View­port Lessons from the Sta­tion


WHEN ITAL­IAN AS­TRO­NAUT Paolo Nespoli vis­ited us at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum last May to talk about liv­ing and work­ing aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, he made a com­ment that, though hu­mor­ous, em­pha­sizes the sta­tion’s great achieve­ment. Nespoli said that when peo­ple ask him if he be­lieves in ex­trater­res­tri­als, he al­ways an­swers, “Yes. I have been one of them.”

For 15 years with­out in­ter­rup­tion, peo­ple from this planet have been able to live away from it, most for six months at a time, in this huge lab­o­ra­tory in space. They have learned how to build, do science, make re­pairs, eat, sleep, ex­er­cise, and com­mu­ni­cate—of­ten across cul­tures—with­out the com­fort­ing tug of grav­ity an­chor­ing them.

The Mer­cury, Gemini, and Apollo pro­grams took the first U.S. steps into the space fron­tier, but the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion has trans­formed that fron­tier—at least where the sta­tion or­bits, be­tween 205 and 270 miles above Earth—into fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. We now know what the low-earth-or­bit en­vi­ron­ment is like. We un­der­stand how the hu­man body re­sponds to that par­tic­u­lar re­gion of space. We have learned most of the things we need to know for mov­ing around out­side—and in­side—the sta­tion. We have learned to make space­suits that en­able astro­nauts to ma­neu­ver for long pe­ri­ods of time in or­der to as­sem­ble struc­tures and re­pair them. We’ve learned about ra­di­a­tion. We’ve learned how to send sup­plies to those who live there. This last les­son has been learned so well that na­tional space agen­cies are able to rely for cargo ser­vices on pri­vate com­pa­nies, which, de­spite re­cent fail­ures, have proven launch ve­hi­cles and oper­a­tions.

Be­cause of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, we can be­gin to see in the ex­plo­ration of space the pat­tern that emerged in the ex­plo­ration of the globe: Early ex­plor­ers un­der­took ac­tiv­i­ties funded by na­tions, but their jour­neys of dis­cov­ery were fol­lowed by set­tlers and pri­vate com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties. In this is­sue’s cov­er­age of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion at age 15, you’ll read about Bigelow Aerospace, which is mak­ing and test­ing habi­tats that may form the next space sta­tion in or­bit, or be the liv­ing quar­ters on a moon­base, or the space­craft that car­ries peo­ple all the way to Mars.

What­ever the fu­ture des­ti­na­tions are for hu­mans in space, the world will need astro­nauts like Paolo Nespoli and the other sta­tion res­i­dents who have vis­ited our Mov­ing Be­yond Earth gallery to share their ex­pe­ri­ences with au­di­ences there, as well as across the coun­try through we­b­casts (which you can view on the Mu­seum’s web­site). They, like the cos­mo­nauts you’ll read about in this is­sue, will be able to pass along to the next gen­er­a­tion the lessons about liv­ing in space that they learned on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

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