Designed and built in a joint effort between NASA, Russian Roscosmos, Japans JAXA and both the European & Canadian Space Agencies (ESA & CSA). It weighs 419 tonnes, is 73 x 109 x 20m in size and it travels in low earth orbit at approximately 27,500 kph doing 17 rounds a day. It is visible with the naked eye and travels across the sky in approximately 5 minutes. The iPhone app SkyGuide provides alerts when it comes past and points it out beautifully.
The Space Station is an amazing piece of architecture and engineering. A structure or truss such as this would never hold together on earth with our gravitation forces but up there its beautifully engineered to some fantastic minimums. Over engineering costs billions in space so there’ll be none of that. The tubular forms are as simple as possible and aerodynamic. The external solar arrays make it fully self sufficient for power and all the services systems are fully internalised. Extraordinarily the WC is rigged up with solids packaged to be taken back to earth while the liquids are processed and reused as drinking water. There are 14 pressurised modules and 3 more scheduled for installation.
The design is purely functional with very little comfort and not a single element for aesthetics. Both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Martian (2015) with Matt Damon show travelling space stations / vehicles with some fabulous spaces to occupy while waiting out extended journeys, these ideas are a very long way off. Beautiful structures with stunning spaces can easily be built on Earth but the trick is moving them into space away from our gravitational pull. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets are the current standard however their payloads are very small due to the difficulty in engineering and very high cost. It so happens that SpaceX are right now transporting a test module called BEAM which is an expandable habitable space, a possible way of overcoming the issues noted above.
ISS’ purpose is for zero gravity experimentation, monitoring of the earth and also to test the affects on the body during extended periods in space with the view to sending humans to Mars. Its all very serious, architect Sir Norman Foster won a design competition in 2015 for buildings on Mars, what an amazing commission if it eventuates.
The station is set for decommissioning in 2024 with replacements already in planning. Many people do not see the value in such high cost exploration however without such efforts we would not have the Hubble telescope and we would not know as much as we do about the universe around us. Space exploration is vital for education, understanding humanity and it also makes us feel pretty good about ourselves. Here is a link to astronaut Chris Hadfield’s tribute to the late David Bowie, filmed entirely on the International Space Station, it’s pretty awesome.