Five NASA astronauts held a reunion of sorts in Houston, Texas Thursday to celebrate the upcoming birthday of a rather bulky five-year-old to be: the International Space Station (ISS) currently orbiting Earth.
The astronauts - all of them space station veterans- gathered at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) to reminisce about their experiences aboard the ISS, which will hit the five-year mark of manned operations on Nov. 2.
"It was so long ago, the memories have almost faded," said retired astronaut Jim Voss, who flew aboard the ISS in 2001 as one of three members of the Expedition 2 crew, of his time in orbit. "It was really very special, we had prepared [for it] for over four years."
Voss was joined by Expedition 5 astronaut Peggy Whitson, Expedition 7's Ed Lu and Expedition 8 commander Michael Foale, with Michael Fincke - who served as flight engineer during the ninth ISS mission - appearing via video link from Russia's cosmonaut training center in Star City. The space station's current crew - Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev - recorded a video statement for reporters and NASA employees.
"It is a unique honor," McArthur said of the opportunity to contribute to humanity's ongoing presence in space. His comments came on the station's 1,820th day of operation, NASA officials added.
Astronauts have lived and worked aboard the ISS continuously since the arrival of its first three-member crew - Expedition 1's Bill Shepard, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev - in 2000 under an international effort that, today, relies on the contributions of 16 nations and two manned spacecraft designs; NASA's space shuttles and Russia's Soyuz vehicles.
"I think the International Space Station represents a big symbol [of cooperation]," said Whitson, who is hoping for another tour aboard the station. "What makes it special is that it's not just a bunch of people who sit back and talk about cooperation, we actually built something out of it."
Russia's robust Soyuz and unmanned Progress spacecraft, which resupply the ISS with food, water, spare parts other necessities every six months, have proven vital to the station's survival since the 2003 Columbia accident that stalled NASA's shuttle flights. The agency's shuttle fleet returned to service in July with Discovery's STS-114 launch, though the next flight is not expected until at least May 2006.
"The Russians are, as you say, carrying a pretty fare share of the partnership at the moment, and I think that's the value of the partnership," Foale told reporters, adding that NASA aided Russia to continue its operation of space station Mir. "I think, actually, the favor has been returned in the last couple of years."
The drop in NASA shuttle flights to the ISS has limited crews to two astronauts due to the decreased availability of supplies and prolonged the station's completion, since orbiters are the only vehicles capable of launching the orbital platform's massive components. The next ISS construction flight will not flight until after the NASA's Discovery's STS-121 spaceflight- the agency's second return to flight mission - next May, NASA officials have said.
But the astronauts said Thursday that despite its troubles, the space station is a vital orbital platform for the science and human physiology experiments needed to push human explorers back toward the Moon and beyond. While the move to two-person crews has cut down the amount of science that can be performed aboard the ISS, there has never been enough time to fit in all the experiments researchers hoped for, they added.
"You can't lose sight of the big picture," said Lu, who served as flight engineer during 2003's Expedition 7, marking the first two-person crew and the first manned spaceflight after the Columbia accident. "When you step back and take a look at what we're trying to do...it's amazing."
Last month, NASA officials announced plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2018 aboard its planned Crew Exploration Vehicle, which could deliver four astronauts to the lunar surface or six astronauts to the ISS. Under those plans, the space station is expected to be completed by 2010, the retirement deadline for NASA's shuttle fleet.
Fincke, who along with Expedition 9 commander Gennady Padalka performed the first spacewalk on U.S. station segment using Russian-built Orlan spacesuits, said NASA and the U.S. must continue to lead the way in space exploration.
"We're the richest country in the world," Fincke said. "We can't afford not to look at this frontier."