Humans have lived permanently on the International Space Station for the past 20 years. Although the majority of the occupants have been working astronauts, that may soon change.
Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut who previously said he could kill a man with a knife entered an orbiting spacecraft early on November 2, 2000. The spacecraft was about 250 miles (400 kilometres) above Earth. Former Navy SEAL Bill Shepherd, fighter pilot Yuri Gidzenko, and engineer Sergei Krikalev flew on a Soyuz spaceship for two days to get there. However, they firmly established themselves as the first full-time crew of the orbiting lab when they turned on the lights of the International Space Station.
The members of Expedition 1 joined hands in a display of brotherly unity as they announced the beginning of 20 years and counting of human presence in space.
A brief glance at the ISS
One of the most ambitious engineering projects ever is the International Space Station (ISS). The station, which is the world’s brightest artificial star and a Nobel Prize finalist, is plainly visible with the unaided eye as it moves through the night sky. But unlike any other satellite you would see from above, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed 242 people from at least 19 different sovereign states since it was built in December 1998.
The first astronauts from South Africa, Brazil, Sweden, Iran, Malaysia, South Korea, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates were among the station’s previous occupants. The oldest lady in space, the first set of spacewalking grandfathers, and the oldest spacewalker in the world have all spent time on the ISS. Even the first space marathon and the first space marriage have taken place there.
A suite of Russian living and research quarters, an American lab, a European lab, a Japanese lab, three connecting nodes, a Canadian robot arm, a multi-window cupola (with 360-degree views of Earth), and a football-field-sized truss structure, which holds four sets of solar arrays, batteries, and radiators, are all features of the station’s physical structure.
It goes without saying that all those adds add up. The ISS has a livable volume greater than a six-bedroom house, weighs about a million pounds (450,000 kg), and is orbiting the Earth (13,700 cubic feet, or about 400 cubic meters).
It has so far taken 37 Space Shuttle trips, 63 Soyuz flights, and even a recent voyage on SpaceX’s Man Dragon to construct, replenish, and crew this enormous structure in the sky. Also delivering necessities including food, water, clothing, experiments, fuel, tools, and spare parts were 73 Russian Progress freighters, 34 commercial Dragon and Cygnus cargo ships, 9 Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles, and 5 European Automated Transfer Vehicles.
These resupply operations, however, involve more than just replenishing basic supplies. A 3D printer, a special toothpaste, birthday cards, holiday gifts, and even an espresso machine have all been included in their cargo. Recently, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft delivered Estée Lauder skincare items for an in-space marketing campaign along with a new toilet, which is admittedly necessary.
The 20 years since
63 more expedition crews have lived and worked on the ISS for lengths ranging from a few months to more than a year since Shepherd, Gidzenko, and Krikalev’s original arrival.
Initially, space shuttles dropped off and picked up rotating crews of three. The crew, however, required a backup plan for egress because the shuttles rarely stopped for an extended period of time. Russia launched frequent Soyuz “taxi” flights, whose crews worked with the expedition crew for a few days before dropping off a new ship and returning home in the old one.
These taxi flights allowed paying passengers for the first time. Engineer Dennis Tito spent a week on the ISS in April 2001 after paying $20 million to be the first commercial “spaceflight participant.” But his would not be the last flight.
Over the subsequent years, businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, software entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, engineers Gregory Olsen, Charles Simonyi, and Richard Garriott, as well as Guy Laliberté, the creator of Cirque du Soleil, paid visits to the station (in fact, Simonyi visited twice). Soprano singer Sarah Brightman and ex-NSYNC member Lance Bass were among others who trained for flights, but their plans fell through.
Later, when NASA ended the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, expedition crews were once more assigned to all three seats on each Soyuz trip. There were fewer opportunities to pay astronauts.
However, ten years later, with the introduction of the Starliner and Crew Dragon commercial spacecraft, space travel appears to be seeing a comeback. The Houston-based company AxiomSpace has announced intentions to launch former astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria, three tourists, including Tom Cruise and Doug Liman, to the International Orbit Station (ISS) in October of next year, where they may work on a movie that will be shot in space. In the meantime, Russia plans to launch a Soyuz rocket in December 2021 carrying two tourists and a qualified cosmonaut to the International Space Station.
Twenty years from now?
When Shepherd, Gidzenko, and Krikalev stepped onto the nascent station two decades ago, such commercial flights must have been beyond their wildest thoughts. For them, the ISS was and still is a state-of-the-art orbiting laboratory. It has helped more than 2,700 research projects from 103 nations so far, covering everything from experimental physics and experimental technology to the life and material sciences.
The station’s full-time crews were primarily made up of Americans and Russians in its early years. However, since 2006, other ISS partner countries have assumed a more significant role. The command of the station has alternated between astronauts from France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Italy, and Germany.
Numerous historic feats have been accomplished on (or nearby) the ISS during the past two decades, including the first national spacewalks for Italy, Sweden, and Canada, as well as the first all-female spacewalk carried out last year by NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.
The International Space Station (ISS), which was first occupied by Shepherd, Gidzenko, and Krikalev 20 years ago, has repeatedly shown itself to be one of humanity’s finest achievements. The fact that it has brought together a large number of nations in the pursuit of peaceful objectives that are grounded in both objective science and cross-national cooperation is arguably the most significant legacy of this human foothold to the skies.