This November 2, the International Space Station turns 20 years since it received its first guests and since it began to be inhabited continuously.
The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest spacecraft mankind has ever built: it is about 109 meters long (almost like a soccer field) and weighs around 453 tons.
At the same time, it is the highest laboratory created by man, since it orbits the Earth at about 400 kilometers from its surface.
His first pieces came out to space in 1998 and on November 2 the ISS adds another milestone to its existence: it meets n 20 years since it received its first guests and since it began to be inhabited continuously .
Since the astronauts Bill Shepherd (American), Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev (Russian) stayed there in November 2000, the ISS has always been occupied, by 241 people (in total, at different times) from 19 countries.
“Humanity has managed to be off the planet for 20 years,” Carlos Fontanot, ISS image manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, tells BBC Mundo.
But what has that feat done and what has the ISS accomplished all this time?
Here we tell you some of the most important achievements of the ISS and also why some scientists criticize it.
1. Bring the international community together
The construction of the ISS required the collaboration of 15 countries and today the main agencies in charge are NASA (USA), the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos (Russia), Jaxa (Japan) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
In addition, 108 countries have conducted more than 2,700 investigations on the ISS , according to NASA.
“The best thing the ISS has done is to bring together the international community, international space agencies, to cooperate in space, which had been done to a limited degree before the ISS,” says Laura Forzcyk, director of the space consultancy. Astralytical, to BBC Mundo.
Fontanot agrees with Forzcyk that one of the greatest achievements has been the participation of countries that have often found themselves on opposite sides, such as the US and Russia.
“The countries and the participants of the ISS are brothers, they are human. They are orbiting the Earth and realizing that it is a single planet ”, Fontanot tells BBC Mundo.
But the ISS has not only functioned as a unifying element of countries, it has also achieved important scientific achievements.
2. Knowledge of the human body in microgravity
The ISS is the only laboratory with permanent conditions of microgravity that humanity has, highlights NASA.
This characteristic, Forzcyk explains, has made it possible “to understand how human biology, physiology, psychology operate in the long term” in the absence of gravity.
Our muscles and bones are designed to support the body against the Earth’s force of gravity. But in space – and in the ISS – these organs have to do much less effort, so they can atrophy or lose mass.
Studies on astronauts aboard the ISS have helped to understand bone and muscle loss , but not only because of the microgravity of space, but also on Earth, for reasons such as “age, lifestyle, and some diseases, ”says NASA.
Likewise, scientists have studied measures to counteract these losses through exercise, diet and even drugs, both in space and on Earth.
These advances would benefit “people suffering from muscle diseases or other illnesses such as osteoporosis,” adds Fontanot.
These investigations serve to prepare for future trips to the Moon and Mars , microgravity environments in which astronauts would spend much more time than on the ISS.
“These are the next steps after the ISS.”
3. Study of other diseases
Microgravity conditions have also made it possible to study diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and asthma, cancer and even heart disease in the laboratories of the ISS, details NASA.
On Earth, gravity can affect the alignment of molecules, explains the space agency.
On the other hand, in the ISS, “since there is no gravity, the environment is very stable,” says Fontanot.
These circumstances allow us to study and better understand the structure, properties and behaviors of the proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and of the cells involved in the appearance of cancer, explains NASA.
Microgravity also “allows us to develop chemicals, purer drugs, and study treatments for cancer, for diseases of the muscles and other things,” adds the image manager of the ISS.
4. Observation of the Earth
The ISS circles the Earth 16 times a day, at about 28,000 km / h, and as it orbits it, it takes photos of it from a unique perspective.
The ISS “tracks all the continents, in an ideal orbit to study our planet, agriculture, climate, meteorological disturbances such as hurricanes and the floods they produce, geographical changes, marine and terrestrial life, etc.”, says Fontanot .
“For 20 years, we have millions of photographs from different areas of the world, which allows us to compare how they looked before and how they look now,” he adds and also says that the images help to understand climate change.
“There are also images of glaciers, which have diminished, of forest fires. In the Amazon you can see the changes caused by deforestation. From space you can clearly see what is happening, how the Earth has been transformed ”.
5. Recycling of water
Virtually nothing is wasted on the ISS.
