It is the premier destination for any science fiction enthusiast, and for an astronaut, it is the epitome of their career. Not many people can say they have lived in space. Hailed as the most expensive space project ever attempted, the International Space Station will go down in history as an important step toward space discovery and exploration. Set at a low orbit of 250 miles above the Earth, the space station travels at an exhilarating speed of 17,000 mph, making it not only possible to complete one lap around the Earth in just 90 minutes, it also allows the crew to experience breathtaking views of a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes. Members of the International Space Station really do live in the fast lane.
It began as a far-fetched idea, however. Man did not actually believe in the possibility of a manned space station until the 1940s. The dream turned into reality when former President Ronald Reagan, in his 1984 State of the Union address, directed NASA to construct the International Space Station. Prior to the construction, which began in 1998, there had been at least two other space stations built as a result of earlier developments in space travel and technology.
The space station took 10 years and over 30 missions to complete. Compared to the size of a football field and weighing in at 460 tons, the artificial satellite is the result of a 16-country collaboration of engineers and scientists. Russia is credited with launching the first segment of the International Space Station on Nov. 20, 1998, which was shortly followed by the first U.S.-built components in December of the same year. The first crew to live in the fast lane of the International Space Station arrived there on Nov. 2, 2000.
The first station crew members were cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko and astronaut Bill Shepherd. The space agencies of the sixteen countries involved have contributed billions of dollars to the project because of its highly anticipated benefits, such as the opportunity to conduct experiments that may aid in medical advances. Without gravity, chemicals react and behave differently than they do on Earth, which means substances created by combining various molecules in space would not be possible on Earth.
Due to the microgravity conditions, the unique environment is also conducive to creating and studying new materials. Therefore, scientists have the opportunity to study physics, combustion science, crystal growth and fluid flow in a unique way. Among the hope of scientists is that the experiments will lead to better materials to create contact lenses, along with lighter, yet stronger, metals. In terms of space travel and the prolonged effects on the human body, scientists are working on solutions as they seek to understand what the body experiences during an extended stay in the microgravity environment, and therefore paving the way to uncovering a multitude of discoveries that may have never been realized.
The common perception about being in orbit is that gravity does not exist there, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The International Space Station and its members are in a constant free-fall. The reason it will not come crashing down is because the station is just high enough and is moving just fast enough to avoid drag from the atmosphere, which enables the space station and those aboard it to stay afloat. Of course, life in orbit presents a number of other physical challenges due to the microgravity. When it comes to doing everyday things such as eating, taking care of personal hygiene and exercise, new techniques and habits have to be formed.
Because of the low orbit of the International Space Station, it can be seen from Earth if one looks up at the precise moment it is expected to fly over. However, it is imperative to keep in mind how fast the space station is traveling, because if close attention is not paid, it may just look like a shooting star or an airplane.
By Jireh Gibson
Edited by Jennifer Pfalz
CASIS: History and Timeline of the ISS
Discovery Education: Space-Age Living
NASA.gov: What is Microgravity?
Image Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License