International Space Station
In the same month that astronauts celebrate 20 years of life on the International Space Station, the first commercial SpaceX crew arrives on board for a historic six month stay.
What is the ISS?
On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey in outer space. His spacecraft, Vostok 1, circled the Earth at a speed of 27,400km/h before re-entering the atmosphere.
Today, nearly 60 years later, journeys into space are much longer. Astronauts leave Earth for weeks – even months at a time – to live and work in outer space. And they spend their time on the International Space Station. Also known as the ISS, it is the largest human-made object in space and is built from parts assembled in orbit. In November 2000, after 10 years of work, it was ready.
Fifteen nations worked together to build the space station and the crew members come from all over the world. The spacecraft itself is still monitored and operated by an international partnership of space agencies: United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
Since it was launched, 239 people from 19 countries have travelled to the ISS. The US has sent the most astronauts – 151 people – closely followed by Russia with 49. Brazil, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and the Netherlands are among the countries to have sent just one delegate in 20 years.
Who can go to the ISS?
Until recently, astronauts staying on the ISS worked for government space agencies like Roscosmos, NASA or the ESA.
But this year, two trips to the space station marked a change. Elon Musk’s agency SpaceX became the first commercial company to send a crew to the space station. Last week, a second crew left Earth and arrived for a six-month stay. The mission is the first long-duration trip to the ISS to take off from the US in nine years, and could pave the way for regular commercial trips in the future.
Is there much training involved?
It takes years to become a fully qualified astronaut. NASA requires that every candidate has at least a master’s degree in a STEM subject. Hopeful astronauts then need to complete three years of relevant professional experience or 1,000 hours of piloting a jet, before they can even apply. Once on the programme, they spend hours studying models of the ISS and handling space equipment.
They also need to prepare for making spacewalks. At NASA, they practise the sensation of weightlessness by donning modified spacesuits and moving around life-sized models of the ISS underwater in a tank.
What happens on board?
The ISS holds crews of between three and six people. Most are ferried between Earth and the satellite on the Soyuz capsule. Astronauts spend most of their time performing experiments and maintenance. When work needs to be done to the outside of the spacecraft, they take spacewalks to fix the problems.
The crew also have to spend at least two hours a day exercising. In zero gravity, the human body hardly has to work at all, meaning that muscles are underused and become weaker. To fight this, there are special exercise machines that help crews go “jogging” and lift “weights”.
So it’s all work and no play?
Relaxing is also important. Part of the mission of the ISS is to find out how living in isolation away from our home planet for months affects us mentally. This way, they can prepare for future trips further afield to the Moon – or even Mars.
Astronauts bring books on board and spend time chatting and socialising. Sometimes though, it is relaxing to sit in the cupola – a seven-windowed observatory – and look at the stunning views of Earth from outer space.
- Will space be a popular tourist destination in 10 years?
- Design an advertising poster promoting weekend holidays to the Moon.
- The Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities is a state corporation of the Russian Federation responsible for space flights and research.
- The acronym for the European Space Agency.
- A company that designs and manufactures spacecraft. It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the inventor of PayPal and Tesla.
- A broad term describing subjects that fall within the categories of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
- When an astronaut moves about outside a spacecraft in outer space. The world record for the most spacewalks is held by a Russian astronaut called Anatoly Solovyev. He has been on 16 spacewalks. Those spacewalks equal more than 82 hours outside in space.
- The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is 62m long and nearly as deep. Being in water does not recreate the exact sensation of complete weightlessness, but it is the closest we can come on Earth.
- Designed for the Soviet space program in the 1960s, the Soyuz capsule remains in service today, having made more than 140 flights. It carries a maximum crew of three and launches from a base in Kazakhstan.
- The science that takes place on this giant laboratory ranges from growing plants to cancer research. One successful experiment is recycling water. The ISS now reuses 90% of the water on board by turning water vapour from the astronauts’ breath into drinking water.