Last month marked a very special anniversary: high above our heads there have been ten years of human habitation in space, on board the International Space Station; ten years of engineering ingenuity and international diplomacy that has seen 67 Russian vehicles, 34 space shuttles, one European and one Japanese vehicle all reach the station, to help with the largest ever construction in space. WideWorld salutes what is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of human adventure and exploration in history.
That’s very impressive, but why are the astronauts up there? “Scientifically, we are observing phenomena at the cellular and molecular levels that simply do not exist on the ground in a 1G gravity environment,” says Mark Uhran, an administrator for the International Space Station.
Dr Ian Crawford, from Birkbeck College’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, points out a real human benefit: “The loss of calcium suffered by astronauts and the depression of the immune system in space are all challenges to be faced. They also mirror problems back on earth, with the loss of calcium reflecting osteoporosis in old people. So the counter measures – both with exercise regimes and pharmacological – are important.”
What do the astronauts do when they’re up there? The ISS was – until very recently – occupied by Expedition 25, which touched down on terra firma on November 25th. Time is usually split between experiments and observations, space walks and maintenance tasks.
Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Skripochka went for a six-hours-and-27-minutes-long spacewalk two weeks ago to “perform a grab bag of spacewalking tasks that outfit the Russian segment for future assembly work and support external experiments”.
Listed on the NASA site there are hundreds of experiments running A-Z, from…
“Agricultural Camera (AgCam) will take frequent images, in visible and infrared light, of vegetated areas on the Earth, principally of growing crops, rangeland, grasslands, forests, and wetlands in the northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States … to improve environmental stewardship of the land.”
“International Space Station Zero-Propellant Maneuver (ZPM) Demonstration shows for the first time new technology which rotates the Station by not expending on-orbit propellant.”
Dr Crawford is most excited by the fact that the ISS is “like a lab that’s only just been finished. The scientific experiments and studies in microgravity are only about to begin. There have been some interesting experiments in biology, materials science and fundamental physics, but I think it’s too early to make a judgement. Its scientific productivity lies ahead I hope.”
That’s good, but how about exploring space – getting beyond the moon? “To do that you have to have astronauts landing on planetary surface,” says Dr Crawford. “I’m absolutely convinced that we can learn far more that way, than we can with current robotics.
“But we can’t safely send a team to Mars or have them occupy the Moon [for any length of time] without understanding the long-term effects of microgravity or low gravity and the exposure to space radiation. That is where the ISS is invaluable.
“It wasn’t essential for the Apollo program heading to Moon, which at their longest was, I think, around one week and three days on the surface, but if we’re talking about Mars that’s nine months to get there and you need to be able to guarantee that the astronauts would be in a fit shape when they arrive.
“I’m not just talking about physiologically either, but also psychologically with the consequences of being crammed inside an enclosed space for a long period of time. All this can only be learned on the space station.”
Mark Uhran also states that every day of the ISS is a small advance for the future of space travel: “Just like sophisticated software evolves as a collection of many small sub-routines over years, each day we add to the unique operations techniques that are becoming the basis for future human space missions that can grow to become more robust and farther reaching into our solar system.”
International, you say? Fourteen countries are involved, two of which had an expensive space race not so long ago. Mark Uhran is keen to point out what a feat of co-operation the ISS represents: “Socially, we have effectively merged disparate cultures from North America, Europe and Asia into a team with a common peaceful goal.
“Professional contacts, personal friendships and even marriages – with children – have been forged in an extraordinary global network of intense relationships.
“We can accomplish much more when working together than any one nation could have achieved alone. It has set a new organisational standard for human spaceflight that is no longer nationalistic in nature, but represents our species as a whole. The web of legal agreements, implementing arrangements and bartering techniques that we have developed under the International Space Station Programme are really secondary structures compared to the backbone of humans working together as a team from all points on the globe. This is unprecedented in scope and lays the groundwork for the future.”
Dr Crawford agrees. “Just imagine these 14 different countries, with all their scientists, politicians and technical experts, all having to get together and co-operate,” he says. “I think this management experience is vital, and it has laid enormous foundations for future exploration. In the future all space exploration will hopefully be done this way; it’s desirable anyway but the sheer cost makes it a necessity.”
The ISS in numbers
- On November 2nd the ISS had made 57,361 orbits around Earth, running up 1.5 billion miles on the clock
- 8 solar arrays, measuring 73 metres, provide 84 kilowatts of power
- The module is 51 metres long, of which 360 cubic metres is habitable
- 8 miles of wire connects the electrical power system
- The station has a total mass of 370,290 kg and spans 109 metres
- It’s kept in orbit by 8 miles of electrical wiring and 2.3 million lines of computer code