Spaceflight Insider

Space Station, international partners celebrate 15 years of continuous human presence

ISS star trail composite

The International Space Station flies through its 15 year anniversary of continuous human occupation. This composite image was created using photos taken during Expedition 31. Photo Credit: NASA

The International Space Station program reached a milestone of 15 years of continuous human presence since the crew of Expedition 1 docked with the orbiting outpost on Nov. 2, 2000, setting the stage for future long-duration flights into deep space.

Since Expedition 1, 44 more expeditions have visited the space station with over 200 people from 17 different countries. Currently on board, Expedition 45 includes NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, astronaut Kimiya Yui of JAXA, and cosmonauts Mikhail Korniyenko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov. The astronauts, cosmonauts, ground teams, and international agencies have learned to live and work together for long periods of time. For 15 years, the space station has been a proving ground for exploration and cooperation.

Cristoforetti in Cupola

Samantha Cristoforetti was the first Italian woman in space. She was a flight engineer for the Expedition 42/43 increment. She holds the record for the longest single flight by a woman (199 days, 16 hours) as well as the longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European astronaut. Additionally, she brewed the first espresso coffee in space with the ISSpresso machine. Photo Credit: NASA

“I believe the station should be considered the blueprint for peaceful global cooperation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press release. “For more than a decade and a half, it has taught us about what’s possible when tens of thousands of people across 15 countries collaborate to advance shared goals.”

Kelly, the current commander of the ISS, echoed that sentiment during a question and answer session. He believes the international aspect of the space station is the “glue” that binds the program together.

“That is what really held this partnership together through some very trying times post-Columbia and in budget challenges,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the value of the ISS is important regarding future deep-space exploration.

“We do a lot of science here,” Kelly said. “While I’m here there’s going to be 400 different science experiments. So it’s clearly an orbiting laboratory – a world class orbiting laboratory.”

However, to Kelly, the most important experiment on ISS is the station itself. He said humans need to understand how to live in low-Earth orbit to enhance capabilities to explore further out into the Solar System.

“We do a lot of experiments up here,” Kelly said. “The most important experiment is the space station as an orbiting vehicle that keeps humans alive in space for long periods of time.”

“The space station really is a bridge,” said Lindgren. “It’s a test-bed for the technologies we need to develop and understand in order to have a successful trip to Mars.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a press release that the ISS is a unique laboratory that has enabled groundbreaking research in the life and physical sciences and has provided a test-bed for technologies that will one day take humans beyond Earth’s orbit.

ISS during STS-134

The space station required over 40 launches to assemble it, including 37 space shuttle flights, over 12 years. The ISS construction was completed in 2011. Photo Credit: Paolo Nespoli / NASA

“The international partnership that built and maintains the station is a shining example, moreover, of what humanity can accomplish when we work together in peace,” Holdren said.

Kononenko believes that the ISS is a perfect example of international cooperation and the unification of efforts of different people across the globe.

“The main achievement is that people on the ground sometimes fail to hear each other – to see each other,” Kononenko said. “Here in space, this is impossible. Everyone is important here. The success of the program, and sometimes even life, depend on what each and every one of us does.”

Yui, an astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), recently passed 100 days in space. He pointed out that what makes the ISS great is its unique culture.

“[…] although astronauts come from different backgrounds from different countries, we respect each other working in collaboration,” Yui said. “If such a culture is practiced on the Earth, the Earth will be a much better place.”

Yui has spent over 100 days in space since launching in mid-July. On Nov. 1, the cumulative number of days spent in space for Japanese astronauts crossed 1,000.

Later that evening, the astronauts celebrated the anniversary by eating a meal together. Yui said they would look back upon the history of the orbiting lab for the past 15 years and talk about its future.

Since the first Expedition in 2000, more than 1,200 scientific publications have been produced. This has resulted in more than 1,760 research investigations from researchers in over 83 countries that have been conducted to date on the space station. Twenty-two were conducted during Expedition 1, and 191 will be conducted during Expeditions 45 and 46. The very first research study was a protein crystal growth experiment. Studying protein crystals in space is helping to treat diseases and disorders on Earth such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Expedition 1

Expedition 1 occupied the space station from November 2000 to February 2001. From left to right: Commander Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko, Sergei Krikalev. Photo Credit: NASA

The space station has 29 research racks, each the size of a refrigerator, in three laboratory modules: the US Destiny module, ESA’s Columbus module, and JAXA’s Kibo module.

Since Expedition 1, crews have eaten more than 26,500 meals. It takes about seven tons of supplies to support a crew for about six months. To reduce some of the mass required to send to orbit, the space station includes the Water Recovery System. This system reduces the crew dependence on water sent by cargo ships by 65 percent – from about 1 gallon (3.76 liters) a day to 0.35 gallons (1.32 liters).

The testing of long-term life support system, in addition to the cutting edge scientific research, is paramount for future long-duration deep space missions to an asteroid and to Mars. Also being testing on board the ISS is a 3-D printer. So far, 20 objects with 13 designs, including a ratchet wrench, have been printed. This technology aims to reduce the amount of spare parts required for long duration missions. In principle, all that astronauts would need is a raw material to print a part that is required.

Additionally, the ISS is a critical destination for the commercialization of space. Already, private companies, such as SpaceX with its Dragon cargo ship and Orbital ATK with its Cygnus cargo ship, send cargo to the orbiting lab. Aboard are even private experiments and CubeSats from companies such as Planet Labs. In the next couple of years, SpaceX and Boeing will even begin sending a crew of the outpost on their respective spacecrafts: Dragon 2 and CST-100 Starliner.

The space station program has recently been extended through 2024 by President Barack Obama. Russia has followed suit. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency, and JAXA have yet to formally agree to an extension beyond 2020, but they are expected to in the coming years. Both Boeing, the prime contractor for most of the United States’ space station hardware, and Russia have evaluated and concluded that the space station can continue operating until at least 2028 with proper maintenance.

Video courtesy of NASA TV


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

This is beautiful and awe-inspiring.An indication that this world,our world – this Earth can be a better place for all human beings if only we can cooperate with one another.

I got to see a piece of the ISS (a Pressurized Mating Adapter) during a KSC tour back in the summer of 1998 before it was launched on the STS-88 mission as part of the Unity Module on the first American assembly flight to the ISS in December 1998.

Glad to see that the ISS is still going strong… not to mention pleased that the crew is performing one of my experiments up there 🙂

Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran writes — 2020 marks 20 Years of continuous human presence on International Space Station!!!

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