For a long time, it looked as if it would never happen: the Reagan-era Space Station Freedom was a victim of cutbacks, budget overruns, and a myriad of other issues, never to be designed as it originally was laid out. Enter 1993, and then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin announced the evolution of Freedom into what is now well-known as the International Space Station (ISS).
Construction of what we now know as the International Space Station began on-orbit in 1998. Its first long-duration crew came aboard two years later in 2000. In 2013, the multi-moduled, solar-paneled station is the largest visible satellite in the night sky and is currently helmed by the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Col. Chris Hadfield. The space station is a collaboration between 16 different nations and has housed space travelers from NASA, Roskosmos, CSA, JAXA, and ESA. Taxpayers have sunk $100 billion into the orbiting laboratory.
The cost factor has come with criticism. The ISS took a long time—13 years—to construct. Its last module, the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), was delivered to the station on Space Shuttle Discovery’s last flight, STS-133, in early 2011. Russia may add other modules in the future. The Centrifuge Accommodations Module, which would have provided for experiments in artificial gravity, was canceled in 2005 due to prohibitively high costs. This was also the fate, although it was later revived, of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02), which is currently affixed to the space station’s truss assembly. As the United States’ economy experienced problems, the space program was scaled back.
One event that further altered the ISS’ trajectory was the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew in 2003. After much soul-searching, NASA’s path forward was dramatically altered.
In 2011, after 30 years, the Shuttle Program came to an end. All of the shuttles’ post-Columbia accident missions concerned ISS construction and completion. The shuttles were very expensive to maintain, experienced delays, and no doubt increased some of the total cost of the space station. (For the time being, astronauts catch a ride on Russian Soyuz capsules.) In the ISS’ history, 165 EVAs have been undertaken to fabricate and maintain the space station. Although viewed as dangerous in the early days of space flight, these “spacewalks” are fairly routine now.
Of course, one of the ISS’ reasons for existing is to advance science and spinoffs, therein making life better for people back on Earth. The canceled Centrifuge Accommodations Module reduced the station to working on experiments with easily available equipment. However, now that construction of the ISS is complete, in the last couple of years it has finally entered into its “extensive scientific phase.”
While some have argued that some of the experiments could possibly be replicated on, say, a “vomit comet” aircraft, there are experiments and discoveries that have taken place on the ISS not replicable within the bonds of Earth. Most of these discoveries have taken place recently—within the last five years.
It was found that bacteria become more aggressive and grow more quickly in space, which may lead to vaccines for potentially fatal illnesses plaguing people on terra firma (for example, salmonella bacteria was observed to display this phenomenon on the ISS in 2008). Studies on bone density loss in space are also being undertaken, which may help patients with osteoporosis on Earth. Information gleaned may also assist with future long-term space expeditions (missions to an asteroid or Mars are some examples). Astronauts on the ISS use the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) to combat bone loss with frequent exercise, as well as eating a well-balanced diet and getting sufficient quantities of Vitamin D. Those observations “up there” might go a long way in helping mature citizens down here.
Just in the last year, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 has collected particles that suggest, but don’t prove, the existence of dark matter. The AMS conducts its research by collecting positrons and electrons.
Crystal growth experiments continue, helping researchers on Earth understand structure and functions of proteins. Experiments in blood work and respiration are slated to be used on Earth to look for innovations in fighting chronic illnesses such as cancer and asthma.
Perhaps one of the most important tests of the human body—and science—on the ISS (and in spaceflight) will take place during 2015, when NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roskosmos’ Mikhail Kornienk are scheduled to spend a year on the space station, in part to see how the human body adapts to spaceflight beyond six months.
The ISS may also have a stake in how disaster readiness is utilized on Earth. Just weeks ago, the International Space Station SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, or ISERV, premiered its “first light” image. This imaging system provides high-resolution glimpses upon our home planet and has the potential to save citizens from environmental disasters on a global scale.
In the past year, SpaceX demonstrated commercial delivery capabilities with its Dragon capsule delivering crucial supplies to the ISS. It demonstrated the ability to deliver science samples back to Earth, which speeds up scientific research time. This was especially true on the Commercial Resupply Services-2 mission conducted last month. One experiment in particular was flown up, conducted on station, and then returned to the Dragon capsule, which then delivered it back to scientists on Earth. Later this year, the Antares rocket system with Orbital’s Cygnus capsule will try to dock with the ISS and attempt a similar resupply mission. A demo is scheduled to launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Wednesday, April 17.
Moreover, the “international” aspect of the ISS promotes goodwill, as five space agencies have a financial stake in the project. It is, in part, a continuation of the Mir program (and, reaching back earlier, Apollo-Soyuz). Not least notably is the importance the ISS poses to school-age students. Students’ experiments from across the world have been undertaken on-board, most visibly with the YouTube Space Lab competition in 2012; this initiative ignites and maintains students’ passion for STEM subjects.
The ISS has issues that radically reduce what it is capable of on other fronts. To accommodate the Russians, the station was constructed in an orbit that restricts what it is able to do. Whereas, if it were in a more optimal orbit, it could have been used to assist in deep space exploration initiatives; its current orbit restricts it to mainly micro-gravity and some technical research.
Also while the Russians and certain commercial concerns want to keep the ISS on orbit past 2020, others have expressed an interest in crewed deep space exploration efforts. Reports have even suggested that some are considering the possibility of ending their involvement in the program.
While the ISS has been a magnet for criticism due to its lack of published science thus far, long building time, high costs, and need for continued maintenance, its $100 billion worth may be proven in the next few years, as it continues to shed light on Earth’s environmental and health problems while yielding discoveries about living and working in space. The ISS’ story is still being written. Hopefully, some of these lessons will be learned if the U.S. does head to an asteroid, the Moon (again), or Mars, and decides to build infrastructure on or near other worlds. So, will the ISS provide a return on the investment it took to construct it? Perhaps—if it survives the ever-changing political landscape and produces discoveries that can be hung from its arrays, spires, and trusses like medals, it will prove its worth. If not, then the greatest construction effort in human history will go down as a mistake. Time will tell.