Published in The Patriot Ledger April 8, 2014
Recently, as Obama sharply criticized Putin’s moves towards Ukraine and the world worried about a renewal of the Cold War, American astronaut Steven Swanson and two Russian colleagues were launched together to the International Space Station, leaving Earth-based politics behind. In the early days of the Cold War, the space race was the most visible form of competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today space is one of the few areas where America and Russia truly work together in a cooperative fashion.
Swanson and the Russian cosmonauts were launched by the Russian Soyuz rocket, the only provider of transport of people to the space station since the U.S. Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Russia charged us $71 million to include Swanson in the launch. The Soyuz was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, site of the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin, and many other space firsts. Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is now officially an independent country but remains the center of the Russian space program.
Prior to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union had maintained space stations of its own for many years, most famously space station Mir, which set numerous space records. The U.S. had a short-lived space station called Skylab in 1973-1974, but in 1984 President Reagan announced plans for a more substantial space station, with participation by U.S. allies. Congress eventually became unsupportive, Russia had its own financial problems after the Soviet Union dissolved, and in 1993, the Clinton administration announced the merging of the U.S. and Russian programs into the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is modular in design, and was constructed in orbit largely by assembling modules launched there by Russia and by the U.S., with most of the U. S. modules carried into orbit by Space Shuttles. Today two U. S. private companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, launch spacecrafts to carry cargo to and from the ISS, and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is designed to eventually carry people there as well.
The ISS has now been continuously occupied for over 13 years. It usually maintains a crew of six, with individual stays in orbit typically over a month. When Steven Swanson and his Russian colleagues arrived at the station, they were greeted by the three already there – one American, one Russian, and one Japanese. More than twenty nations participate in the ISS, and half have had astronauts in orbit. Notably missing is China.
The U. S. has not invited China, and China has constructed and launched its own station, making them only the third nation to orbit a space station. Their station has so far been manned for only a few days, but China has plans for longer missions. And those who saw the movie “Gravity” know that the Chinese space station has already played a huge role in helping Sandra Bullock return safely to Earth.
While in orbit in the ISS, the astronauts perform experiments in a wide variety of scientific areas. And the astronauts are scientific experiments in themselves, since one purpose of the station is to study the effects on the human body of living in space, including long-term weightlessness. When they are not doing research, the astronauts exercise, read, play cards, and can look out the windows of the ISS to see the beautiful Earth 200 miles below. And, since they orbit the earth every hour and a half, they can see fifteen sunrises and sunsets every day. Of course now the Russians and Americans can also entertain themselves by debating the Russian takeover of Crimea.