News / USA

Humans Live Above Earth, 10 Years and Counting

Astronaut Doug Wheelock aboard the International Space Station
Astronaut Doug Wheelock aboard the International Space Station

As of this month, people have been living in space - 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - for a full decade. NASA says at least another decade of exciting opportunities lies ahead onboard the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a retired astronaut himself, praised the six crew members living on board the International Space Station earlier this month.

"We never dreamed that we would be where we are today," he told them.

And just where would that be? Literally, it is some 400 kilometers above the Earth. The laboratory has logged about 2.4 billion kilometers in orbit. Astronauts inside have conducted more than 600 experiments. And, nearly 200 people from 15 countries have visited the space station, since it was first inhabited in November of the year 2000.

Yet, one decade on, the space station itself remains a work in progress.

The space shuttle Discovery is set to bring the final U.S. module to the station. Once that is installed, it will increase the size of the station to roughly 340 cubic meters of living space.

Astronauts Shannon Walker and Doug Wheelock were living on the space station when it marked the 10th anniversary of continuous occupation November 2. They spoke to VOA from onboard the space station late last month.

Astronaut Shannon Walker on the International Space Station
Astronaut Shannon Walker on the International Space Station

Walker said she and her fellow astronauts are excited that the U.S. portion of the station is nearly finished.

"It's essentially completed now, in terms of laboratory space, and, so, with the final closet being put on, we'll have a better way to organize all the cargo we have up here and really be able to get down to the business of doing science, which is what the space station is all about," she said.

As NASA readies the space station for another decade, the U.S. space agency prepares to retire another high-profile program - its space shuttle fleet.

Astronaut Wheelock says, while it is sad to say goodbye to the shuttle program, there is much to look forward to in the coming years.

"Moving on as an agency, of course, now the space station will take center stage, pretty much, as our orbiting laboratory, and we'll have it in full utilization, bringing back the science to earth that we originally planned for the space station," said Wheelock.

Administrator Bolden says experiments being carried out on the space station are producing advances in medicine and recycling systems, while also giving scientists a better understanding of the universe. And, he says, lessons from the station will carry astronauts to Mars and beyond one day.

But before humans travel to Mars, NASA has plans for a humanoid to travel to the space station. The shuttle Discovery is set to carry Robonaut2, the first human-like robot to live on the space station. Robonaut2, or R2 for short, was designed to work safely beside humans in space - even using the same tools as its human crew mates. For now, NASA says, its primary job is to show engineers how dexterous robots behave in space.

Wheelock said the space station crew members will welcome their new humanoid crewmate, but he joked that they are reserving their final judgment until they meet.

"We're going to wait and see how he blends in and see if he's a good neighbor with us," Wheelock said. "We're looking forward to working with our engineers on the ground that have developed this Robonaut, and just to see what its capacity is and how it can assist us on board."

Robonaut2 could have a chance to be a good neighbor to astronauts on the space station for at least another decade.

The NASA Authorization bill, which President Obama signed into law last month, extends the U.S. commitment to the International Space Station to 2020. NASA Administrator Bolden says representatives of the five international agencies that built and operate the orbiting outpost have also agreed on this in principle.

The International Space Station lives up to its name as an international endeavor. It represents cooperation among NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and 11 members of the European Space Agency: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

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