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International Space Station | The Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever

Backdropped by rugged Earth terrain, the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-130 crew member on space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.
Backdropped by rugged Earth terrain, the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-130 crew member on space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.
Credit: NASA

This is part of a SPACE.com series of articles on the Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever, the balloons, airplanes, rockets and more that got humans off the ground and into space.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the most complex international scientific and engineering project in history and the largest structure humans have ever put into space. This high-flying satellite is a laboratory for new technologies and an observation platform for astronomical, environmental and geological research. As a permanently occupied outpost in outer space, it serves as a stepping stone for further space exploration.

The station flies at an average altitude of 248 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. It circles the globe every 90 minutes at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kph). In one day, the station travels about the distance it would take to go from Earth to the moon and back.

Five different space agencies representing 15 countries built the $100 billion International Space Station and continue to operate it today. NASA, Russia's Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are the primary space agency partners on the project.

Structure

The International Space Station was taken into space piece-by-piece and gradually built in orbit. It consists of modules and connecting nodes that contain living quarters and laboratories, as well as exterior trusses that provide structural support, and solar panels that provide power. The first module, Russia's Zarya module, launched in 1998. The station has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000. The space station is planned to be operated through at least 2020. [Infographic: The International Space Station: Inside and Out]

During the space station's major construction phase, some Russian modules and docking ports were launched directly to the orbiting lab, while other NASA and international components (including Russian hardware) were delivered on U.S. space shuttles. [Rare Photos: Space Shuttle at Space Station]

The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field, including the end zones, and weighs 861,804 pounds (391,000 kilograms), not including visiting vehicles. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window. Astronauts have also compared the space station's living space to the cabin of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

The space station is so large that it can be seen from Earth without the use of a telescope by night sky observers who know when and where to look. The space station can rival the brilliant planet Venus in brightness and appears as a bright moving light across the night sky.

Crew size

A six-person expedition crew typically stays four to six months aboard the ISS. The first space station crews were three-person teams, though after the tragic Columbia shuttle disaster the crew size temporarily dropped to two-person teams.  The space station reached its full six-person crew size in 2009 as new modules, laboratories and facilities were brought online.

If the crew needs to evacuate the station, they can return to Earth aboard two Russian Soyuz vehicles docked to the ISS. Additional crewmembers are transported to the ISS by Soyuz. Prior to the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011, new space station crewmembers were also ferried to and from the station during shuttle missions.

 Crews aboard the ISS are assisted by mission control centers in Houston and Moscow and a payload control center in Huntsville, Ala.  Other international mission control centers support the space station from Japan, Canada and Europe. The ISS can be controlled from mission control centers in Houston or Moscow. [Photos: Space Station's Expedition 32 Mission]

Facts about International Space Station

  • The ISS solar array surface area could cover the U.S. Senate Chamber three times over.
  • ISS eventually will be larger than a five-bedroom house.
  • ISS will have an internal pressurized volume of 33,023 cubic feet, or equal that of a Boeing 747.
  • The solar array wingspan (240 feet / 73 meters) is longer than that of a Boeing 777 200/300 model, which is 212 feet (64.6 m).
  • Fifty-two computers will control the systems on the ISS.
  • More than 115 space flights will have been conducted on five different types of launch vehicles over the course of the station’s construction.
  • More than 100 telephone-booth sized rack facilities can be in the ISS for operating the spacecraft systems and research experiments
  • The ISS is almost four times as large as the Russian space station Mir, and about five times as large as the U.S. Skylab.
  • The ISS will weigh almost one million pounds (925,627 pounds / 419,857 kilograms). That’s the equivalent of more than 320 automobiles.
  • The ISS measures 357 feet (108 meters) end-to-end. That’s nearly the length of a football field including the end zones.
  • 3.3 million lines of software code on the ground supports 1.8 million lines of flight software code.
  • 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) of wire connects the electrical power system.
  • In the International Space Station’s U.S. segment alone, 1.5 million lines of flight software code will run on 44 computers communicating via 100 data networks transferring 400,000 signals (e.g. pressure or temperature measurements, valve positions, etc.).
  • The ISS will manage 20 times as many signals as the Space Shuttle.
  • Main U.S. control computers have 1.5 gigabytes of total main hard drive storage in U.S. segment compared to modern PCs, which have about 500-gigabyte hard drives.
  • The entire 55-foot robot arm assembly is capable of lifting 220,000 pounds, which is the weight of a Space Shuttle orbiter.
  • The 75 to 90 kilowatts of power for the ISS is supplied by an acre of solar panels.

— Tim Sharp, SPACE.com Reference Editor

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Tim Sharp, Reference Editor

Tim Sharp

Tim was a Technology Editor at nytimes.com and the Online Editor at the Des Moines Register, where he helped launch that newspaper's website. He was also a copy editor at several newspapers. Before joining TechMediaNetwork as Reference Editor, Tim was the Online Content Editor at the Hazelden Foundation. He has a journalism degree from the University of Kansas. Tim is also a self-proclaimed nerd and has won several trivia contests. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Tim on .
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