International Space Station marks 20 years of humans on board

ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 30 (UPI) — The 20th anniversary Saturday of humans living aboard the International Space Station spotlights the global cooperation and scientific discoveries that benefit all people, according to astronauts and others involved in missions there.

NASA and space agencies around the world are using the milestone to underscore achievements in space since the end of deep-space crewed missions in the 1970s and the space shuttle program in 2011.

Those who participated in space station construction find it hard to believe it has been inhabited for two decades, former astronaut Michael López-Alegría said. He has been to the orbiting platform three times and was the last person to visit before permanent missions started in 2000.

“After so many years, it’s still in very good shape,” López-Alegría said. “The ISS is the most audacious and complex construction project ever undertaken in space. It’s pretty amazing that everything fit together perfectly and it all works so well.”

Without the space station, humanity may be lacking key knowledge about space radiation, microgravity effects on people and life-support systems for long-term space visits, López-Alegría said. And, he said, living in a relatively low Earth orbit is a crucial step toward missions to the moon and Mars.

“The space station is an integral part of space exploration,” López-Alegría said. “We still haven’t been able to build reliable life-support systems for a lengthy mission to Mars, such as carbon dioxide scrubbers to keep air breathable for long periods without replacements. The space station is the best place to test things like that.”

During his missions to help build and command the space station, López-Alegría amassed 67 hours, 40 minutes on 10 spacewalks, a record for NASA surpassed only by Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev at 82 hours, 22 minutes during 16 spacewalks.

Cooperation with Russia

NASA and Russia cooperated on the space station project after the two nations operated orbiting laboratories — the U.S. SkyLab, occupied for just 24 weeks with gaps between three missions, and Russia’s Space Station Mir, occupied with two short gaps for 12 1/2 years.

NASA has had hundreds of people supporting the ISS program at different times, said Robyn Gatens, the agency’s acting director for the space station, including mission controllers in Houston and Moscow.

The orbiting research complex, which spans the length of a football field, is equivalent to a five-bedroom home with a gym, two bathrooms and a 360-degree bay window — the cupola — that allows views of Earth. Large arrays of solar panels power its systems, while liquid propellant rocket engines keep it from losing altitude.

The space station, which cost more than $150 billion to build and costs NASA over $3 billion annually, flies at more than 250 miles above the Earth at over 17,000 mph.

More than 240 people from 19 nations have visited the space laboratory and living quarters, with over 100 nations sending research or educational projects.

Continuous presence

“It’s an amazing accomplishment, just the continuous presence on a complex international platform