycle begins, allowing dinner to be perfectly cooked when the user arrives home (Spinoff 2005).
|Experiments into growing plants as food sources for long-duration space flight have resulted in new methods for gardening here on Earth, techniques that enable plants to develop strong, healthy roots, with a minimal amount of soil.||Components of a camera designed to aid robotic assembly of the ISS have been used to analyze injuries on crash test dummies, enabling engineers to design safer automobiles.|
Aeroponic Gardens Help Plants Grow Faster and Healthier
A soil-less plant-growth experiment that proved healthy plant growth without the use of pesticides has enabled the development of a commercial aeroponic system. The sterile environment allows plants to grow disease-free, with 98-percent less water, and no pesticides (Spinoff 2006).
Systems Make Automobile Testing More Accurate
Automobile safety testing improved when a NASA charge coupled device camera—originally designed to track bar codes on parts for the robotic assembly of the ISS—was combined with a newly developed synthetic mask skin covering for crash test dummies. As a combined system, the technologies provide more precise, repeatable predictions of laceration injuries sustained in automobile accidents (Spinoff 2002).
Air Purifiers Eliminate Pathogens, Preserve FoodNASA research into sustaining perishable foods for long-duration space missions resulted in the development of an air-cleaning device that eliminates airborne bacteria, mold, fungi, mycotoxins, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and odors (Spinoff 2009).
Portable System Warns of Dangerous Pressure Changes
The Personal Cabin Pressure Altitude Monitor and Warning System is a hand-held, personal safety device to warn pilots of potentially dangerous or deteriorating cabin pressure altitude conditions before hypoxia becomes a threat. It was designed as a backup device for ISS crewmembers. Applications beyond aviation and aerospace include scuba diving, skydiving, mountain climbing, meteorology, altitude chambers, and underwater habitats (Spinoff 2003).
ISS Materials Research Leads to Improved Golf Clubs
A material designed for the space station aided in the development of Zeemet, a proprietary shape memory alloy for the golf industry. The Nicklaus Golf Company created a line of golf clubs using Zeemet inserts. Its super-elastic and high-damping attributes translate into more spin on the ball, greater control, and a solid feel (Spinoff 1997).
Robotics Offer Newfound Surgical Capabilities
Robotics designed for intricate repairs on the ISS find many industry uses, including a minimally invasive knee surgery procedure, where its precision control makes it ideal for inserting a very small implant (Spinoff 2008).
Life Support System Recycles Water
A water filtration system providing safe, affordable drinking water throughout the world is the result of work by NASA engineers who created the Regenerative Environmental Control and Life Support System, a complex system of devices intended to sustain the astronauts living on the ISS (Spinoff 2006).
LEDs Alleviate Pain, Speed Rehabilitation
Tiny light-emitting diode (LED) chips used to grow plants on the ISS are used for wound healing and chronic pain alleviation on Earth and have been successfully applied in cases of pediatric brain tumors and the prevention of oral mucositis in bone marrow transplant patients (Spinoff 2008).
‘Anti-Gravity’ Treadmills Speed Rehabilitation
Research into the biomechanics of exercise, using differential air pressure in space to mimic the Earth’s gravity to prevent bone loss and muscle deterioration, led to the development of a treadmill that is now aiding patients with various neurological or musculoskeletal conditions (Spinoff 2009).
Food Supplement Reduces Fat, Improves Flavor
Extending the shelf life of food while still preserving flavor—key factors for long-duration space flight—led to the development of a fat substitute intended for use as a partial replacement for animal fat in beef patties and other normally high-fat meat products. The substitute can also be used in soups, sauces, bakery items, and desserts (Spinoff 2007).
Head-Mounted System Aids Vision
The Low Vision Enhancement System is a video headset that offers people with low vision a view of their surroundings equivalent to the image on a 5-foot television screen 4 feet from the viewer. For many people with low vision, it eases everyday activities such as reading, watching TV, and shopping. Researchers used NASA technology for computer processing of satellite images and head-mounted vision enhancement systems originally intended for the space station (Spinoff 1995).