The first resident crew, Expedition 1, entered the station on 2 November 2000. Since then, it has been continuously staffed. So there has been a permanent human presence in space for the last nine years. At present, the station has the capacity for a crew of three.
It will be staffed by a resident crew of six starting with Expedition 20. The present crew is Expedition 18. The station has played host to astronauts from 16 different nations, and it was the destination of the first six space tourists.
The International Space Station is mainly a research laboratory. The station has an advantage over spacecraft like NASA’s Space Shuttle. As it is a long-term platform in the space environment, it allows long-duration studies to be performed. Science experiments are conducted daily across many fields, including human research, life sciences, physical sciences, and Earth observation, as well as education and technology demonstrations.
One research effort is to improve the understanding of long-term space exposure on the human body. The effect of near- weightlessness on non-human subjects is also being studied. Other research areas include the effect of the low gravity environment on combustion, studying the efficiency of burning and the creation of by-products from certain materials.
Such studies will improve our understanding of energy production, which will have an economic and environmental impact. There are also plans to use the ISS to examine aerosols, ozone, water vapor, and oxides in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as cosmic rays, cosmic dust, antimatter, and dark matter in the Universe.
The ISS also serves as a testing location for spacecraft systems needed for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, allowing for equipment to be developed in the relatively safe location of Low Earth Orbit. The ISS offers numerous opportunities for educational outreach and international cooperation.
The ISS crews provide educational opportunities for students on Earth in the form of student-developed experiments, educational demonstrations, and student participation in classroom versions of ISS experiments, NASA investigator experiments, and ISS engineering activities.
The ISS program itself was made possible because of international cooperation. It is a very significant achievement for mankind as it allows 14 nations to live and work together in space. This in turn offers important lessons for future multinational missions.
A recent report in the ‘Times of India’ points to a cold war – like situation between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts. Apparently relations soured after the ISS operations went commercial in 2005. This meant that Moscow started billing America for sending its astronauts into space. Other nations too followed suit.
Now the situation is such that occupants from the two nations are not even sharing rations, amenities like gym facilities and toilets. But these regulations reflect decisions at the political and bureaucratic level rather than the space station’s personnel themselves.