On Earth, some might hear champagne bottles being popped open, but up there in space, they’re probably squeezing it slowly from a bag (if they have any champagne at all). For on November 2nd, the International Space Station (ISS) turned 15 years old. Furthermore, its life cycle has recently been extended to 2024 and could go an extra four years after that.
It is safely the longest-lasting continuous
human presence in space. The runner-up is formerly active Russian Mir-station, which orbited the Earth for a little less than 10 years. So, why should you be excited? Surely by now it’s getting quite old and unimportant: don’t we have more exciting projects to focus on?
Well, if you’re keen to see humans make it onto other planets you should definitely be excited. The ISS is the main laboratory for international experimentation on microgravity and the space environment, as well as testing for the consequences of prolonged human exposure to life in space.
For anybody who recently watched The Martian, the oxygenator and water reclaimer that keep Matt Damon alive are actually being used. They were developed and tested over a long period of time on the ISS. The station is the crucial stepping stone in humanity’s journey towards other planets. Medical ramifications of space life are hugely important, since living in zero-gravity conditions causes you to lose bone and muscle mass, as well as distort your body’s blood pressure. These are topics that must be better understood if we are to send humans all the way to Mars.
If that isn’t enough of a justification for the £2.3bn spent on the station every year, consider its two other lasting contributions. First, it is a social laboratory of sorts. NASA administrator Charles Bolden emphasised the lessons for the future learned from the ISS, where “tens of thousands of people across fifteen countries collaborate to advance shared goals”. This is an optimistic message to anyone concerned with the possibility of greater peace and collaboration among humankind.
Secondly, perhaps more relevant to us now, it has provided us with a fantastically informative and entertaining YouTube channel (“An Astronaut’s Guide to Life in Space” – Chris Hadfield). With a quick browse you can see how difficult, yet fun it is to clip your nails, cry or make yourself a cuppa in space.
The ISS is cruically important to science and thus to all human beings, and you can see it too. Its orbit is very frequent and quite low, so you could get a decent view of it with a good pair of binoculars. NASA’s website can show you, based on your region, when and where to expect it. So, strap those goggles on, raise a glass and say “Happy Birthday, ISS!”