The International Space Station
Tragically, my original post for today was wiped from the face of the earth by a technical issue, and since it was a decent length I won't have the opportunity to rewrite it before the end of the day. Happily, this has granted me the opportunity to write about something else near and dear to my heart: the International Space Station, or ISS for short!
The International Space Station (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/NASA)
Rocket-powered endeavors into the stars might not immediately seem to be a political project, but they most assuredly are: the ISS in particular was established as a geopolitical project between the US and Russia after the end of the Cold War. Truly, building the ISS has been a monumental accomplishment, involving 15 separate countries working together to launch and operate what Guinness World Records declares to be the most expensive man-made object ever built, at over $100 billion in price. At a time when people are suspicious of international co-operation and geopolitical tensions flare up, the continuing operation of the ISS -- planned to continue until 2030 -- is a powerful symbol of what we can do when we work together.
After the moon landing, something like a simple Earth orbit seems a lot less exciting. The International Space Station certainly doesn't get as much love as the Apollo program from the general population, but the ISS isn't less useful just because it's not placed so far out into space. The longest (and last) Apollo mission, Apollo 17, saw astronauts outside the ship on the lunar surface for just under a day. By comparison, the International Space Station is expected to have a total lifetime of over three decades. Twelve days (the full length of the Apollo 17 mission) doesn't tell us much about how the human body reacts to living and working in microgravity (the longest time spent aboard by an American thus far is Mark Vande Hei's 355-day trip, which ended today), or give us time to experiment with space manufacturing, or allow international crews of Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Japanese to work together for the betterment of humankind. The ISS was the launch customer for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew-and-cargo capsule, and without that contract, Elon Musk might not have built Starlink (his satellite internet system with worldwide coverage) or the upcoming Starship, a privately-built rocket that could someday take humanity to Mars and beyond.
Even with all of the turmoil currently going on with Russia and the rest of the world, work continues aboard the ISS. Yes, Russia's famously bombastic space program director threatened to bring the station crashing down on the US. (No, this is not a serious concern.) The ISS might not last as long as expected if the Russians pull out of the program, but we've seen over twenty years of good use on this station. There is so much incredible, irreplaceable data and experience that we've gathered over the past two decades that we couldn't have collected otherwise. The ISS has revitalized the commercial space market through companies like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, has advanced humanity's understanding of spaceflight to a whole new level, and has helped keep the peace between the US and Russia as our nation's space agencies have closely co-operated to keep our astronauts safe and keep the data flowing.
It may be in the future that we look back on the ISS as the symbol, the zenith of a golden age, but it may also be that we look back at the ISS as just the beginning of a brand new golden age of spaceflight. Whatever may happen, all of the current exciting spaceflight projects, whether it be the Artemis program aiming to land the first woman and next man on the moon, or any of the commercial space station projects aiming to take private innovation to the skies (Axiom, Orbital Reef, Starlab), owe their genesis and success to the success of the International Space Station. I don't know whether there will be another space station reflecting such wide international collaboration after the ISS is decommissioned. What I do know is that the ISS has been an essential, irreplaceable, unforgettable step on our way to the stars, and a key chapter in our history.
For once, people from West and East, of diverse ideologies, backgrounds, and ethnicities, came together and set aside their differences to do something great. They built the most expensive project in human history. Even though the ISS may not remain forever, as it will be destroyed upon re-entering the atmosphere, the mark it has made on our history is surely as important as that made by the Pyramids or any of the other ancient Wonders of the World. How amazing that we can stream video of astronauts climbing around, working on the outside in space. How amazing that they can call schools and show young kids the magic of microgravity in real time. How amazing that we were able to build this fantastic structure.
May the next space station be even better.
-- Seal with a Pen