The Cold War had ended in less than a decade when NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, huddled in a Soyuz spaceship 20 years ago and blew themselves into orbit on Halloween.
Two days later, their small spaceship docked at the International Space Station, then a fraction of its size today. Their arrival would herald the start of 20 years of uninterrupted settlement in the laboratory, which NASA, an international partnership, would continue to build for another decade.
Out of the desire to smooth geopolitical tensions after the great conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the partnership with the space station has been more or less successful – the station has remained inhabited despite the space shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003 and nearly a decade later without US space transportation. NASA, Roscosmos and the European, Japanese and Canadian partners could rely on each other.
Not that it was easy. There was tension from the very first moments at the station. Shepherd, who would act as the first ISS commander over his more experienced cosmonaut colleagues, wanted to name the station “Alpha”. He had support from Krikalev, but some Russian space officials believed their former Mir space station deserved the honor. They believed that the new station should be called “Beta”. NASA had not signed this designation either.
Even so, Shepherd pushed ahead. He liked that alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, neither American nor Russian. On the first day of the crew aboard the station, Shepherd said during a room-to-ground conversation with NASA Administrator Dan Goldin about the public loop: “The first expedition on the space station is asking for permission to answer the Alpha radio call.”
Goldin did not expect this and spoke away from the microphone for a few moments to talk to others on site. Then he came back and said the name “Station Alpha” was legal for the duration of Shepherd’s nearly four-month expedition.
This matched the crew and Shepherd replied, “Get out of the Alpha space station.” Since then, more than five dozen other crews have switched to the International Space Station, most recently Expedition 63, which started in mid-October. In the two decades since then, there have always been at least two people on board.
Days before the space station’s last launch from Kazakhstan, NASA crew member of the mission, Kate Rubins, addressed this anniversary in the crew’s final pre-flight press conference.
“I think the International Space Station is one of the most incredible technical achievements in human history,” she said. “It is quite a miracle to see that such a huge machine, built entirely by humans and flown from the surface of the earth, still exists in space 20 years later.”
The station is unique in that no one has built such a large spacecraft in orbit or flown it for so long. With that in mind, it tests the limits of what is possible each day, and it’s worth thinking about the station’s achievements. These go far beyond geopolitics and range from science to exploration to the commercialization of space. Yet there is growing concern that the space station could be withdrawn from service before a replacement, which will soon end our two decades in orbit. In addition, we could lose much of the value gained from such an outpost.
“This is critical,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine of planning a future in low-earth orbit. “And it’s something that is never funded.”
What the station did
The International Space Station wasn’t cheap. This depends on how you count the beans – for example, how much of the space shuttle budget should be included, considering that the shuttle was used almost entirely to build ISS in the 2000s? NASA has spent between $ 100 billion and $ 150 billion on the station’s assembly and maintenance since construction began nearly three decades ago. However, NASA, the nation, and the world have received much in return for their investment.
First of all, those International The space station lived up to its name. Not only does the orbital laboratory provide a valuable diplomatic link between Russia and the United States in times of mounting tension, but it has also given space to much of the world.
NASA’s program manager for the station, Joel Montalbano, told Ars that the ISS had reached 108 countries in its lifetime, either through astronauts flying, through research conducted there, or through liaison events.
“We could stay out of politics and work on a physics-based philosophy,” he said. “It’s hard and difficult to work with different cultures, and time changes. But it’s a good example for the rest of the world. ”
In front of the space station, NASA astronauts had spent mostly 10-day or two-week steps in space during shuttle missions. Now astronauts regularly fly six month rotations. Scott Kelly flew 11 months while Peggy Whitson, Christina Koch and Drew Morgan spent nine months or more in space. In this way, scientists and doctors on Earth have been able to study how prolonged periods of weightlessness affect human physiology.
The good news is that when people are in space for more than six months, scientists don’t find big surprises or show stoppers. Montalbano said new measures required to accommodate people on such missions are relatively straightforward – perhaps giving longtime crew members an extra day from time to time and ensuring that their family members and loved ones on earth are well looked after . This type of research is essential before astronauts are sent on longer missions deeper into the solar system, to places like Mars.
The space station is only now making progress in scientific research. The circulating laboratory offers a resource that is very difficult to obtain on earth: weightlessness. There was little time available to science in the first ten years, as much of the work at the station was devoted to the construction and maintenance of the facility. Then, after its substantial completion in 2010, the space shuttle stopped flying, leaving NASA mostly limited to about two crew members on the station of Russian spacecraft.
The advent of the commercial crew program is changing that. With every mission flown by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle, NASA can send four people instead of three. This fourth person’s time will be devoted almost entirely to scientific research. As a result, the “astronaut time” spent on scientific research can double from 35 hours per week to 70 hours.
After all, the station has provided US companies with a valuable platform to extend their range to near-Earth orbit. SpaceX, Northrop Grumman and Boeing were able to develop cargo and crew transport systems for orbit and thus stimulate their spaceflight activities. Companies like Made in Space, Nanoracks, and a host of other companies have benefited from being able to test manufacturing and other activities in zero gravity without having to overcome the likely insurmountable hurdle of developing their own miniature space stations.
To the extent that commercial space is an emerging industry in the United States, much of that activity can be traced back to the International Space Station in one way or another.
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