Visit the International Space Station

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What ISS is and How Astronauts Get There

The International Space Station as seen from a space shuttle leaving after delivering astronauts and supplies. NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) is a research lab in Earth orbit. You've probably seen it moving across the sky at one time or another. It looks like a bright dot of light and you can find out when it will appear in your skies at NASA's Spot the Space Station site.

The ISS is roughly the size of a U.S. football field and hosts as many as six crew members who do science experiments in 22 pressurized modules, laboratories, docking ports, and a cargo bay. It also has two bathrooms, a gymnasium, and the living quarters. The U.S., Russia, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and European Space Agency built and maintain the station. 

Back when space shuttles were still providing transportation to space, astronauts went to and from the station aboard that fleet. Now, ISS members get their rides in Russian-built Soyuz vehicles, but that will change when the U.S. restarts its crew launch systems. Resupply cargo ships are sent from Russia and the U.S. 

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How Was ISS Built?

Astronauts work on a truss installation. NASA

The International Space Station was built beginning in 1998. Modules, trusses, solar panels, docking bays, lab equipment, and other parts were launched into space aboard shuttles and supply rockets. It took well over a thousand hours of extravehicular activities by astronauts to complete its construction. Even now, there are occasional add-ons, such as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. 

The main configuration of the station is stabilized, although experiments and laboratory equipment continue to be removed or delivered as needed. Materials come and go from the station via rocket-launched resupply ships. There are still modules to be built and delivered, such as the Nauka laboratory and the Uzlovoy module.

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What is it Like to Live and Work on ISS?

Exercise is a huge part of life on the space station. Each astronaut does at least two hours a day to combat the effects of living in low gravity. NASA

While on ISS, astronauts live and work in microgravity, which is a medical experiment in itself. Astronauts on long-term assignments, such as Scott Kelly, are literally long-term medical studies in what it's like to live in space for months or years at a time.

The effects of living on ISS are many and varied. Muscles atrophy, bones deteriorate, body fluids rearrange themselves (leading to the typical "moon face" we see on astronauts in space), and there are changes in blood cells, balance, and immune system. Some astronauts have reported vision problems. Many of these issues clear up upon return to Earth.  

Astronaut crews perform science experiments and other projects for their respective space agencies and research institutions. A typical day begins around 6 a.m. (station time), with breakfast and facilities inspections. There is a daily meeting, followed by exercise and work. Astronauts knock off for the day around 7:30 p.m. and are in their sleepsacks by 9:30 p.m. Crews have days off, engage in photography and other hobbies, and keep in touch with home via private links. 

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Science on the International Space Station

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer onboard the International Space Station is used to hunt for energetic radiation and particles. NASA

The labs on the ISS do science experiments that take advantage of the microgravity environment; these are in medicine, astronomy, meteorology, life sciences, physical sciences, and the effects of space living on humans, animals, and plants.They also test various materials for use in space.

As an example of the astronomy research being done, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is an instrument that has been on the station since 2011, and is measuring antimatter in cosmic rays and is searching for dark matter. It has observed billions of energetic particles that travel at very high speeds through the cosmos. ISS crew members also do educational projects as well as projects for commercial concerns, such as Lego, and other events involving ham radio operators and students in classrooms. 

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What's Next for ISS?

technology aboard ISS
Crew members on the International Space Station work with such technology as 3-D printers to understand how these and other technology can be used in space. This is a printer inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox aboard the station. NASA

Missions to the International Space Station are scheduled into the 2020s. At a cost of more than $150 billion (early 2015), it is also the most expensive space installation ever built. It makes sense that its users want to use it as long as possible. The station has been a valuable way to learn how to construct space-based habitats and science labs. That experience will be useful for missions to low-Earth orbit, the Moon, and beyond.

For some futuristic mission scenarios, the ISS has often been cited as a jumping-off point to other space installations. For now, it remains a useful lab, as well as a way for astronauts to train to live in work and space both inside and outside the station.