ISS Turns 25, but Some of the Technology Is Much Older

International Space Station in 2021

The International Space Station (ISS) has been declared dead many times, yet it continues to orbit the Earth approximately 16 times a day at a distance of about 400 kilometers. Currently, seven individuals from the United States, Denmark, Japan, and Russia are on board the ISS. On Monday, they will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ISS, marking a quarter-century since the launch of the first Russian module, “Zarya” (translated as “Dawn” in English), into space.

We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ISS,” stated Yury Borisov, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, expressing relief at the milestone. However, he emphasized, “Undoubtedly, nothing is eternal. The station is aging.” Nearly 80 percent of Russian equipment has now reached its “guaranteed maximum lifespan.” The agreement for the construction of the ISS was signed in Washington in January 1998, succeeding the Soviet space station “Mir.”

On January 25, 1984, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan tasked NASA with developing a manned space station. Over the years, NASA brought on board space agencies from Canada, Japan, and Europe, and with the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian space agency joined as well, making it a collaborative project for international cooperation after the Cold War.

Since then, the ISS has continually expanded. It is now approximately the size of a football field, akin to a 450-ton house with six bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym, and a panoramic window—equipped with diverse technical features. The majority of components originate from the United States and Russia.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst, a two-time visitor, referred to the ISS as the “most complex, valuable, and improbable machine that humanity has ever built.” The total costs have long surpassed 100 billion dollars. Since the year 2000, astronauts have conducted uninterrupted research in this space laboratory. The most recent German, Matthias Maurer, was there from 2021 to 2022. Even 25 years after its construction began, he views the ISS as a peace project. “Definitely. When you look at the Earth from there, you wonder, What could we achieve down below if we could collaborate as effectively as we do up here?” he stated.

Occasionally, individual tourists visited, including a Russian film crew. The longest continuous stay was by U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergej Prokopjew and Dmitri Petelin, who spent 371 days on the ISS, returning in September.

Hardly Any Privacy, Defective Toilet

The numerous photos taken on board show how amazing the view into space and onto Earth is. However, life on the ISS is not particularly comfortable. With a full crew, privacy is scarce, meals come from packets, and washing is cumbersome. Occasionally, there may be a malfunctioning toilet.

Former residents also reported odors and noises that make life on board the ISS less than pleasant. Astronauts must dedicate a significant amount of their working time to equipment maintenance and cleaning. Residents spend a minimum of two hours per day exercising in the gym to maintain muscle and bone health in microgravity.

The celebratory mood for the 25th anniversary of the ISS is restrained, partly due to the challenging conditions faced by the space community. Despite maintenance, renovation, and upgrades, the ISS’s technology, primarily designed in the 1980s, is no longer state-of-the-art. Reports of damages, errors, leaks, and other issues persist.

Moreover, the current geopolitical situation complicates the operation of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS stands out as one of the few entities where Americans and Russians continue to collaborate following the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. Russia particularly expresses dissatisfaction with the sanctions imposed by the USA and the EU in response to the incursion into Ukraine. The European Space Agency (ESA) withdrew from joint projects with Roscosmos.

Despite these challenges, both US and Russian space agencies, as well as astronauts, consistently emphasize that cooperation remains intact. There are still joint flights to the ISS, utilizing Russian “Soyuz” capsules and the US “Dragon” spacecraft from SpaceX, led by Elon Musk. On the other hand, the “Starliner” designed by Boeing faces delays due to ongoing technical issues.

It is widely agreed that the ISS could be operated jointly until approximately 2028, after which controlled descent into the Pacific Ocean is considered. Efforts toward privatization and commercialization of the station have not yielded the expected results. Meanwhile, various countries, including the USA and Russia, have announced plans for their own space stations. China, having already operationalized its own station, is notably among them.

Russia consistently discusses the construction of a new station, with Roscosmos Chief Borissow allocating around 609 billion rubles (6.28 billion euros) for this endeavor by 2032. Russia collaborates closely with China and India in this pursuit. The construction of the Russian Orbital Station (ROS) is projected to commence with the launch of the first module no earlier than 2027. A notable feature includes the incorporation of a 3D printer, as mentioned by the chief designer, Vladimir Koshevnkov. This technology aims to “print” equipment and interior elements directly in space.

Featured Image: International Space Station – NASA