Everyone knows about the space station. We know people are up there living their lives a few months at a time, away from home, away from Earth, and away from friends and loved ones. What most of us don’t consider is how this happened. What did scientists have to discover, how long did it take and what problems did they have to solve to allow people to live in space for so long?
Figuring Out Space
One problem most people are generally familiar with is how space affects human beings. There are some problems that have to be taken seriously, when considering that an astronaut may be in space for as long as a year. Eating, exercising, sleeping and bathing all present obstacles that need to be addressed. Can you imagine trying to take a shower without gravity? That sounds messy.
Aside from the astronauts and encountering human-specific problems in space, how did they build the ISS its self? After all, when taken as a whole unit, it’s as big as a football field and weighs over 450 tons. How on Earth did they get it up there?
The answer is piece by piece. Since there is no way to launch something that heavy all at once, aerospace engineers put it together on the ground a little bit at a time. Afterward, it is taken via spaceship into orbit and assembled into larger parts of the whole by astronauts.
Construction of the ISS, even on Earth, was not a particularly simple project. Starting in 1998 and not being completed until 2010 made it a long and arduous process. By making the major components on Earth, mistakes could be made that wouldn’t be noticed until they got into space. After all, a tiny pinhole is nothing on Earth, but it can spell death in the vacuum of space.
Some of the work on certain aspects can be completed almost normally. The living quarters are constructed in canister-like shapes. This is for the same reason that a can of soda is in a canister; it helps to contain the pressure.
They also have to use air compressors. This however, is not to fill up tires, since there is little use for them in space. Instead, air compressors, which are very similar to some of the used heavy equipment you have in your garage, helps astronauts to create water in space. Bet you didn’t think of that when you were filling up your bicycle tires!
The Use of Equipment
Despite some heavy equipment that is in use up there, much of the work done on the ISS was completed with the precision help of computer operated machines. Much of the matter is extremely delicate, and requires exact placement that human beings simply cannot manage.
One of the very delicate aspects of the space station is the need for solar panels. Many people are familiar with the long, wing-like structures that extend out from the ISS. Those are actually solar panels, whose cells are made of a special type of silicon, which generate electricity and help to power the station.
Silicon, as well as the glass and other materials that the panels are constructed from, are fairly delicate, so every care had to be taken in their assembly and maintenance. If there were any unnecessary weaknesses, the entire structure could be compromised.
After being assembled in space, each part of the ISS then has to survive the tumultuous trip through the atmosphere. While this is not as dangerous as say, landing a rover on Mars, it is still a challenge. Additionally, once they are in space, they then have to be kept safe and cannot be allowed to run into any of the space junk floating around. Steering the ship through the stars is not an easy task.
The ISS is truly international. It is actually three smaller space stations that took over 10 years to build and put together. The parts consist of Freedom by the United States and Canada, Columbus by the U.K. and Mir-2 by Russia.
Its laboratory Kibo, was designed and built by Japan. Alone, this project would have been horribly expensive and challenging for any country. By working together, 4 countries accomplished what is possibly mankind’s most amazing feat: the largest manmade object ever to be put into space.