Editorial Feature

10 Amazing Facts About the International Space Station

To celebrate the launch of the ISS on Street View, we learn a little more about this home in the stars

The International Space Station is a spacecraft, an observatory, a laboratory and, perhaps most importantly, a home, hosting up to 10 people at any one time, all floating 240 miles above the Earth’s surface. Built and operated by 15 countries, including the US, Russia and Japan, the ISS was started in 1998 as a base for all sorts of space-based research. Often described as ‘Man’s Greatest Achievement’, the ISS represents one of the largest peace-making, cross-national collaborative projects of all time. Here, different nations and cultures work together in the pursuit of scientific innovation and knowledge. So let’s learn more about this ground- (or sky-) breaking project with these 10 facts about the ISS that you probably didn’t know.

1. It actually moves incredibly fast.
The space station orbits the Earth 16 times a day and travels at 28000 km/h – equivalent to ten times the speed of a bullet on earth.

2. How do you go to the toilet? How do you eat?
These are often the first questions that come to mind when thinking of life in outer space. There are two space toilets on the ISS, which astronauts strap themselves into to use. Their urine is even filtered and turned into drinking water.

$23 million improved "waste collection system (WCS)" toilet designed for use aboard space shuttle Endeavor on STS-54 mission, 1992 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Loose crumbs and liquids can be very dangerous on the ISS, so drinks come in plastic bags with straws, while food is eaten on trays that are held in place by magnets.

Food in packages (From the collection of Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics)

3. You can see it from earth.
The International Space Station is the third brightest object in the night sky and is visible with the naked eye. To spot it, look out for for an airplane-like light that moves quickly across the sky. You’re most likely to catch a glimpse during dawn and dusk.

The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by a crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2002 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

4. Your body changes.
The changes can range from small, strange things, like calluses on your feet – as astronaut Scott Kelly says, “The calluses on your feet in space will eventually fall off, so the bottoms of your feet become very soft, like newborn baby feet. But the top of my feet develop rough, alligator skin because I use the top of my feet to get around here on space station when using foot rails.” – to the more harmful. Without gravity, your muscles and bones can deteriorate, so astronauts exercise every day to keep healthy and in good shape.

Barbara R. Morgan (From the collection of Museum of Cosmonautics)

5. They have the internet
All residents of the ISS have laptops, and they can even connect to the internet to keep in contact with family and friends, and watch live TV.

Claudie Haignere, 2001 (From the collection of Museum of Cosmonautics)

6. It’s really, really big: the size of a football field, to be precise
The ISS is the biggest object EVER made. And, despite the fact that it floats in space, it weighs a whopping 460 tons.

An artist's concept of the International Space Station (From LIFE Photo Collection)

7. It’s conducting some pioneering research
As well as astronauts that operate the station, there are many scientists from other disciplines and fields. They look at the effect of microgravity on the human body, investigate the possibilities for future space travel, as well as a wide range of other kinds of important research, from studying dark matter, to growing crystals for use in medicine.

Astronaut David Wolf (From LIFE Photo Collection)

8. Time slows down
Amazingly, astronauts return from the ISS having aged less than they would have on Earth. Because of "relative velocity time dilation", the high-speeds that astronauts aboard the ISS are traveling mean that time slows down for them relative to people on the surface of the Earth. It’s not a failsafe anti-aging trick though: after 6 months on the ISS, astronauts are only 0.005 seconds younger than the rest of us.

Space shuttle Atlantis crew before departing on a mission to the International Space Station (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

9. Easy tasks become difficult
Things that are easy for us on Earth, like getting a haircut, become much more complicated in the delicate environment of the ISS. Astronauts cut their hair using clippers attached to a vacuum, which collects all the stray hairs to prevent them clogging the station's air filters and other equipment.


10. Go aboard the Space Station for yourself
The ISS is a feat of human ingenuity that proves that the pursuit of knowledge goes beyond nation, race or creed, and can even transcend our planet. It brings people together – and now you too can join in. Explore the Space Station for yourself in Street View and get an astronaut’s-eye-view of the Earth.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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