Over the moon as space station turns 10

Hundreds of kilometres above the Earth, the International Space Station - the most expensive and ambitious co-operative space program in history - has rocketed to its 10th birthday.


The International Space Station, one of the most ambitious space projects ever and a key launching board for exploration of the solar system, including Mars and beyond, turns 10 years old Thursday.

In orbit some 190 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth, the ISS has a permanent crew of three astronauts that remain aboard for stays lasting several months. The crew will double to six in 2009 thanks to an addition brought by the space shuttle Endeavour, which is currently docked at the station.

The United States has financed the bulk of the project, estimated to cost some 100 billion dollars. Fifteen other countries have also contributed, including Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and eleven nations belonging to the European Space Agency.

"The ISS is the largest ever experiment in international technological cooperation," said John Logsdon, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum in the US capital.

"I think it's a necessary stepping stone to long-term human activities in new areas of operations," Logsdon told AFP. The station is "off the planet and it's the first step outward -- not an end in itself, but a step along the way."

Logsdon believes the best way to learn of the effects of long space flights to places like Mars is on the ISS, both by studying the microgravity environment and the social dynamic among the crew.

The ISS is also a key testing ground for technologies that allow humans to live in a contained environment, which include such technical challenges like recycling urine for drinking water.

"They will have to grow their food, plants," Logsdon said. "The ISS is testing the technologies that will be needed for long-duration stays off the planet.

"You like to know it works before you commit a crew to stay on the moon. And the space station is a very good test place," he said.

The destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 as it attempted to re-enter Earth's atmosphere delayed work on the ISS for two years.

Yet when President George W. Bush decided in November 2005 that the United States would complete the station and honor its commitments, there "has been a very positive relationship" with the ISS partners, Logsdon said.

Budget constraints make cooperation in space exploration essential.

"The US on its current budget can perhaps get people back on the surface of the moon, but not do anything when they get there," Logsdon said. "If we are serious about long-duration stays on the moon and eventually to Mars, it has to be an internationally funded system with ... a different sharing of control in management than the space station partnership."

Having for example a council with weighted voting that does not give Washington veto power over everything would be one solution, he said.

"The ISS is fundamentally a US project with international additions. I don't think that will be the case for long-term exploration."

The United States still has the resources to solely finance its space ambitions, but that will not last, according to NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

"I think Europe is absolutely ready to take the next step in space, which is to return with us to the Moon," Griffin told AFP.

"I don't think Europe is ready yet to do that job by itself, but I think there is no need for Europe to do it by itself."

For Doug Millard, curator of space at the Science Museum in London, the Columbus laboratory -- attached to the ISS in February -- considerably enhanced Europe's space capability. "It provides Europe with a little bit of real estate up in orbit, so it's making the ISS properly international, as it was intended," Millard said.

Japan's Kibo laboratory was attached to the ISS three months later.

And just what are the benefits of having a team of humans living in space? Millard says it's learning how the human body behaves in micro-gravity.

"We've been doing this now for a few decades -- the Russians set the agenda with Mir -- but looking at NASA's program of exploration, which pivots on a return to the Moon and ultimately a mission to Mars, then space station science and knowledge on the human condition in space is absolutely essential."

Each day the ISS spends orbiting Earth is another opportunity to expand our body of knowledge, according to Millard.

"What's going on in the ISS is an extension of thousands of laboratory and research facilities around the world, only it has the unique feature of being in microgravity."

Alexandre Vorobiev, a spokesman for the Russian space agency, described the ISS as a "remarkable" project, "one of the factors that has helped Russia keep its space industry."

He also said he was certain that given the financial constraints, "neither Russia nor the United States could go alone to the Moon or Mars," but could do so only as partners.

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