The first segment of the International Space Station (ISS) was successfully launched into orbit ten years ago. Representing mankind’s first step into the most daring space project of all time, the mission of the very first rocket was to put the first piece of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit, although the idea of an orbital space station is far from new. Back in the 1970s, both the United States and the Soviet Union successfully launched manned space installations.
The US Skylab functioned for eight years, hosting three different crews and the Soviet version, Salyut, lasted for eleven years, initiating in 1971. The Salyut program was followed by the Mir Station, which was in service for almost fifteen years and was the world’s longest-serving space station. In its heydey, Mir had seven attached modules.
The project marked the beginning of a movement towards international cooperation in space. An exchange of crew members on different flights helped to foster a spirit of friendship between the two countries. NASA's money supported Mir when the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, ran out of funding in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But in the end, the Mir project proved too expensive, and in 1993, U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, and Russian Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, announced that Space Station Freedom would be merged with the Mir-2 project, the successor to Mir, and would become what is now known as the International Space Station.
Due for completion within the next two years, assembling the International Space Station represents a major engineering challenge, which will inevitably provide invaluable experience for future projects. The workable assumption is that any spacecraft capable of sustaining a long mission into deep space will be too large to be propelled from Earth in one piece. Several steps, both in terms of delivery and assembly in orbit will be required, and this procedure may well transform the International Space Station into the world’s first space shipyard!
Despite operational difficulties, design changes and several delays over the years, the multi-billion dollar International Space Station project is close to completion. It is expected that the ISS will remain in operation until at least 2016, eventually becoming a microgravity laboratory and possibly a secure starting position for future missions to the Moon and even Mars!
The International Space Station has a unique microgravity environment. This is why so many biological and material science experiments that rely on microgravity account for a major part of the lab work done on the ISS. The maintenance of a low altitude allows the ISS to cut the cost of deliveries and permits for heavier payloads. It is expected that once construction is complete, it will be moved to a higher orbit, which will further reduce maintenance costs.
No matter how successful or important the ISS is or will become, its true significance is symbolic in nature. The International Space Station is synonymous with friendship, and international collaboration where national differences and grievances melt away in pursuit of a common goal that no one country could achieve on their own, (thus proving Benjamin Franklin’s old axiom, “If we can’t hang together, then most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”
The International Space Station represents our best efforts at piloted space exploration. It is a testing arena for man and his attempts to survive in an alien cosmos, far from home. It is the embodiment of hope and realized dreams for those who came of age in the shadow of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and Yuri Gagarin’s famous voyage in space. Space travel is the wave of the future, of a tomorrow that comes closer and closer with each passing day thanks to the efforts of all those (Russian, American and otherwise) involved in the activities of the International Space Station.
From the very beginning, the ISS was slated as an international project, with Canada, Europe and Japan building some modules and hardware for it. To date, 16 countries and four national space agencies contribute to the ISS. Japan and Europe have each created lab modules; Kibo and Columbus respectively, which dramatically increased the ISS’s experimental capability when they were added earlier this year. China is clearly missing from the total equation, but officials have stated that the communist country has expressed the desire to become a part of this important global project.
Happy Birthday, ISS.
And many, many more.