The last twenty years have seen some major developments in the space race with the Russian and US space programs pushing further and further into the unknown at massive cost. However, perhaps the most expensive structure ever developed is currently circulating the Earth at 27,700 per hour and completing 15.7 orbits of earth per day. This is the International Space Station which is currently the only full-time manned structure in space.
The venture is a joint project between the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Europe (11 different countries within Europe) and to a lesser extent there is input from Brazil, Italy and China. The project started in 1998 and is expected to finish in 2011 and remain operational until at least 2016.
The idea for the International Space Station
Originally both America and Russia had their own space station program as a result of the “cold war” which dictated defensive and security spending on both sides in Russia and America. The US version was originally called Freedom and was created to combat the threat of the Soviet Mir space station which had been constructed in the early 1990s. However, as the Cold War ended and budgetary restraints hit both sides it was the US who initially extended the hand of friendship to both European allies and Russia in pursuit of the ultimate space station.
It was George W Bush and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin who originally signed the cooperation agreement which stipulated that the joint space program would be used for peaceful means. There was also an exchange of astronauts with US astronauts boarding the Russian space station and Russian astronauts aboard the US space shuttle.
The creation of the International Space Station
The International Space Station began to take shape in 1998 and by July 2008 over 70% of the project was complete in what is the ultimate engineering project which has pushed the existing boundaries on numerous occasions. The first segment was launched in November 1998 by the Russian Proton rocket and was followed a couple of weeks later by three “node” modules which would allow a maximum of three astronauts to live in the space station at any one time. However, it was not until the year 2000 that we saw the first astronaut step into the new space station for a short-term stay.
Over the next decade there were many new modules, equipment and transportation devices which were added to the International Space Station where a number of tests and projects have been ongoing for some time. However, in 2003 after the shattering developments when Space Shuttle Columbia blew up on takeoff, the US space programme was halted until 2005 when further equipment was flown to the space station.
It will come as no surprise to learn that the International Space Station is powered by solar power which is drawn from the sun’s rays. However, this is no normal solar power system with an area of 375 m² positioned on the exterior of the International Space Station together with an advanced tracking system which follows the sun as the space station orbits the earth, in order to collect the maximum power available.
The space station has an internal system which converts the high-voltage power from the solar panels into usable voltage which can be aligned to an array of needs from everyday items to high-powered and high-voltage research projects. The replacement of the all the Russian solar panels was vital to the ongoing success of the project.
As you might imagine maintaining the orbit of a vessel which weighs in excess of 227,000 kg is not an easy project although it is vital to the future of the International Space Station. Using an array of sophisticated computer tracking programs and various booster rockets located around the space station the vessel is maintained at an altitude of between 278 km and 460 km above the Earth. However, due to the atmospheric drag, if left to its own devices the space station would eventually crash into Earth so the booster rockets are engaged at regular intervals to ensure a stable orbit of the Earth.
The future of the International Space Station
While in public both the US and Russian space agencies are very keen to keep the project going indefinitely and work together to push the boundaries of space yet further, in private there are concerns that funding issues will put the future of the project in doubt beyond 2011. It appears that the US government is dragging its heels with regards to future funding and this is apparently having an impact upon the Russian outlook for the International Space Station.
If either the US or the Russian space agencies were to pull out of the project this will effectively be the end of the International Space Station because European counterparts and the rest of the world would not be able to control and fund the project going forward. Whether there is a change of heart as Barack Obama enters the White House remains to be seen but we are fast approaching a critical point for the future of the International Space Station.
Strange facts about the International Space Station
The average speed at which the space station is held around the Earth is in excess of 27,000 km/h which is the equivalent of 17,000 mph.
One orbit of the Earth takes approximate 91.34 minutes and as a consequence the International Space Station orbits the earth more than 15 times a day.
Contrary to popular belief, the International Space Station IS visible by the naked eye from Earth.
As of 10 December 2008 the space station has been in orbit for 3673 days of which 2962 days have seen between one and three astronauts in residence.
The space station has so far orbited the Earth nearly 58,000 times and travelled in excess of 2,000,000,000 km.
The International Space Station has already held the first ever “space wedding” when one Russian cosmonaut circling the earth married his partner who was in Texas at the time.
The ultimate modern day property?
The International Space Station is the first such property to be built in space and while it is not grounded on any of the surrounding planets this would appear to be just a matter of time. The costs so far is literally trillions of dollars and while a number of highly significant scientific experiments have been held in space we have only so far scratched the surface of the potential for life in space and what this could give to the human race.
While many sceptics believed that space tourism would never happen, we saw the first six space tourists go into space in 2008 although they did have to pay $25 million each for the experience!