“Water recycling technology has been fine-tuned at the ISS. The sweat, the urine itself are recycled and become drinking water ”, explains Fontanot.
The ISS Water Recovery System allows the reuse of 93% of the spacecraft’s water , according to NASA.
This technology will be much more useful when astronauts can undertake further and longer space missions, such as to the Moon or Mars.
This water recycling system is also applied on Earth and has made it possible to bring water to countries like Iraq and many other places where there is no clean water to drink, says Fontanot.
6. Boost the “low-Earth orbit” economy
The ISS has also led to commercial breakthroughs in the space sector, so that government space agencies are no longer the only ones sending supplies, scientific equipment or astronauts to the ISS.
In 2008, NASA signed contracts – which ended up costing $ 5,900,000 – with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, with today’s Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK), to carry cargo to the ISS.
In October 2012 (less than 2 years after the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program), SpaceX carried the first payload, and Northrop Grumman followed months later.
SpaceX already has 21 trips to the ISS. In 2021, the US company Sierra Nevada will also start bringing cargo to the ship.
Last May, Space X managed to get two astronauts to the Station, aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, as part of an initial $ 2.6 billion contract with NASA.
Both astronauts were the first crew to travel aboard a commercial vehicle to the platform.
“Very soon it will be Boeing that is taking astronauts in a new vehicle,” says Fontanot. This company has a contract of US $ 4,200,000 to bring crew to the ISS.
NASA said in May, according to US media, these commercial crew programs could save between $ 20,000,000, 000 and $ 30,000,000, 000 to the space agency .
“Running a space station costs a lot of money, so to use that money to go to the Moon, or to Mars, NASA gives the opportunity for commercial companies to take over the ISS, starting with transporting the supplies it needs. This has created a new space industry ”, explains the ISS image manager.
“The commercialization of low Earth orbit frees up resources that NASA needs to continue its exploration of space and opens up a new market,” adds NASA.
The commercialization also points to the EEI being in charge of private companies after 2024, the year in which the budget assigned to it by the US Congress so far ends.
NASA projects the spacecraft to operate until 2030, and then fall into the Pacific Ocean.
Despite all these achievements, some scientists doubt that the investment in the ISS was worth it.
As of 2014, the US had invested a total of about $ 75 billion in the ISS, according to a NASA report from that year. The document indicates that the agency would continue to invest between US $ 3 billion and US $ 4 billion each year, so that until 2020, the cost would be around US $ 100 billion.
“I do not think [the ISS] has offered a good value for the sum of 12 figures it costs in total,” Sir Martin Rees, astronomer royal from the United Kingdom and professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Cambridge, told BBC Mundo.
“Scientific returns have been poor. We have learned a little about how the body reacts to spending long periods in space, and we have developed some [protein] crystals in zero gravity, but that is in no way proportional to the tens of billions of dollars that have been spent on the ISS, ”Rees also told British newspaper The Guardian in October.
Rees mentions the study of the body in microgravity and doubts whether “the potentialities of space will include a role for the human being.”
As we mentioned earlier, NASA hopes to send manned missions to the Moon and Mars as the next step to the ISS.
“The case study weakens with each advance in robotics and miniaturization (…). Nonetheless, there are plans, from the United States, Russia and China, to go back to the Moon, build a ‘base’ there, but will there be enough motivation and political will [to bring humans], given what robots can do? ” .
“People who venture into space are fragile (…) In contrast, automated spacecraft only require one source of energy, they cost much less than humans, we know how to improve them every year; and if they fail, we only lose dollars and scientific results, “Rees wrote with Donald Goldsmith, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, in an article published in March in Scientifc American and sent to BBC Mundo.
Nobel laureate and physicist Steve Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin also told The Guardian that the ISS “could have been put into orbit for a much lower amount with an unmanned mission,” since the astronauts “had not played no role ”in some scientific advances.
But according to Fontanot, “the cost of maintaining the ISS is relative” and is a minimal budget compared to the US budget.
“We are hopeful that on board the ISS we will help create a drug that cures cancer. Can you put a price on that? Does bringing clean water to remote areas of the Earth have a price? The cost of IAS compared to the benefits it brings to humans is probably minimal, ”he added.