With the recent news on the Soyuz-U launch and the departure of the ESA resupply vehicle, the International Space Station (ISS) seems to be a hot topic within the space community. Perhaps it’s because space – and along with it, childhood dreams of living in a spaceship – aren’t as unattainable as they used to be fifty years ago, especially with the technology that exists today.
But what exactly do we know about the ISS – its function and the people who man it – beyond zero-gravity and the spectacular views of our planet, made famous by numerous Hollywood movies? Do we truly understand what the ISS is and the role it plays in our daily lives here on Earth?
The International Space Station is, by far, the largest man-made object launched into space. It blasted off in 1998 as a joint effort between 16 countries, with the USA, Canada, Japan and Russia among them. The ISS, being an artificial satellite, orbits the earth 16 times each day and can occasionally be seen here on Earth without the use of high-powered telescopes because of its low orbit. With six people living in it at a time, it is the record-holder for the longest habitation of a space station, for a running of 14 years.
The space station’s most important aspect, however, is not that it orbits the earth, but that it is livable, providing an environment for its inhabitants to simulate daily life and to conduct research on several scientific fields affecting humanity, doubling as a microgravity and a space environment research laboratory. With an area big enough to house an entire family, the space station has several modules or rooms, with nodes or bridges connecting each module.
In its website, NASA has dedicated a section to the International Space Station and its contributions to society, named “Benefits for Humanity”. It provides a series of videos and articles that outline the different discoveries made and aimed for by the ISS crew, including a water purification system that could increase the Earth’s supply of drinking water, as well as several breakthroughs in space health and medicine.
The ISS, with its experiments, allow scientists and astronauts on Earth to plan ahead for future space expeditions, especially for long voyages like the planned manned mission to Mars, specifically to better understand the impact of staying in space for extended periods of time on the human body. Studies on muscle atrophy and bone mass loss have allowed medical procedures and techniques such as ultrasounds to be conducted in the space station while being supervised by ground medical teams.
Aside from research, the International Space Station also helps gather weather data from all around the world, as well as monitor activities on the open seas. In 2010, they activated Vessel-ID for shipping traffic information and a tracking system to help the Coast Guard monitor ships and their movements.
Since the ISS brings together the different peoples of the world, it has also been utilized for cultural and diplomatic purposes, even extending to allowing students plan experiments they want conducted in space. Thus, even though the ISS is miles away from the earth’s surface and its astronauts and cosmonauts living in an entirely different world, one can say that they still play a vital role in improving our knowledge of space, as well as, learning how to live better on Earth.