Space travel: The ISS is 25 years old, but some of the technology is much older

Space travel: The ISS is 25 years old, but some of the technology is much older

TThe ISS has been announced several times, but humanity’s outpost still orbits Earth 16 times a day, at a distance of around 400 kilometers. Seven men and women from the USA, Denmark, Japan and Russia are currently aboard the International Space Station and will be able to celebrate a birthday there on Monday: the ISS turns 25, exactly a quarter of a century since the first Russian module.” Sarja” (German: Dawn) was launched into space.

“We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ISS,” said the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, with relief at the anniversary. At the same time he emphasized: “There is no doubt that nothing lasts forever. The station is getting old.” Today, almost 80% of Russian equipment has reached its “maximum guaranteed service life”. The agreement to build the facility was signed in Washington in January 1998 – as a successor to the Soviet “Mir” space station.

Previously, on January 25, 1984, then US President Ronald Reagan tasked the US space agency NASA with developing a manned space station. Over the years, NASA brought on board the space agencies of Canada, Japan and Europe – and with the end of the Soviet Union, then also the Russian one, a project of international understanding after the end of the Cold War.

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Since then, the ISS has continued to grow. Today it is the size of a football field, a kind of 450-ton house with six bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym and a panoramic window – and is equipped with various technical equipment. Most components come from the USA and Russia.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who visited twice, called the ISS “the most complex, valuable and improbable machine humanity has ever built.” Total costs have long exceeded $100 billion. Astronauts have been researching in this space laboratory without interruption since 2000. Matthias Maurer was the last German to be there between 2021 and 2022. This sees the ISS as a peace project, even 25 years after construction began. “Definitely. When you look at Earth from there, you wonder: What could we achieve if we could work together as well down there as we do up here?”

Individual tourists also appeared repeatedly, and once even a Russian film crew. American astronaut Frank Rubio and the two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin have been on board the ISS for the longest time at one time, 371 days; they returned in September.

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Almost no privacy, broken bathroom

The view of space and Earth is spectacular, as shown in the numerous photos taken on board – but it is not very comfortable on the ISS. When it’s busy, there’s almost no privacy, meals come out of the bag and washing is a hassle. Sometimes a toilet is broken.

Former residents also reported smells and noises that did not always make life aboard the ISS pleasant. Astronauts spend a lot of time maintaining equipment and cleaning. Residents exercise in the gym for at least two hours a day to keep their muscles and bones intact in weightlessness.

The atmosphere for celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ISS is limited – also because these are not easy times for the community living in space. Despite maintenance, renovation and retrofit, the ISS technology – designed mainly in the 1980s – is no longer state-of-the-art, there are always reports of damage, errors, leaks and other problems.

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Furthermore, the current global political situation does not make the functioning of the ISS any easier. The ISS is one of the few objects where Americans and Russians still work together after the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine at the end of February 2022. Russia mainly complains about the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU in the wake of the attack on Ukraine. The European Space Agency Esa has withdrawn from joint projects with Roscosmos.

The US and Russian space agencies, as well as astronauts, repeatedly emphasize that cooperation is still going well. There are also joint flights to the ISS, with Russian “Soyuz” capsules and the North American “Dragon” from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. The “Starliner” designed by Boeing, however, is even further delayed due to technical problems.

There is widespread consensus that the ISS could continue to operate together until around 2028, after which it could crash into the Pacific in a controlled manner. Efforts to privatize and commercialize the station were not as fruitful as hoped. Meanwhile, several countries, including the US and Russia itself, have announced their own space stations – and China already has its own in operation.

Russia continues to talk about building its own station. According to the head of Roskomos, Borissov, around 609 billion rubles (6.28 billion euros) will be spent on this until 2032. Russia works closely with China and India, among others. Construction of the Russian Orbital Station (ROS) is expected to begin with the launch of the first module in 2027 at the earliest. The planned highlight is a 3D printer, as chief designer Vladimir Koshevnikov says. The objective is to “print” equipment and interiors directly into the space.

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