The International Space Station

Recently I had an opportunity to participate modestly in some of the planning for the arts and culture projects at the International Space Station (ISS). The material I received as part of this project was so fascinating that I thought viewers might want to learn more about it. Following is a brief summary of some of the more salient data, with links to areas for further study.

The International Space Station is currently the only permanent human habitation in space. The interior of the Station consists of several modules, each built by different nations. Presently orbiting the earth, the ISS is scheduled to weigh 450 tons at completion and house a crew of seven with an extensive amount of scientific equipment. Believing that the artistic and cultural world should have an influence on the exploration of space, the European Space Agency has awarded a contract for the study of cultural utilization of the Station.

The ISS travels at a speed of 7.7km per second. Its orbit, with a height that varies from 360 to 450 km, takes it over 95% of the earth's population and is completed every 90 minutes. You can visit http://www.esa.int/seeiss to find out when the ISS is over your neighborhood. The air temperature outside the Station ranges from +150 degrees centrigrade to -150 degrees centigrade. There is no breathable air outside the Station, and it is subject to dangerous radiation.

Several projects involving art and culture have already been suggested for the ISS, including interaction with the ground, operating video and photographic equipment, and the use of kinetic sculpture. Currently three crew members remain aboard the Station for six months, performing a variety of experiments and engaging in physical training. Cameras ranging from digital still cameras with different lenses to video broadcasting cameras are now onboard, with plans for a newly produced 3D video camera.

The most efficient source of telecommunication between the ISS and the ground so far has been ham radio, since high-quality lines between it and the various ground stations are prohibitively expensive. Amateur radio equipment has already been installed on two areas inside the ISS and a third one is planned when the Columbus module is added. Astronauts also have the use of email and the Internet. More information on the ham radio capabilities can be found at http://www.ariss-eu.org and also at http://www.rac.ca/ariss

The first unmanned ATV (automated transfer vehicle) is due to be launced aboard an Ariane rocket in late 2006, while the Columbus module is proposed to launch aboard a space shuttle in 2008. The Columbus Laboratory, in particular, is planned to do a maximum number of experiments in a minimal space. Its Biolab, for example, will conduct research on micro-organisms, cell and tissue culture, and small animals and plants. Another lab area will study how the human body responds to the absence of gravity. Additional experiments are planned in solidification physics, specifically zero gravity crystallization, as well as the behavior of weightless liquids. More information is available at http://www.esa.int/esapub/sp/sp1270/sp1270web.pdf. In addition, an interesting site for human spaceflight can be found at http://www.esa.int/esaHS/

Crews and equipment for the ISS are currently being supplied by the Russians with two vehicles, Soyuz and Progress. The Soyuz spacecraft is a three-seat manned vehicle that transports humans to and from the ISS. The Progress spacecraft is an unmanned variety of the Soyuz and is used to bring equipment and supplies to the ISS. Originally the Columbia space shuttle had been planned to be the main crew transfer vehicle, until the tragic accident in 2003. It is due to be relaunced in 2006.

A number of ground-based systems are being utilized for the ISS. For example, the Northeast of South America in French Guiana is ideally located due to its proximity to the equator. Another, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, lies in an uninhabited area of the Republic of Kazakhstan some 1300 miles southeast of Moscow. A droptower in Bremen, Germany, studies the effects of weightlessness in a pressurized cabin.

The ISS is already a monumental achievement derived from peaceful cooperation between European nations. If this spirit is allowed to flourish it could well represent one of humanity's finest achievements.

c.Corinne Whitaker 2005