The ISS programme is a joint project among the space agencies of the United States (National Aeronautics and Space Administration - NASA), Russia (Russian Federal Space Agency - RKA), Japan (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency - JAXA), Canada (Canadian Space Agency - CSA) and ten European nations (European Space Agency - ESA). The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) participates through a separate contract with NASA. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) similarly has separate contracts for various activities not done within the framework of ESA's ISS projects (where Italy also fully participates). China has reportedly expressed interest in the project, especially if it would be able to work with the RKA, although as of 2009 it is not involved and has announced plans to build their own series of stations.
The space station is in a Low Earth Orbit, and is now so large that it can be seen from Earth with the naked eye. It orbits at an altitude of approximately 350 km (190 nautical miles) above the surface of the Earth, travelling at an average speed of 27,700 kilometres (17,210 mi) per hour, completing 15.7 orbits per day. You can visit the SpaceWeather site to see when the ISS will be overhead your location.
The ISS has been continuously staffed since the first resident crew, Expedition 1, entered the station on 2 November 2000. This has provided a permanent human presence in space. At present, the station has the capacity for a crew of three. However, to fulfil an active research programme, it will be staffed by a resident crew of six beginning with Expedition 20 starting in May 2009. The crew of Expedition 19 is currently aboard.
Early crew members all came from the Russian and American space programmes until German ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter joined the Expedition 13 crew in July 2006, becoming the first crew member from another space agency. The station has been visited by astronauts from 16 different nations, and it was the destination of the first six space tourists.
The International Space Station serves primarily as a research laboratory and is the largest ever launched into orbit. The station offers an advantage over spacecraft such as NASA's Space Shuttle because it is a long-term platform in the space environment, allowing long-duration studies to be performed, both on specific experiments and on the human crews that operate them. Long-term expedition crews conduct science daily (approximately 160 man-hours a week), across a wide variety of fields, including human research, life sciences, physical sciences, and Earth observation, as well as education and technology demonstrations.
As of June 2006, 90 science investigations had been conducted on the ISS over 64 months of continuous research. In addition, there have been nine research racks and more than 7,700 kg (17,000 lb) of research equipment and facilities launched to the station. Scientific findings, from fields ranging from basic science to exploration research, are being published every month.
The ISS also provides a testing location for efficient, reliable spacecraft systems that will be required for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, allowing for equipment to be developed in the relatively safe location of Low Earth Orbit. This provides experience in maintaining, repairing, and replacing systems on-orbit, which will be essential in operating spacecraft further from Earth. This aspect of ISS operations reduces mission risks, and advances the capabilities of interplanetary spacecraft.
Finally, in addition to the scientific and research aspects of the station, there are numerous opportunities for educational outreach and international cooperation. The crews of the ISS provide educational opportunities for students back home on Earth, including student-developed experiments, educational demonstrations, student participation in classroom versions of ISS experiments, NASA investigator experiments, and ISS engineering activities. The ISS programme itself, and the international cooperation that it represents, allows 14 nations to live and work together in space, providing important lessons that can be taken forward into any multi-national missions in the future.
One of the main goals of the ISS is to provide a place to conduct experiments that require one or more of the unusual conditions present on the station. The main fields of research include biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology. This NASA portal keeps up with day to day news from the station.
The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the US segment of the International Space Station as a national laboratory with a goal to increase the utilisation of the ISS by other Federal entities and the private sector.
The effect of near-weightlessness on non-human subjects is being considered as well. Researchers are investigating the relation of the near-weightless environment of outerspace to evolution, development and growth, and the internal processes of plants and animals. In response to some of this data, NASA has indicated a desire to investigate microgravity's effects on the growth of three-dimensional, human-like tissues, and the unusual protein crystals that can be formed in space.
Researchers are also attempting to gain a better understanding of the physics of fluids in microgravity, enabling them to better model the behaviour of fluids in the future. Due to the ability to almost completely combine fluids in microgravity, physicists are interested in investigating the combinations of fluids that will not normally mix well on Earth. In addition, by examining reactions that are slowed down by low gravity and temperatures, scientists also hope to gain new insight concerning states of matter, specifically, superconductivity.
Other areas of interest include the effect of the low gravity environment on combustion, studying the efficiency of burning and the creation of by-products from certain materials. These findings may improve our understanding of energy production, and in turn have an economic and environmental impact. There are also plans to use the ISS to examine aerosols, ozone, water vapour, and oxides in Earth's atmosphere, as well as cosmic rays, cosmic dust, antimatter, and dark matter in the Universe.
One component assisting in these various studies is the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC). Developed by NASA, there are currently 4 of these units set to be launched to the ISS. As currently envisioned, the ELCs will be delivered on two separate Space Shuttle missions. They will allow experiments to be deployed and conducted in the vacuum of space, and will provide the necessary electricity and computing to process experimental data locally. Delivery is currently scheduled for STS-129 in November 2009, and STS-133 in May 2010.
The station is also anticipating a particle physics experiment, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). This device will be launched on STS-134 in 2010, and will be mounted externally on the Integrated Truss Structure. The AMS will search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays. The experiments conducted will help researchers study the formation of the universe, and search for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.
With origins in the Cold War, the International Space Station represents a union of several space station projects from various nations. During the early 1980s, NASA planned to launch a modular space station called Freedom as a counterpart to the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations. In addition, the Soviets were planning a replacement for Mir to be constructed during the 1990s called Mir-2.
In the early 1990s, due to budgetary and design constraints (as well as a rare outbreak of common sense), both Mir-2 and Freedom were cancelled and officials from a number of countries started negotiations to begin a collaborative, multi-national, space station project.
In June 1992, American president George H. W. Bush and Russian president Boris Yeltsin agreed to join hands in space exploration, by signing the Agreement between the United States of America and the Russian Federation Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. The agreement called for setting up a short joint space programme, during which one US astronaut would board the Russian space station Mir and two Russian cosmonauts would board a space shuttle.
In September 1993, American Vice-president Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced plans for the International Space Station. They also agreed, in preparation for this new project, that the US would be heavily involved in the Mir program in the years ahead, as part of an agreement that later became the Shuttle-Mir Programme.
The ISS programme was planned to combine the proposed space stations of all participating space agencies, including Freedom, Mir-2 (with DOS-8 later becoming Zvezda), ESA's Columbus, and the Japanese Kibō laboratory. When the first module, Zarya, was launched in 1998, the station was expected to be completed by 2003. Due to eventual delays, however, the estimated completion date has been pushed to 2011.
Here is an animation of the construction of the ISS.
LIFE ON THE ISS
If you click on the small image on the left, you can see from the expanded picture that the ISS is far larger than Mir. The picture was taken in April 2009 after the STS119 shuttle mission undocked from the station.
The current team (called Expeditions) is #19. This is the last 3-person team. From next month, expeditions will be six people. When the station was a bit smaller, the team of Expedition 13 made this video showing life on the station.