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10 facts about the International Space Station and life in orbit

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Expedition 1 ISS crew1. As of November 2, 2010, the International Space Station (ISS) had been occupied for 10 years straight, the longest-duration continuously manned outpost in spaceflight history. The first crew of the ISS is pictured at left. The Russian Mir space station, which was staffed from 1989 to 1999, held the record before the ISS surpassed it in October.

Mir space station2. In April 2000 a privately funded mission returned cosmonauts to Mir on a Russian rocket after regular crew rotations had ended. They stayed for more than two months, but by the time the ISS became manned, Mir had been abandoned for good. The station was deorbited in March 2001, producing a flock of fireballs over Fiji as it broke apart during atmospheric reentry. Had Mir lasted a bit longer, humankind would now have lived in space for more than two decades uninterrupted.

Six-person ISS crew3. Since the first crew arrived in 2000, the ISS has been well-used. The station has been visited by nearly 200 individuals from more than a dozen countries, including seven space tourists who bought rides on Russian rockets through the private firm Space Adventures. In May 2009, when the ISS first expanded to its full capacity of six people, all five space agencies participating in the project—NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency—were represented simultaneously by crew members on board.

Ballot4. November 2 was more than just the anniversary of the ISS’s occupancy. It was also Election Day. Thanks to a piece of legislation passed in Texas in 1997, astronauts on the space station can and do vote, beaming their ballots down to Earth via a secure electronic system.

Salyut 1 space station5. Although the ISS is the biggest and most utilized space station yet, it had many smaller predecessors. In addition to Mir, the Soviet Union launched a series of Salyut stations between 1971 and 1982, including Salyut 1 (pictured), the first space station in history. Tragically, all three members of the first crew to occupy Salyut 1 were killed during their return to Earth in 1971. In 1973 the U.S. launched its Skylab station, which was damaged during launch and was visited by just three crews in 1973 and 1974 before it was abandoned. Skylab returned to Earth in 1979, breaking up during reentry and scattering debris over Western Australia.

Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev6. Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev has logged 803 total days in space—about two years, two and a half months—more than anyone else in history. He lived on Mir, was part of the first ISS crew, and flew on two space shuttle flights in his long career. Krikalev was in orbit on Mir when the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991; he had left Earth a Soviet cosmonaut and returned to Earth as a Russian.

Valery Polyakov on Mir7. Valery Polyakov cannot match his fellow cosmonaut Krikalev’s career total for spaceflight endurance, but he does hold the record for the longest single trip into space. Between 1994 and 1995, Polyakov spent more than 437 days in space on a mission to Mir. Polyakov is pictured here looking out from Mir. In that time, according to the International Space Hall of Fame, he circled Earth more than 7,000 times and traveled some 300 million kilometers.

Nearly complete ISS in 20108. The cost of the ISS, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion, places the station among the costliest single objects ever built. The exact cost of the ISS is unclear, but the U.S. contribution alone is roughly $50 billion. For comparison, NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to cost somewhere around $5 billion.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson in space9. American astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for most spaceflight time logged by a woman. In two long-duration stays on the ISS, Whitson racked up 376 days in space. She has also spent the most time spacewalking among all female space fliers, performing six spacewalks on her ISS missions that took nearly 40 hours combined.

COLBERT treadmill patch10. Spaceflight is hard on the body. Studies have shown that astronauts returning from long stays on the ISS have lost significant amounts of bone mass and bone strength, as much as a few percent a month, as a result of living in microgravity. The ISS houses a number of exercise devices meant to provide much-needed resistance and stave off bone damage, including the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The treadmill was named for Stephen Colbert as a sort of consolation prize after the comedian encouraged viewers of his television show to flood an online poll to name a new ISS node with write-in votes. Even though "Colbert" topped the poll, NASA chose to name the node Tranquility and instead devised the convenient acronym for the new ISS treadmill.

Photo credits: NASA (1-3, 5-10); © R Rob M Ferguson/iStockphoto (4);





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