The International Space Station turns 10 years old Thursday, and NASA is celebrating the station's first decade in orbit as the crew of space shuttle Endeavour continues to install new equipment to upgrade the outpost's living quarters.
"At least for me, it's hard to imagine it's been 10 years already," says Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy program manager for the space station.
On Nov. 20, 1998, a rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan carrying the first component of the station, the 21-ton, Russian-built Zarya module. A module built in the U.S., called Unity, followed just a few weeks later.
Since then, the station has grown larger and larger, as it circles the Earth about 200 miles up. NASA's space shuttles have delivered bus-sized labs built in Europe and Japan. Spacewalking astronauts have attached huge, power-generating solar panels — NASA says the wing-like panels alone span 28,800 square feet, enough to cover six basketball courts.
The station has accumulated a mind-boggling number of facts and figures, according to NASA:
- 1,432,725,000 miles traveled
- 57,309 orbits
- 12,626 cubic feet of interior living space
- Mass of more than 330 tons
- More than 718 hours of spacewalks to build it
- 167 people from 15 countries have visited
- About 19,000 meals consumed
The station has a crew of three astronauts who stay on board for several months. This week, Endeavour's crew is adding new bedrooms, a second toilet and a water recycling system so that the station will be able to house six residents starting next year.
When President Ronald Reagan called for a permanently manned, international space station in his 1984 State of the Union address, he said he wanted it built "within a decade." But the station has faced significant redesigns, delays and cost overruns. Its price tag is now estimated at about $100 billion, and its construction won't be complete until 2010.
NASA's partners in the effort include Russia, Canada, Japan and the member nations of the European Space Agency.
"We've learned to understand and appreciate and respect each other's cultures and engineering disciplines, and really to come together and pull together to build this magnificent vehicle," says Shireman.
Originally, the station was expected to last about 15 years, but space agencies around the world are talking about extending its life. NASA expects to soon shift its focus to returning to the moon and building a lunar base. But in August, President-Elect Barack Obama's campaign released a space policy document saying he would look for options to prolong NASA's use of the station.