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The International Space Station

by Dani Johnson

May 24, 2013

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Image above: The space station is one of the brightest objects in the sky. Image Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) is basically an enormous science lab orbiting about 354 kilometers above the earth. The first part of the space station was launched in 1998 and is a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility. The completed space station weighs more than 400 tons, which is about the same as 400+ average sized cars. The entire thing is big enough to cover a football field including the end zones and the inside is about as big as an average sized house with 5 bedrooms. It also has 2 bathrooms, a gymnasium and allows for 6 astronauts to comfortably live there.

Image above: The International Space Station's length and width is about the size of a football field. Image Credit: NASA

The livable parts of the ISS consist of modules and nodes and are where most of the research and experiments take place. This behemoth uses 75 to 90 kilowatts of power, so it needs at least an acre of solar arrays on the outside of the space station get energy from the sun. There are also really awesome robot arms attached to the outside that helped build the space station and continue to help by moving around astronauts and controlling certain experiments. Airlocks and docking ports are like doors on the space station. Airlocks are how the astronauts get outside to go on spacewalks and docking ports are used to connect visiting spacecraft to the space station.

Image above: STS-114, the Space Shuttle's Return to Flight mission, delivered supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. An External Stowage Platform was installed with the assistance of Space Shuttle Discovery's robotic arm and two spacewalkers. Also, spacewalkers restored power to a failed Control Moment Gyroscope and installed a new one. Image Credit: NASA

The ISS is important for many reasons, but one of the big reasons is so that scientists can study the effects of living in space on the human body. Every astronaut that boards the ISS is a living experiment. There are several ways in which the body reacts to being in space. Since astronauts are floating around in a microgravity environment their bones aren't bearing regular weight loads anymore which causes the bone to break down and become more brittle. According to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute,
"To put it in perspective, post menopausal women who are untreated for bone loss can lose 1 to 1.5 percent of bone mass in the hip in one year while an astronaut can lose the same amount of hip bone mass in a single month."
Similarly, muscles will begin to atrophy due to lack of use, and the cardiovascular system and inner ear and balance system are even disrupted in microgravity environments. Being able to study the effects of microgravity on the human body this close to home will allow us to discover ways to prevent bodily damage and allow for longer missions and therefore farther trips into space. According to NASA,
"The station is vital to human exploration. It is where we are learning how to combat the physiological effects of being in space for long periods. The space station is our test bed for technologies and our decision-making processes when things go as planned and when they don't. It is important to learn and test these things 240 miles up rather than encountering them 240,000 miles away while on the way to Mars or beyond."
Another very important thing that astronauts aboard the ISS are studying is growing plants in space. Astronauts have been doing this for years and a space station study is helping scientists learn about the safety of growing and eating vegetables in space. NASA says,
"Growing food to supplement and minimize the food that must be carried to space will be increasingly important on long-duration missions," said Shane Topham, an engineer with Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan. "We also are learning about the psychological benefits of growing plants in space -- something that will become more important as crews travel farther from Earth."

Image above: Mizuna lettuce growing aboard the International Space Station before being harvested and frozen for return to Earth. Image credit: NASA

Did you know that the ISS is the brightest object in the night sky (besides the moon) and looks like a fast-moving plane to the naked eye? It is really fun to be able to see the space station zip across the sky. I use a service called Spot the Station that sends an email or a text message to me a few hours before the space station passes over my area. The services only notifies of good spotting opportunities to increase the chances of seeing it. The alerts aren't too frequent, either, as it only alerts once or twice per week at most. Although, my only complaint is that the ISS seems to only orbit above my location at odd hours of the morning that I'm never awake for, but it gives plenty of time to make plans to wake early if desired.

Ever wonder what life is like aboard the ISS? Fortunately, the astronauts spend some of their free time making video tours and answering civilian questions. Here is a YouTube playlist called Astronaut Responses where an ESA astronaut answers questions sent in from all over the world.

In the following 25+ minute long video, Commander Sunita Williams (Expedition 33) gives us a tour of the entire space station. I must admit that after watching this entire video I feel truly fortunate to be able to use gravity to sit on my couch and really rest my legs.

Commander Chris Hadfield (Expedition 35) recorded a music video farewell to the ISS shortly before coming back to Earth. It is a cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity, but a few lyrics have been changed. I am truly delighted that the people involved created this video. I am excited for things like this to reach the eyes and minds of young people all over the world and to inspire them to learn and apply their knowledge to help make great things (like the ISS) possible.


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by Dani Johnson

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