Space Station: Definition & History

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

The International Space Station is an orbiting spacecraft where scientists live for extended periods of time while doing research. Learn more about this structure and test your knowledge with a quiz following the lesson.

What is the International Space Station?

Can you imagine living in outer space? How would being in a weightless environment affect your body? And would you be able to handle the feeling of floating everywhere you go, looking down at the Earth from over two hundred miles up? These are likely the questions on the minds of astronauts as they head to their new space home, the International Space Station.

The International Space Station in orbit
International Space Station

Called the ISS for short, the International Space Station is the destination for scientists who are interested in living in space in order to learn and perform research. A joint effort among the US, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada, the ISS is essentially a combination space hotel and science laboratory. Astronauts are able to spend extended periods of time while researching aboard this orbiting structure. In this lesson, you will learn more about this fascinating place and understand its importance.

History of the ISS

In 1998, Russia launched the first component of the ISS into space. It was a module called Zarya, and two weeks later it would be connected with a US module called Unity. This name was symbolic, as it eventually would represent a tremendous joint project among many nations. In all, the ISS would cost one hundred billion dollars to implement and would create a place for astronauts from these countries to come together, live in space, and collaborate on scientific research.

The crew of Expedition 1
Expedition 1 Crew

The first crew, known as Expedition 1, came on board the ISS in 2000. It was composed of one US astronaut and two Russian astronauts. This crew stayed on board for roughly three months before heading home. In the early years, crews were responsible for assembling the space station as it had been launched in many parts. Since 2000, the ISS has been constantly inhabited by crews of two to three astronauts. By 2009, it had grown and evolved to the point that a total crew of six could be housed.

Life Aboard the ISS

Life on the space station is clearly a unique experience in many ways. Traveling at a whopping 17,500 mph, the ISS orbits the earth once every ninety minutes. And at an average of 248 miles in altitude, astronauts can get an incredible view of our earth's continents, oceans, and weather patterns. As mentioned earlier, the ISS is made up of many modules, all connected together. Extending from the modules are very large solar panels called arrays, used to capture the sun's energy. In all, the ISS is about the size of a football field, making it visible to the naked eye.

If you were to tour the ISS, you would find modules with beds for the astronauts, a kitchen, a workout area, closets, and most importantly, bathrooms. You would find science laboratories and many computers as well. Everything is interconnected, allowing astronauts to float and somersault seamlessly throughout the structure. The most unique aspect of the ISS is that being in orbit creates a constant freefall, producing the effect of no gravity. How does this affect the space station?

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti strapped into her sleeping bag
Astronaut in sleeping quarters

First, objects must be contained so that they don't float aimlessly through the cabin. For example, the beds for the astronauts are compartments with sleeping bags that astronauts strap into so they do not just drift around all night. Food must be sealed tightly into plastic bags and tied down. Liquids are also sealed in plastic, and when leaked out, they magically float through the air like blobs. Fortunately, using the bathroom involves the use of suction so as to not end up with disasters floating about.

One very important module is the central command area, which contains many computers used for a variety of essential tasks. If any serious problems occur, this is the place where the astronauts meet to solve the issue and keep safe. Storage modules contain the supply of food, clothing, and other items that the astronauts may need. These areas also provide storage for garbage that accumulates during their stay.

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