The International Space Station

Peter McMahon
3 December 2013

Download the printable .pdf here

 “So sing your song, I’m listening
  Out where stars are glistening
  I can hear your voices bouncing off the Moon
  If you could see our nation, from the International Space Station
  you’d know why I want to get back soon.”

–   from “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)” written and performed by Canadian astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield [in Earth orbit] and Barenaked Ladies lead singer Ed Robertson [from Toronto]

Crew members on the ISSDid you know there’s a spaceship in orbit above the Earth larger than 5 NHL hockey rinks put together?? 

After 15 years of construction – including 140 spacecraft dockings and 170 spacewalks delivering and installing 500 tons of material – the International Space Station (ISS) is the largest object ever put in space and the brightest thing in our night sky, after the Moon.

Built 400 km above the Earth by 15 different countries – including the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 nations representing the European Space Agency – the ISS is also the largest multinational engineering project in history.

OK, so what’s it actually up there for?

This way to Mars…ISS in orbit at sunrise

Space stations like the ISS help us understand loads of things about being far from Earth, outside most of our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field, with almost no gravity and a grocery-list of dangers unique to the final frontier.

The ISS basically has three main purposes:

  1. to act as a science lab for experiments that can only be performed in zero-gravity (or a kind of “almost” zero-G, called microgravity)
  2. to explore space and share the experience with everyone on Earth
  3. to learn what we need for longer, farther trips into space, like a human mission to Mars

Chris Hadfield wringing out a facecloth in space“Made In Canada” space science

During Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s 2013 mission to serve as commander of the ISS, five of the experiments running onboard came from Canadian universities or other research institutions.

Canadian experiments cover many common areas of research on the ISS:

- learning about the risks of unique kinds of space radiation
- finding out why a surprising number of space travellers faint when they return to Earth (and how this can help prevent fainting spells in the elderly back on Earth)
- separating particles that normally drift together in 1G, which could lead to everything from better paint to sauces with longer shelf lives back on Earth

Canadarm 2There was even an Iron-Man-style toxin-tester that could reproduce some of the features of a medical clinic in a box the size of a toaster (not only would this help astronauts on lengthy missions figure out what they have if they get sick far from home, the same tech could also be used to do the same thing in distant, small communities on Earth like those in Canada’s High Arctic).

Not only are there Canadian people and science experiments s big part of the ISS, but one of the coolest parts of the station was built in Canada.


‘Star Wars windows’ and robot octopuses

ISS’s giant Canadarm2 is part of a robot system as long as two school buses. Along with the octopus-like Dextre (or CanadaHand), Canadarm2 is the largest space robot ever built.

Imagine building something with a set of tools in each of your hands. Now imagine – Transformers-style – that you could have hands that were tools. That’s basically Canadarm2 and Dextre, which help astronauts on spacewalks and served as the heavy-lifting power for almost all of the ISS’s construction.

the ISS cupolaAnother cool part of the ISS is the Cupola module – the largest window ever put in space. While windows in spaceships up until now have just been tiny portholes about half a metre wide, Cupola’s seven pieces of glass stretch 2 metres (wide enough for the average person to lie in.)

The multi-cell design looks a little like the windows at the front of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon from the original Star Wars movies and allow astronauts to view and photograph the Earth as if they were floating outside the ISS on a spacewalk.

Space sandwiches and stinky airlocks

Living in orbit is a lot less crazy than the early days of space stations like the Russian Salyut and Mir outposts. Back then, dangerous fires and collisions happened without warning, the food sucked, and the modules were so cramped for space, things got pretty stinky, pretty fast (and with no windows to open, they stayed that way…for a decade).

SpacewalkWith as much interior space as a 747 Jumbo Jet, the ISS gives astronauts way more personal space. There’s still a strong funk when you first enter it, but nowhere near the Mir smell, and “you stop noticing it after a while” say many crew members.

Though space itself – of course – doesn’t smell like anything, astronauts report that the airlock they enter before going on a spacewalk outside the ISS smells like a combination of burnt steak and gunpowder.

