The International Space Station, the future is already here
Average speed 27,700 kilometres per hour, 15 orbits per day at an average altitude of 340 km from our planet, weighing over 400 tonnes, a surface area equal to that of a football field and a habitable
volume of more than 1,200 cubic metres.
It is difficult to summarise in a few figures the characteristics of that which can be considered the most complex spatial construction designed up to now.
Designed and launched in the mid-1980s and in orbit for 18 years (its first component, Zarja, was launched into space on 20 November 1998), the International Space Station (ISS) is the most important international cooperation programme ever undertaken in the science and technology fields, and which sees the participation of 16 countries and 4 of the major space agencies in the world: the American NASA, Russia's Roscosmos, the Japanese JAXA, the Canadian CSA and the European ESA.
With seven pressurised laboratories and nine external platforms, it is a true orbiting laboratory for scientific and technological research. It allows for experiments that are impossible to conduct on Earth in different fields , from physics to chemistry, from biology to medicine and physiology, and of course observation of the Universe and Earth.
Italy plays a particularly important role in this programme, taking part in three ways: through the bilateral agreement between ASI (the Italian Space Agency) and NASA, which involved the provision of three logistics modules (MPLM) by ASI; through participation within ESA, primarily for the realisation of the Columbus laboratory; through an agreement with NASA and ESA for the construction of Nodes 2 and 3 of the Space Station in Italy. Leonardo-Finmeccanica, through its joint venture Thales Alenia Space, has been heavily committed to the construction of key elements of the station developed by the European Space Agency. Among the main ones, a special mention goes to the Cupola, the observation space module that allows astronauts to see directly outside the ISS. It has a semi-spherical shape of 3 metres in diameter, 6 side windows and a window positioned higher up and allows various astronauts to stay in it. The Cupola is particularly useful for some purposes, such as checking the progress of astronauts’ activities outside the structure (called "Extra Vehicular Activities"), docking operations and the space station’s robotic, as well as getting photographs of the Earth from space and observing celestial bodies. In addition to the Cupola, Thales Alenia Space has also created the PCM, Pressurised Cargo Modules for supplying the ISS crew with spare parts and science experiments. The modules are integrated with Cygnus, the refuelling spacecraft, unmanned and without the capacity to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
The living space inside the ISS is equivalent to 935 cubic meters (equal to the volume of two jumbo jets) and includes, among others, the following laboratories: the American Destiny, the European Columbus, the Japanese Kibo and the Russian Research Module.
Thanks to the sophisticated instruments developed, and others under development, the Space Station allows scientists to work in microgravity, to conduct medical, physical, biological research, to develop new materials and test technologies. But the most important experiment the ISS is contributing to is its very existence: evidencing the possibility of developing human life in orbiting environments, a testimony that already has its own history. It was 2 November 2000 when a crew of three astronauts (the American William Shepherd and Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko) departed aboard the Soyuz TM-31 capsule to carry out the first Expedition to the ISS. Sixteen years have passed since that day, and since then the ISS has been reached by 48 crews. Among them, the first European astronaut to stay on the ISS for a short period was Umberto Guidoni, in April 2001, followed by Roberto Vittori (who completed three missions), Paolo Nespoli and, most recently, Luca Parmitano (2013) and Samantha Cristoforetti (2014 and 2015); while Timothy (Tim) Nigel Peake, the first UK citizen to be selected as an astronaut by ESA (formerly a test pilot at AgustaWestland, now Leonardo’s Helicopter Division) was on the International Space Station for 185 days.