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Bigger leap for mankind: When a space station turned launchpad for humanity’s future

For the International Space Station, Leroy Chiao was, in a sense, there before the beginning. In October 2000, he was one of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery, which brought pieces of the nascent space station to orbit.

Bigger leap for mankind: When a space station turned launchpad for humanity’s future


Construction had begun a couple of years earlier. But no one was living there yet. Much of the work on Dr. Chiao’s flight was done outside the space station, during spacewalks. But the astronauts also got to go inside briefly. “It had that new-car smell,” Dr. Chiao recalled.

It was a runt of a space station then. The habitable portion consisted of just three modules, not the 16 orbiting today. But it was ready for people to move in. Discovery undocked on Oct. 20 and returned to Earth. Eleven days later, three astronauts — William Shepherd of NASA and two Russians, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — blasted off in a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Nov. 2, 2000, they docked at the space station and began their four-and-a-half-month stay in orbit. Humans have been living off the planet ever since.

Monday was the 20th anniversary of continuous occupation of the International Space Station. The project was pitched as post-Cold War space cooperation between the United States and Russia, although for many its cost — well above $100 billion — made it a poster child of inefficient government mega-projects.

In the past decade, however, the station has, somewhat unexpectedly, turned into the linchpin for spurring capitalism in space, potentially leading to new industries and the possibility that more people will head to orbit.

Research conducted on the space station has yet to discover a cure for cancer or osteoporosis. And it has not generated a technological breakthrough that would transform life on Earth. But it has given NASA and other space agencies the knowledge and experience of how to build complex machinery in space, and insight into how microgravity affects the human body.

“The whole thing is an experiment of, Can humans live in space for long periods of time, operate in this challenging environment, and do it safely, do it successfully?” said Scott Kelly, one of the space station’s most prominent residents, who spent nearly a year in orbit, beginning in March 2015. “If that’s one of your main objectives of the programme, I think it has been a great success.” The 20-year streak of humans in space did not begin grandly. “The initial two or three weeks was fairly cramped, because the station had to be kind of opened up gradually,” said Shepherd, a former member of the Navy SEALs who served as the commander of the first crew. “We could not turn everything on and go everywhere in the station initially.”

Unlike today, communications between the station and the two control centers, in Houston and Moscow, were spotty. The astronauts were out of contact with the rest of humanity on the ground sometimes for hours at a time. “In some situations it’s even more convenient that way,” Krikalev said at a news conference in Moscow commemorating the anniversary. “If crew members constantly stayed on call, they’d have no time to do their jobs.”

Kenneth Chang is a journalist with NYT©2020

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