Monday, November 1, 2010

International Space Station--10 years of crew occupation and counting

            It weighs 925.627 pounds, and along with its huge solar arrays, it's size is comparable to that of an US football field. To date it has spent 4365 days in orbit, flying at a speed of 17,240 mph at an altitude ranging between 173 and 286 miles above the earth, It can be spotted with a naked eye and completes 15.7 orbits daily. Its cost---it ranges from 35 to 160 billion dollars.On November 2, it crossed the 1.5 billion mark mile. More than 100,000 people in space agencies and contractor facilities all over the world are involved with it.

           Any guess what it could be? It is the 15-nation International Space Station (ISS), which celebrates the 10th anniv of the first crew occupation on November 2. The first three humans who entered the ISS were Bill Shepherd, Yuri Giozenko and Segei Krikalev. They took off from the Baikonour cosmodrome on October 31,2000 and docked with the ISS on November 2,2000. Over the last 10 years more than 200 astronauts and cosmonauts have visited it and occupied it for months. 

           The ISS, a scientific lab, was actually meant to be the first step in preparing astronauts and cosmonauts for a prolonged stay on the moon and Mars. But, honestly whether it has fulfilled this role is doubtful considering that there exists a degree of uncertainty regarding a manned mission to both moon and Mars. Also, the precise scientific benefits derived from the ISS are unclear.

            The ISS which is expected to remain operational till 2020 is a venture of international co-operation among Nasa, the Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and 11 members of the European Space Agency. In the last 10 years there have been 103 launches to the ISS. Of these, 67 are from Russia, 34 are space shuttle launches. one European and one Japanese spacecraft.

            With Nasa's space shuttle missions coming to an end, in 2011, the US will now have to depend on Russia for ferrying its astronauts to the ISS. What an irony? The space race between the former Soviet Union and the US grew out of an intense cold war rivalry. Today the tables have turned, the ISS has brought them together with crew members of both the past rivals occupying the ISS simultaneously. Politically too the ISS has proved extremely beneficial. Its political advantages outweigh the scientific benefits.

             A total of 150 spacewalks have been conducted in support of the space station assembly. The first ISS module was Zarya which was launched on a Russian Proton rocket on November 20,1998. Over the years India has debated whether it should participate in the ISS, but it appears it has given up the idea for a variety of reasons. If it had been a yes, India should have been given a major role and not a minor or subsidiary one. The European Space Agency is keen that both India and China should join the ISS since both are major space powers..

             Though India is not a part of the ISS, in a way however it has made its presence felt on the station though Indian-American astronaut, Sunita William, who broke the world record for being the first woman to stay in space and also participate in the Boston Marathon from space on April 16,2007. She blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on December 9,2006 and returned on June 23,2007 which made it a total of 195 days. She had taken with her a copy of the Bhagvad Gita and Lord Ganesha.

              Atleast as a first step towards embarking on manned space missions, India could have become a part of the ISS, which perhaps would have been a training ground for launching human space flights from India. After all the current plan envisages that if the government gives the final `go' for a human space flight programme, the vyomanauts will remain in orbit for about a week. The capsule in which they will be flying will be therefore be a mini space station. India's first cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, was a part of a Russian space station, Salyut, in April 1984.

             The question which needs to be debated is whether India should have joined the ISS or not?


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