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What’s the Point of the International Space Station(ISS)?


On March 1st, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). But why was he even up there for so long in the first place?

What is the ISS?

According to NASA, the ISS is a “convergence of science, technology, and human innovation that demonstrates new technologies and makes research breakthroughs not possible on Earth.” The keywords there are “not possible on Earth.” As a microgravity laboratory (meaning there is almost no gravity aboard the station; .000001 of the gravity on Earth), the ISS is an ideal environment for performing experiments and making observations that cannot be done on Earth. Due to the acre of solar panels providing power to the station, it is the second brightest object in the night sky behind the moon!

The ISS is comprised of an international crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts (Russian astronauts) working together toward a common goal. This goal is to advance Earth, space, physical, and biological sciences; plus other important objectives explained below.

The International Space Station in Orbit. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flikr

Human Health

NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) aims to discover the best methods to support the safest and most productive human space travel. Humans aboard the ISS undergo tests to study how their bodies and minds respond to spending time in space, and these studies will help astronauts prepare for longer durations in space, such as the future Mars mission in the 2030s.

Scott Kelly is a special case because NASA had the opportunity to study how his body changed in space while comparing these findings to a control variable: his twin brother who remained on Earth. A notable change Kelly’s body faced in space was growing almost two inches taller, and this happened because his spinal disks expanded without the force of gravity to push them down. However, after about two days of living on Earth again, he returned to his original height.

Earth Observation and Disaster Response

The ISS is considered a global observation and diagnosis station, as one of the mission’s main goals is to understand and resolve the many environmental issues on Earth. When collecting data on global climate, environmental changes, and natural hazards, the scientists on the ISS can immediately send down their findings to Earth. Due to this quick exchange time, scientists on the ISS are able to help first responders and humanitarian aiders on Earth respond quickly.

For example, the ISS has helped in disaster response regarding floods in southern Russia, effects of Hurricane Sandy in Haiti and the eastern US, and floods in Nigeria and Pakistan.

Economic Development of Space

The mere existence of the ISS opens up a new world of opportunities to test business relationships in the international marketplace. Perhaps the most important goal in regards to the economy is the “cross-pollination of ideas, processes, and best practices as a foundation for economic development,” according to NASA. Regarding commercial research, the ISS is currently being used by industries and universities alike to deploy a multitude of Earth-observing satellites called CubeSats. This way, NASA can utilize the brainpower of students and companies all over the country to further the role of citizen science in space exploration.

For more information on CubeSats, check out this podcast by Athens Science Observer’s Graham Grable.

Innovative Technology

A huge contribution the ISS makes to science and technology is the testing of technological systems in space before use on other space crafts. Experiments on technology aboard the ISS investigate thermal processes, nanostructures, fluids, and other physical characteristics pertaining to the technology. Engineering operations in the microgravity lab provide insight into increasing technology capabilities and decreasing risks for future missions. Research on the ISS regarding fluids and clean water, materials, satellites, and robotics provides benefits for development of the economy as well as improved quality of life on Earth. For example, microgravity gives corporations like Procter & Gamble an ideal environment for colloid research in order to improve products like laundry detergent and shampoo.

Global Education

An additional purpose of having humans on the space station is to motivate younger generations to work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. There are many collaborative projects between international schools that allow students and teachers to be directly involved with the science and engineering projects on the ISS.

Now that you know some information about what the ISS does, you should try to see the station with your own eyes. If you want to receive a text message when the ISS will be flying overhead, sign up with NASA!

Paige Copenhaver is an undergraduate studying Physics and Astronomy at the University of Georgia. When she is not studying solar-type stars, she can be found playing ukulele or reading Lord of the Rings. You can email her at pac25136@uga.edu or follow her on twitter: @p_copenhaver. More from Paige Copenhaver.

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