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.