10 years at home on the International Space Station

By Anne K. Walters, IANS
Monday, November 1, 2010

WASHINGTON - On Tuesday, the world will celebrate the space station’s tenth birthday - the longest period of time of continuous human habitation outside Earth’s atmosphere.

It began Nov 2, 2000, when an American and a Russian astronaut floated side by side into the International Space Station that orbits more than 300 km above Earth’s surface.

The project was born out of the death of the Cold War, as the US and Russia began cooperating and US astronauts first visited Russia’s Mir space station. The first ISS component, Russia’s Zarya module, launched in 1998.

The ISS just last week barely squeaked out its claim to “longest habitation in outerspace”, when it beat out the longevity record of the Russians’ long experiment on the Mir.

“The space station’s crowning glory is that it’s made the world a smaller place,” said John McCullough, head of NASA’s flight director office.

The station’s first crew was made up of Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev and American commander Bill Shepherd. In the intervening decade, some 200 people have spent time on board, 15 countries have helped build it and more than 600 experiments have been conducted.

The ISS permanent crew was expanded to six people last year, for the first time including representatives of all the space agencies involved in the project - the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

“It’s an amazing spacecraft and the feat we have accomplished as a team with our international partners is perhaps the most difficult thing ever accomplished by humankind,” said NASA ISS programme manager Mike Suffredini.

Much of the international effort has focussed on building the station. Including its solar panels, the ISS is nearly as long as a football field. The liveable space is the equivalent of a five-bedroom house.

Cost estimates for more than a decade of international work and planning invested in the station range from $35 billion to $160 billion.

The craft has been assembled in pieces in space, with most of the heavy lifting done by the US space shuttle, which is capable of carrying aloft huge components. That alone is an engineering accomplishment, since those pieces were constructed around the world

and had never been in the same room together before being connected in space.

The station is now largely complete and even had a “picture window” installed earlier this year that allows astronauts a 360-degree view when protective shutters are lifted.

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to be on its way to the station during the anniversary and will bring the last US major component to the station.

The new room to be installed during the mission was built by the Italian Space Agency and has been in space before in a different guise - as the cargo-fetching Leonardo module. NASA, which owns the module, has transported things to and from the Earth in it, and has outfitted it anew to be installed as a permanent “multipurpose” part of the station.

The US space agency plans to retire the ageing shuttle fleet next year, with one more mission planned and another possible if funding comes through.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the space shuttle, absolutely,” said Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Centre, where shuttles launch for their trips to the ISS.

Shuttle proponents have expressed concern that without it, there will be no craft large enough to take large equipment to the station. Only the Russian Soyuz will be available to shuttle astronauts aloft. NASA has used that argument in pressing for another

flight, which has secured approval albeit without the money to back it up.

The final shuttle flights have been aimed at stocking the ISS with spare parts for repairs. In August, for example, part of the cooling system broke. It was fixed through emergency spacewalks that replaced a cooling pump using the spare parts on board.

US lawmakers also recently approved support for the ISS through at least 2020, much to the relief of its international partners. It had earlier been scheduled to be de-funded and then de-orbited in 2015.

That’s also good news for scientific experimentation that can now get into full swing once the focus on ISS construction is complete, NASA says.

The orbiting space lab will also provide key insights into long-durations spent in space ahead of potential missions to asteroids and Mars, showing how humans and equipment hold up after long periods in space.

“We should believe and think about the fact that we will explore beyond low Earth orbit and this really was the first step in that endeavour,” Suffredini said.

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