While fact checking the film Gravity, Neil deGrasse Tyson made an especially trenchant point with respect to the space program: “Mysteries of #Gravity: Why we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.” That you’re not reading this from a colony on Mars is a testament to humanity’s failure of imagination. The engineering required to strap three guys to a missile and fire it at the Moon is one step shy of impossible, but NASA did it. Two years later we had guys playing golf up there. Today? NASA’s forced to hitch rides with the Russians while everyone collectively hopes that Elon Musk pulls off a miracle.
(Not to belabor the point, but for the cost of the F-35 stealth fighter program, which is not stealth and not especially aerodynamic and a decade behind schedule, we could buy 588 space shuttles, a craft that isn’t stealthy or aerodynamic either. Or we could conceive, design, build, test, and launch an entire manned Mars program 10 times over. All I’m saying is if we really wanted to get serious about space, the money is there.)
Anyway, the Russians don’t mind giving us rides as long as we kick in some gas money, so that’s something, I guess. (Fun fact: the reason their shuttle looks so much like ours did is because the Soviets stole our design in the first known case of cyber-espionage.) But where is that shuttle (and this article) going? To the International Space Station, which is the bee’s knees if you want to do the kind of microgravity research necessary to send astronauts to Mars.
We all know what the ISS looks like. Thanks to Gravity, we even know what it looks like when it’s destroyed. But here are 11 things you might not know.
1. It’s fast.
If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you probably imagine things in space to be slow, and to move at the same tempo as the Blue Danube. Not so for the ISS, which is zipping around at 5 miles per second and orbiting the Earth every 92 minutes.
2. It’s slow.
Because of something called time dilation, time moves slower on the International Space Station. Not by much—astronauts don’t get there and find out that we suddenly have flying cars and jet packs back on Earth—but it is measurable. Astronaut Ed Lu, who served on the ISS as science officer for Expedition 7, got curious and attempted to measure time dilation directly, because when you’re on the ISS and are also a genius, that’s just the kind of thing you do. He writes about it here. The upshot is that at the end of his 6 month stay, he was 0.007 seconds younger than those of us stuck on this mudball.
3. It’s big.
The thing about space photography is that it’s difficult to work out the scale of celestial objects. For comparison’s sake, for example, if the Earth were the size of a basketball, the Moon would be the size of a tennis ball. (How this worked out by coincidence is probably worthy of a healthy philosophical discussion.) To scale, the distance between your basketball and tennis ball would be 24 feet. There are no sporting equipment comparisons for the Sun; in its occupied space, you could fit 1.3 million Earths. The International Space Station is 357.5 feet (119.167 yards) long—a hair under the width of a football field, including end zones.
4. It has the same mundane IT issues as we Earthlings.
Computers on the ISS have been infected by viruses more than once. The first reported virus was W32.Gammima.AG, which, according to Symantec, “is a worm that spread by copying itself to removable media. It also steals passwords to various online games.”
5. It runs Linux.
Last year, the ISS dumped Windows and Scientific Linux in favor of Debian 6 for its network of laptops. According to Keith Chuvala, who manages Space Operations Computing for NASA, "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable—one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could." To ensure stability, they plan to run one version behind whatever is the latest version of the operating system.
6. It’s busy.
The ISS has a lot more traffic than you might expect. Two days ago, Progress M-21M departed the station. Next week Cygnus CRS Orb-2 is scheduled to arrive (the second Cygnus resupply mission since its successful test docking last year). At present there are three spacecraft docked there: Soyuz TMA-12M, Progress M-23M, and Soyuz TMA-13M. SpaceX has a resupply mission scheduled for August and a new crew will arrive in September. The complete flight schedule can be found here. Every couple of weeks from now through the end of the year, something is slated to arrive or depart, making it more Deep Space Nine than Empok Nor.
7. Astronauts there can smell space.
Mike Hopkins, an astronaut who returned to Earth earlier this year after spending 166 days at the ISS, recently participated in a Reddit AMA. He was asked what surprised him about space, and offered this intriguing answer: “Space has a smell. And I don't mean inside the space station. When a visiting vehicle docks with the space station, there is 'space' between the two vehicles. Once the pressure is equalized and the hatch is opened, you have this metallic ionization-type smell. It's quite unique and very distinct.”
8. You can watch it.
The ISS is the third brightest object in the sky, and can be seen with the naked eye. (It looks like a slow-moving airplane.) NASA has a service called Spot the Station which allows you to sign up for text messages telling you when to look up, and where. (When the crew is on duty, you can watch a live internal video feed of the ISS here.)
9. It can watch you.
Here is a live map that shows the exact ground point of the ISS. It will help orient you for the High Definition Earth Viewing experiment, in which HD cameras mounted to the outside of the Columbus module of the station send back a live video feed of the Earth. The experiment is intended to test how space affects cameras and video quality so that future cameras (say, ones going to Mars) can be designed to better sustain the punishment of the final frontier.
10. The astronauts there are doing science. Lots and lots of science.
The ISS is an orbiting research laboratory. Experiments currently underway on the ISS include building a better Terminator; studying the effects of space on sperm; figuring out how our circadian rhythms are affected by the absence of a 24-hour cycle of light and dark; testing how best to grow plants in a microgravity environment; and how to build a faster Space Internet.
11. It won’t be around forever…
...but it’s not entirely clear that it will be deorbited in 2020 as originally planned. Engineering tests suggest that the Zarya module (the first and oldest module of the ISS) and the Unity node (the first U.S. component of the ISS) are good through at least 2028, meaning the station might possibly be around that long. When it does reach the end of its life, the Russians have already announced their intentions to disconnect their nodes from the station and add them to a planned Russian station called the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex.