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Humanity in Space Series: The history and science of the International Space Station

How the International Space Station shaped scientific discoveries and exploration

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

In this segment of the Humanity in Space series, The Incredible Jeff gives us an in-depth view, from Earth, of the science of the International Space Station.

The ISS is a space environment research laboratory that is also capable of keeping humans alive in space for prolonged periods of time. It is also attuned for testing of equipment for missions to the Moon and Mars.

An aerial photo of the International Space Station floating in space above Earth

The station maintains an orbit of 250 miles above Earth by using the engines housed in the Zvezda module and visiting spacecraft. It orbits the Earth every 92 minutes, making almost 16 trips around the planet daily.

The station took ten years and almost 30 missions to assemble — and the end result is a stunning and scientific achievement.

The idea for the station began to form thanks to The State of the Union address by President Ronald Regan in 1984.

Modules of the International Space Station

Since this project became a true international endeavor, components for the space station were made in different countries around the world. The modules that make up the ISS have their own unique “pieces” in history.

The first module for the International Space Station was Zarya, launched in November of 1998. This module provided propulsion, attitude control, communications, and electrical power, but lacked long term life support functions.

Two weeks later, the Unity module was attached after being launched by astronauts aboard space shuttle Endeavor via EVAs. During this time, the Russian space station, Mir, was still inhabited and the ISS remained un-crewed for two more years.

In July of 2000, a Russian module named Zvezda was launched into orbit. This was originally manufactured for the Mir-2 project, but because Mir-2 was never launched, it became the ISS service module.

Once Zvezda rendezvoused and docked with the Unity vehicle that was already orbiting, Zarya transferred all of its computer control to the Zvezda module. This new module added sleeping quarters, a toilet, a kitchen, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, voice and television communication with Mission Control.

With a newly permanent habitat in full operation, Expedition 1 arrived in 2000 on the Soyuz TM31. The Commander of the mission was NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, who had been to space three times before on space shuttle missions. Joining him were Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, both who lived and worked on Mir.

A photo of the International Space Station with Earth in the background

The station continued to expand, and Expedition 1 spent 136 days on the ISS. The space shuttle brought up segments of the integrated trust structure, which would be 110 meters in length once completed. It would bring the station with additional attitude support and additional solar rays.

Over the next two years, more pieces were added to the station including the Piers docking compartment, which provided a docking port for Soyuz.

In 2002, space shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor delivered the Destiny laboratory module, as well as the Quest airlock module, where astronauts would “camp out” before spacewalks.

Destiny continues to be the primary research lab on the ISS. It has a 20-inch, optically pure, telescope quality window used for Earth science observations. Imagery captured from Destiny’s window gives geologists and meteorologists a chance to study Earth and ocean events like never before. The capabilities of photo capture were greatly improved with the help of NASA astronaut Don Pettit, who constructed and installed a barn door tracker to compensate for the movement of the ISS relative to the Earth’s surface. This allowed for sharper, high-resolution images.

The station’s main robotic arm, cannon arm 2, was installed as well as upgraded from the same type of arm found on the space shuttle. Don Pettit was the first astronaut to capture a visiting spacecraft using the Cannon Arm 2.

The expansion of the station was interrupted in 2003 due to the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Assembly resumed in 2006, with the addition of a second and third set of solar rays being attached to the station. Because of the added power to the station, more pressurized modules could be added. Harmony and Columbus were attached.

The Harmony module is the utility hub of the station, connecting all the laboratory modules of the station and sleeping cabins for four of the six crew.

Columbus is the largest contribution of the European Space Agency. The laboratory can accommodate ten active science payloads, as well as housing the fluid science lab and the bio lab.

The Japanese module, Kibo, was launched in three parts and remains the largest module on the International Space Station. It is a science laboratory and not only contains ten rack spaces for internal science experiments, but also twelve external ports, known as the terrace. All experiment payloads are fully exposed to space and manipulated by the module’s remote manipulator system or a 10-meter robotic arm.

In 2010, the Tranquility node was fully installed, and the cupola was attached - the large viewing dome where most stunning views of Earth can be seen.

The last pressurized module, Leonardo, was installed in 2011.

As of 2019, the ISS consists of fifteen pressurized modules and the integrated trust structure.

In 2016, the Bigelow expansion module was installed. This is an experimental inflatable module that has been carefully monitored for the last four years, with its protective layers intact from micro-meteoroids and its performance expectations exceeding its goals. The idea is to test technologies like this to further the expansion of future stations and future space exploration.

A group of astronauts shown working inside the International Space Station on computers and labs

A Day on the International Space Station

A day on the station starts much like a day on Earth. The crew wakes up at 6:00 am UTC, with morning inspection of the station, breakfast and daily conference with Mission Control before starting the workday at 8:10 am.

The first scheduled exercises of the day generally follow, with more exercises following the 1-hour lunch break.

In general, the crew works 10 hours per weekday, 5 hours on Saturday, and has Sundays off. The rest of the time is their own – for relaxation or catching up on work.

Hygiene needs for astronauts are the same in space as on Earth. Astronauts will wash their hair with a rinse less shampoo. Washing their faces and brushing their teeth is done carefully in microgravity.

Food is mostly vacuum-sealed in plastic bags.

The crew looks forward to the arrival of spaceships that bring the arrival of care packages and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Crumbs and liquid are carefully monitored because of the dangers of contaminating the station’s systems.

Astronauts living on the ISS do have free time. One of the most sought-after things to do during free time is to look out the window in the cupola. Games, books, musical instruments, and movies are also available on the station. Imagine being an astronaut being onboard the ISS and getting to watch the newest Star Wars movie, while orbiting the Earth.

Astronaut Nicole Stott poses for a photo inside the International Space Station, with Earth slightly visible in the background
Retired astronaut Nicole Stott pictured on the International Space Station. Listen to our latest podcast episode with her here.

What we've learned aboard the ISS

Since 2000, the International Space Station has been constantly occupied by humanity. We’ve learned a lot – not only what it takes to keep a space station running for so long, but also the effects of long term stays in space on the human body.

The most extensive study to date was the astronaut Twin study. In 2019, NASA reported their medical results. This one year mission studied the health effects of long term space flight on NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who stayed 342 days on the ISS. Scott’s identical twin, Mark, was on Earth and the comparable data sought alternations in DNA and cognition of Scott Kelly in space, as well as serious blood flow and clot problems that astronauts could suffer from living in space. These results will be instrumental when making mission parameters to astronauts heading to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Both Russia’s Roscosmos Space Agency and NASA have pledged to remain part of the ISS program until 2024. The usability of the station, as we look towards the future of the next space station around Earth, could extend until 2030, thanks to the Space Flight Act of 2013.

You can spot the ISS in the night sky without the use of a telescope. There are many smartphone apps that can help, including the NASA app and Star Walk.

As we look towards the future, space exploration seems to have a bright, bright tomorrow. More space stations are being proposed for orbiting Earth and the Gateway station is the next project to be created and orbit around the Moon. It will be used as a literal gateway to be used by astronauts from the Earth to the lunar surface.

Hang on, earthlings — we are making history. Take the journey with us as we look at this episode of The Science of the ISS: Humanity in Space.

Tune into Fueled by Death Cast weekly to see more of this six-part series about the science of humans in space. Catch the episodes on the Death Wish Coffee YouTube channel.

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