The International Space Station turns 15 today. That means that for every single second of every single day for the past 15 years, there has been a human being into space. There’s been much discussion about the benefits of the station.
A turbulent history
The history of how the ISS came into being hasn’t always been easy. First proposed in 1984 under then-president Ronald Reagan, a ‘permanently manned space station’ was to be operational within the decade – meaning 1994. But budget strains have been hard on NASA since the ending of the Apollo-program, and that was no different in the 80s.
Construction of the station was delayed many times over, until in 1998 the US decided to ‘open the program to other partners’ to make the station both economically viable as well as a cultural endeavour. Eventually, the US and Russia would carry the majority of the station (80%), with the rest of the program filled by Europe, Canada, and Japan.
International Space Station by numbers
So, let’s talk some numbers to illustrate the scope of the station’s history. The station has been around for 5,478 days, and seeing as one orbit last 92 minutes, the station has orbited Earth no less than 85,742 times.
In the past 15 years, 220 astronauts from 17 different nations have been to the station. Those visits were carried out by 34 Space Shuttle launches and 48 Soyuz launches.
Besides that, 83 freighter missions were carried out, consisting of 63 Progress missions, 5 European ATV missions, 5 Japanese HTV missions, and since 2012 there have been 10 commercial missions by SpaceX’ Dragon (7 times), and Orbital Sciences (3 times).
To construct the station, 189 extravehicular activities (‘EVA’s’, or simpler: Space walks) have been carried out by 114 astronauts from 10 countries, spanning a grand total of 2,357 hours and 7 minutes – the longest one lasting 8 hours and 56 minutes.
The station is a massive structure spanning the length of a football field, being 103 meters across.
It’s impossible to put an actual price tag on the station. The millions of parts and pieces were build by hundreds of different companies, the research and development done by both the private sector as well as NASA, and dividing the bill among countries has been settled by an elaborate system of quid pro quo‘s like Europe build the ATV in exchange for sending astronauts up to the station.
Estimates as to the costs range from 80 to 120 billion – the median 100 billion being the generally quoted figure of the bill. Add to that another 3 million dollars it costs every day to run the station on a daily basis, and you can understand critics’ points that the station has been an overpriced piece of hardware.
Studying the human body in space
So, what is the use of the station?
The main purpose has always been to do science. The experiments conducted in the ISS have always been twofold. The first purpose is all sorts of research that focuses on the benefits of microgravity. This can be stuff you wouldn’t even think of, like lamps performing differently without the effects of gravity. These experiments are being designed by university teams or researchers on Earth, and put on resupply ships to have astronauts perform the delicate checklists to run them and documenting the results.
On the other hand, there’s medical sciences studying the effects of microgravity on the human body. This is done for practical uses on Earth – for instance, measuring blood pressure and the formation of cancer cells under anti-gravitional circumstances, but moreover to prepare for long human spaceflights. Normally, a mission to the space station lasts around 6 months, but NASA and Roscosmos have upped the ante by sending Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on a mission twice as long.
The mission is meant to teach scientists how the human body works after a year in space, but also how humans function psychologically in such conditions. And that is what leads to the real, but undefined purpose of the station:
Having a colony in space
To colonize the galaxy has always been a distant and seemingly impossible dream, fantasized about and glorified in science fiction, which is usually visualised as big cities in the clouds.
Going by Hollywood’s standards, such a colony is decades away, but in reality, the ISS is such a colony. It’s a permanently manned observatory, that has taught us how to make humans survive in space – how often crews should rotate, how often they should be reapplied, how to take care of the station, how to make a station as durable as possible.
The International Space Station is humanity’s first step towards the stars. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs taught us how to get far and fast, but the ISS program has taught us something much more valuable: How to actually live in space, permanently.
It’s also the most expensive international collaborational project in history. Even at this age, where tensions between the United States and Russia have risen to astronomical heights, the ISS is the one project both countries work on together, in harmony.
Because of that, several institutes are lobbying to nominate the station for a Nobel Peace Prize. And maybe that’s a price worth paying.