Once humanity set foot on the lunar surface, the space objective became to establish a permanent human presence in space.
The first proper space station, Salyut 1, was built by the Soviet Union in 1971. During the remainder of the Salyut program, other stations were launched over the next 15 years.
In 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, which, unlike previous stations, was modular, allowing additions to be made over time. This station laid the foundation for what would become in the most impressive construction project in the history of mankind.
Starting in 1998, the Soviet Union and the United States embarked on a joint project to build a huge laboratory in low orbit of our planet. With the union of the first two modules, Zarya and Unity, the International Space Station was born.
Its creation has allowed humans to be in space for more than 20 years and has provided a base of operations for experimentation in microgravity and the study of the impact of space flight on the human body. Let’s go with 13 curious facts about the ISS:
1º Travel at full speed through space: The ISS is not the fastest thing that human beings have made, that honor corresponds to the Parker Solar Probe, which travels around the sun and Venus at 430,000 miles per hour. However, the International Space Station orbits at incredible speed.
The station orbits the Earth at about 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, the astronauts on board circle the Earth every 90 minutes, experiencing a sunrise and sunset 16 times in each 24-hour period. That’s about 23 times the speed of sound.
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2nd The people on the space station experience time more slowly: Relativity tells us that the faster we move, the slower we experience time. In the normal course of our lives we do not travel at speeds that change our subjective experience of time.
But the International Space Station is very fast, as we said before (although it does not travel at the speed of light ). For this reason, an astronaut who lives a year on the space station will experience one hundredth of a second less than those of us on the surface of the Earth.
It’s not much, but it means that the inhabitants of the station , compared to the rest of us, travel very slowly into the future.
3º It was built by five space agencies and 15 countries in total: Space exploration often seems like a competition between several nations, but the International Space Station challenges that idea.
Space is, by definition, a place that has no borders and represents an opportunity for the global community to act in concert, rather than in opposition. When the station was built, the United States and Russia were the only associated countries, but that has changed.
Currently, the International Space Station has been built and manned by: NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), which is made up of 11 countries.
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4º The legal situation of the station is… complicated: The law that prevails in the ISS is the Intergovernmental Agreement of the International Space Station (IGA) that was signed in January 1998.
Since the station is jointly owned and operated by various government entities, the legal aspects aboard the ship are a bit messy and weird.
The agreement establishes ownership and the jurisdiction of the various components of the station. More simply, member countries can extend their legal jurisdiction to the parts of the station (modules or equipment) they have provided, as well as the crew members they send.
5º The station has received more than 250 astronauts: The space station usually has a crew of seven people on board the ISS. There are times, especially during crew changes, when there may be as many as 13 crew members temporarily on board, but those times are very short.
Since the station has been continuously inhabited for more than two decades , many people have come and gone. Until this February 2022, the total number of people who have been to the station amounts to 251 from 19 countries.
6º The ISS has a robot crew member: The ISS would not be a spaceship if it did not also have a robot crew member. Scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) created Robonaut 2 as the station’s first synthetic crew member.
Commonly called R2 (hello, Star Wars), Robonaut lives on board of the ISS since 2012. R2 has vision systems, sensors and hands almost identical to those of humans in terms of dexterity. The robot is capable of performing repetitive or dangerous tasks on behalf of the crew.
However, Robonaut 2 is primarily used on station as a testbed for future robotic activities on long-duration space missions.
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7th The station is about the size of a football field: The International Space Station is the largest spacecraft ever built by a fairly wide margin. If we put it on the ground, the ISS would stretch across an entire football field from side to side.
The station has bedrooms, bathrooms and a gym, which astronauts use for two hours a day to prevent bone and muscle loss. However, its best feature is the dome that allows astronauts to see the Earth through the window.
8º It allowed an astronaut to live in space for almost two years: One One of the main objectives of the International Space Station is to understand the impact of long stays in space on the human body, since this knowledge is key to knowing what space travel would be like.
However, when these are American astronauts, no one has spent more time in space than Peggy Whitson. Throughout her career, she spent 665 days, 22 hours and 22 minutes off planet, just a couple of months short of two years.
9th It took 10 years and dozens of missions to complete: President Reagan approved the creation of the space station in January 1984 with the goal of launching it within 10 years. Although that deadline was never met, the station was built.
The first segment, the Zarya control module, was launched in November 1998 by Roscosmos and received in orbit by NASA’s Unity module just two weeks later. Over the next decade other modules and supply drops were completed before it was completed.
In total, it took more than 30 missions to deliver modules, complete repairs, and replenish the station with supplies. Construction of the station was completed in 2009, at which point it became fully operational, just in time for the 10th anniversary of its occupation.
10th Astronauts have to drink recycled urine: When you’re in space, you have to take everything you’re going to need. That means astronauts need frequent deliveries of food and water, along with scientific instruments, experiments, and other necessities.
Supplies to the station are expensive to launch, sometimes costing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. dollars per kilogram of mass. That’s why NASA and other space agencies go to great lengths to limit the weight of payloads. Hence they filter and drink their own urine.
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11º The ISS can’t see you, but you can see it: Astronauts aboard the station can see many things through the dome, including wonders of the world like the Great Wall of China . However, seeing people is a bit far for them.
Luckily for us, and as long as the sun is not out, seeing the International Space Station in the sky is relatively easy. The station’s exterior, especially its solar panels, reflects a significant portion of sunlight as it orbits the sky.
The station is so bright, in fact, that it’s the third most visible thing in the night sky, after the moon and Venus. In addition, the station’s orbital path makes it fly over 90% of Earth’s population centers.
12º It is under constant threat from thousands of pieces of space debris: Over the more than two decades that the station has been operating, there have been about 30 instances where it has been in danger of being hit by space debris, according to Space, and the danger of impact is increasing.
In 2021, there were 23,000 pieces of space debris tracked by the US Department of Defense, each of which is approximately 10 cm or larger. And those are just the pieces we know about.
13º The ISS will remain in operation until at least 2030, and could have a neighbor: On January 31, 2022, NASA confirmed that the activities of the ISS have lasted until 2030. Afterwards, the future of the station is not very clear.
Roscosmos has indicated its desire to withdraw from the station, due to the aging of the technology, which has already surpassed its initial mission design. That could happen as early as 2025.
But even if the Russian space agency leaves the ISS, it won’t withdraw from the space station game altogether. Plans for a new station known as the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS) are underway.