Imagine you are floating in a spacecraft…
You are weightless! It feels so strange, yet amazing at the same time. You push off the wall and float down a long room. You feel like Superman flying across empty space. You duck your head and do a quick flip before landing against the other wall, then push off it to soar in the opposite direction. At the end of the next room, you grab a handle and stop to look out the round bubble window. Far below you see a glittering blue ocean, clouds, and brown land. You are 200 miles above earth on board the International Space Station.
Speed and Orbit
Have you ever heard of the International Space Station? Right now it’s circling the earth above you at 17,000 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour). It is going so fast that it orbits the earth every 90 minutes — that means 15 ½ times a day! That’s incredibly fast! Some people think the Space Station is floating in space, but it’s actually falling around the earth in what is known as an orbit.
The International Space Station, also known as the ISS, is special because it’s not owned by a single country, but by many countries who worked together to build it. It started off as a single module and has grown piece-by-piece into the larger station it is now. In 1998 Russia launched the module Zarya into low earth orbit as the first piece. Low-earth orbit means it is still within the earth’s orbit, not far off in space beyond the earth’s strong gravitational pull.
Two weeks after Zarya was launched, the United States launched its own space shuttle with the Unity module and its astronauts onboard. The next step was connecting the first two modules. The astronauts did this by floating out into space and attaching them. And that is how the International Space Station began! After that other pieces were slowly added to the ISS until it grew and grew. In 2000 came the Russian module Zvezda, then NASA’s Destiny module. Canada’s space program contributed a robotic arm for spacewalks and to make remote controller repairs. The Harmony module came in 2007, then the European Space Agency sent up the Columbus module. Japan sent up its own module in 2008. Next came NASA’s Tranquility module, then Europe’s Leonardo module and finally the Bigelow module sent up by a private company. One reason ISS is amazing is that it is a team effort!
Space Station Activities
Usually, around 3 to 6 astronauts live and work on the ISS at a time. It was made for many reasons, but one of them was to do research. Since humans plan to go to Mars someday, they are using the ISS to see how space will affect the astronauts during their journey to Mars. For example, what will space flight do to their bodies? What kind of foods will they need to eat? What kind of exercise will they need? Will they be able to grow plants? They’ve also tried out the different devices they’ll need in space such as 3D printers and coffee makers.
On the ISS the crew’s days are very busy and besides doing experiments, they spend a lot of time doing maintenance — which means keeping the station running smoothly. Each astronaut has different responsibilities, sort of like you might have doing chores at home. Only by working together will the ISS continue to work properly. Often the astronauts climb into their space suits and space walk — which means going outside of the ISS and floating around to make repairs. This can be dangerous work, so they always attach themselves to the ISS for safety. The astronauts have also been testing a robot that they can use to fly around the ISS and make repairs for them.
The other important part of an astronaut’s day is taking care of themselves, making sure they eat the right foods, showering, brushing their teeth, and getting exercise. They also do things like video chat with schoolchildren and talk about what they’re doing with people around the world. They do this to get others excited about the space station and space research.
Eating in zero gravity can be very tricky! Their food has to be strapped down to a table and utensils and water bottles have magnets on them to keep them from floating away. If you look on the internet you can find some funny videos of the crew doing flips, floating around and dancing, and playing with water. In zero gravity water floats around in blobs!
Space Station Crew
People from 19 different countries have visited the ISS. These include the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Now you see why they call it the International Space Station. International means “many countries.” At the ISS it’s exciting to see people from many different countries working together. It’s a perfect example of how working together with people across the world can accomplish amazing things!
Many people dream of visiting space someday and some companies promise that someday anyone who can pay for it will be able to do it. Right now it can be very expensive (and at times not even possible) to visit places like the ISS, but someday space vacations may be available to everyone. Can you imagine visiting a place like the ISS or a far-off hotel on the moon? This is called space tourism and a few very wealthy people have been able to visit the ISS by paying for it. It costs them many millions of dollars!
One of these people was Anousheh Ansari. Anousheh was born in Iran and moved to the United States when she was little. She was interested in engineering and graduated from college to become an engineer. She and her husband later started a company that grew and grew until they were very wealthy. She’d always dreamed of going to space and became interested in visiting the space station. When she found out they were allowing some to visit the ISS if they paid, she jumped on the chance. First Anousheh trained for the journey, then took a Russian rocket up to the ISS and lived and worked there for a short while. There Anousheh helped do experiments and later wrote a book about her amazing journey.
One of the most well-known astronauts to live on the ISS is Chris Hadfield. Chris was born in Ontario, Canada. He grew up on a farm with his family where they grew corn. When Chris was little he became interested in flying and later saw the Apollo 11 moon mission, which made him want to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong. Later, he went to college, then joined the Canadian Air Force. This eventually led to training as an astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency and working on the International Space Station. On the ISS Chris shared his day-to-day activities on Twitter and Facebook and later made a music video on YouTube while playing the guitar in space! This brought even more attention to the important work they were doing on the ISS.
Many records have been set by the crew of the ISS — such as most consecutive days in space by an American, which was 340 days by astronaut Scott Kelly. The other cool thing about Scott’s trip to the ISS is he is a twin, so they were able to study how space affected Scott versus his twin brother who stayed on Earth.
Another record was the longest spaceflight by a woman at 289 days by Peggy Whitson.
The ISS also holds the record for most people in space at once, which was a crew of 13 in 2009.
How do you see the space station?
Did you know you can see the space station from earth? With the help of your parents, if you go to spotthestation.nasa.gov you can sign up to receive text messages or emails whenever the space station is visible above you. Recently, my kids and I did this and it was amazing to see it float across the night sky like a star.
It Takes Teamwork!
One of the best lessons we can learn from the International Space Station is that by working together people all over the world can do amazing things. Isn’t this so much better than focusing on our differences and fighting? One problem in the world is when people look at those who are different and think there is something wrong with them because they aren’t the same. But differences are what keep the world interesting and there is so much we can learn from each other, from our different experiences and customs, and beliefs. The space station shows that even though we have differences we have common goals, like visiting space and learning about space and the Earth. As we focus on what is common, we can work together to do great things.
A couple of years ago I worked with a man from India. I’d never met someone from India, so it was very interesting listening to his homeland, what it was like to grow up in India, and his different beliefs. He celebrated different holidays and had different ideas about the world, but it fascinated me to try and see the world through his eyes. As we got to know each other we became friends and I look back on our talks with fondness.
Take a moment to think of someone you know who is different than you. They might be from a different country, look different, talk differently or act in a different way. Take the leap and ask them a few questions and try to get to know them better — because chances are you’ll learn something interesting and possibly make a new friend in the process!