The International Space Station turns 20
As children, we all learned of Sputnik, the artificial satellite launched into a low earth orbit on October 4, 1957, by the then USSR, thus beginning the entry of humans into space. The US responded with the launch of Explorer 1 a few months later on January 1, 1958, starting the Cold-War Space-Race.
Subsequently, a number of artificial satellites were launched to serve as technological and scientific laboratories as well as for political and military purposes. I remember the infamous Skylab, which was a source of both thrill and fear to me as a child because it had been damaged and was going to “fall on our heads and destroy the Earth”. Skylab was in-service from 1973 to 1979 and I was perversely disappointed when it disintegrated after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and did not cause any damage to us mere mortals.
This was followed by Mir, the Soviet (and subsequently Russian) Space Station that orbited the Earth from 1986 to 2001.
In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and still remains in orbit. It has presented us with some of the most amazing and detailed images ever, increasing our understanding of space and time. The telescope helped astrophysicists accurately determine the rate of the expansion of the Universe. It has had to have a few fixes now and then — the most recent one just last month (October, 2018).
Mir was succeeded by the International Space Station, fondly known as the ISS, a floating space lab, whose first component was launched in 1998 (so it’s been orbiting us for 20 years). It is now the largest artificial body in orbit around our planet and can often be seen with the naked eye. In fact, NASA actually will send you emails to let you know when the ISS will be visible at your location. You can apply for them here.
The ISS is a joint venture between the US, Russia, Japan and EU, and more than 230 people from 18 countries have visited it since the year 2000. Its purpose is to serve as a micro-gravity and space environment research laboratory and where crew-members conduct experiments in a number of scientific fields. But the most exciting thing about it is that the ISS was actually assembled in space, making it the largest structure to have been built there — ever!
On November 20, the ISS celebrated its 18th anniversary of continuous human habitation. The first crew docked in 2000 and 12 years later, 2012 the ISS’s robotic arm captured the first ever commercial vehicle the SpaceX Dragon.
Thousands of experiments have been (and still are) conducted and have resulted in more than 1200 scientific publications. The first research study was regarding protein crystal growth, happening before humans lived there, and which is helping to treat diseases and disorders on Earth. Plus, 205 spacewalks have been conducted by astronauts to maintain and repair the ISS to date, which are telecast live on NASA TV . Forget all those Hollywood movies in space showing space walks, you can watch the real action live! The station makes 16 orbits of Earth travelling through 16 sunrises and sunsets at 4.7 thousand miles per second, completing one orbit every 90 minutes. A spacecraft can arrive at the ISS in 6 hours after launching from Earth.
With the rise of social media, astronauts now tweet images from space, as well as videos of them going about their daily business and the impacts of micro-gravity. Commander Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) made tweeting from space famous and in fact released an album from the ISS.
I cannot help thinking that this is a great time to be alive. Space exploration, and experiments, such as those done in the ISS, are opening our horizons and making us understand the Universe in ways we never have before.
So, on its 20th anniversary let us take a moment and look up at the intrepid people who are helping us understand the Cosmos and our role in it.
Featured image: International Space Station, photo credit NASA