As for the space sandwiches…

Eat like an astronaut

Turkey dinner on the ISSUnlike the early days of space travel, when astronauts basically ate dried foam that got mixed into barely edible mush with water, crewmembers on the ISS get to “order” a variety of fresh meals, restaurant-style, weeks or months before they eat it on their mission.

Space station crew members have access to vacuum-sealed entrees ranging from shrimp cocktail to a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings (just presented a little differently than on Earth). Astronauts can make dozens of different kinds of sandwiches – they just have to do so with tortillas, as sliced bread would clog life support systems and pose a health threat if crumbs got in crew members’ eyes or throat.

ISS astronauts even get to have fresh fruit at certain points in their missions and can grow vegetables in limited amounts. They drink coffee that “tastes as good or better than Starbuck's,” as former Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean puts it. Plus, on very rare occasions, they even get ice cream (the frozen kind, not the freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” you can buy at science centre gift shops).

Recycled air and drinking your friends’ pee

Close Quarters on the ISSLife-support on the ISS isn’t too far-off from science-fiction portrayals of machines that seem to create air and water out of almost thin, well, air…

After an initial supply of oxygen and water are brought up, waste water gets an electric charge applied to it which produces hydrogen and oxygen, circulating the oxygen for breathing and venting the hydrogen into space.

Water for drinking, bathing, and helping to cool the ISS all goes into a filtration system as waste water and urine. Believe it or not, about 93% of that, um, ‘dirty’ water gets purified more thoroughly than almost any water on Earth and then sent back out for you to wash with and drink again, and again…and again…

Exercise bike on the ISSRest & Relaxation…at 28,000 km/h

Because your bones and spine don’t rest on a mattress while you snooze the night away, many astronauts claim they sleep better in space than any other time in their lives.

On the ISS, many crew members simply bungee-cord or Velcro their sleeping bag to the wall and make sure they’re not near a window (where the rising Sun would blaze in their eyes every 1.5 hours).

Keeping fit in microgravity is many times more important than on Earth, as the lack of gravity causes accelerated bone-loss: “From the first day you arrive, you are literally peeing out your own skeleton,” Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told a group of reporters before his 2013 mission to the ISS.

To help prevent that bone (and muscle) loss as much as possible, astronauts exercise for hours each day on a variety of stationary bikes, treadmills, and multi-function workout machines, using pneumatics, Velcro and rubber straps to hold them on, in, and near their gym equipment.

A catchy tune to float along to…

When astronauts on the ISS aren’t working, exercising or sleeping, many spend their free time on personal projects, staying in contact with family and friends on Earth, and socializing with their crewmates through entertainment such as music.

ISS crews have had access to a flute, keyboard, saxophone, an Australian didgeridoo, and – more recently – a Canadian-made parlour guitar made by Vancouver manufacturer Jean Larrivée.

While serving as commander of the ISS (only the second non-American or Russian to lead a major space mission) Chris Hadfield recorded a number of original folk songs by himself and with others on the ISS and even back on Earth – Perhaps a sign of things to come in the future with more and more people travelling to and living on large structures in space.


To see the ISS in the sky from where you live, visit the Spot the Station page from NASA and enter your location

For what can be seen from the ISS right now - go here

Best-of Chris Hadfield’s YouTube videos from space

More on the ISS and Canadian content on it from the Canadian Space Agency

Peter McMahon

Peter McMahon is a Port Hope, Ontario-based space and astronomy author, journalist, and planetarium presenter who has written/produced for CTV, Discovery Channel, The Toronto Star, Today's Parent, Canadian Geographic, Space Quarterly and the Canadian Space Agency. His latest book - Space Tourism (Kids Can Press, 2011) was chosen as a 2012 selection for the prestigious U.S. Junior Library Guild. You can read his "Wilderness Astronomer" column about stargazing in the great outdoors in each issue of Sky News: The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy & Stargazing, where he is a contributing editor.

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