The International Space Station is now more than two decades old. And while initial construction of the orbiting laboratory ended just over a decade ago, before NASA’s space shuttle retired, the station has continued to evolve with smaller units and an ever-changing set of visiting spacecraft.
During this time, the station began to show its age, and was exposed to the extremely cold and hot temperatures of space, the vacuum environment, and micrometeoroid debris. For more than 20 years, these extreme conditions have eroded the station, causing stress fractures and other damage.
After the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA lost the ability to fly humans around the station to catalog these changes in highly detailed images. But thanks to the advent of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, astronauts are beginning to sail around the station again after it disassembled and before returning home.
Recently, the Crew 2 mission led by NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough exited the space station on November 8, and the crew was able to capture multiple views of the space station. NASA’s Johnson Space Center recently posted the images on its Flickr page.
Spending a few minutes looking at these photos, one cannot help but recall what an engineering and diplomatic achievement the International Space Station is – a huge and complex machine, living and breathing in low Earth orbit. It’s unlikely we’ll see a large or capable orbiting spacecraft in our lifetimes.
In many ways, the International Space Station offers a promising vision of what our future in space may hold. It has brought together the United States and Russia in space, as well as a host of other European nations besides Japan and Canada. Many of these countries went to war in the 20th century. But in this century they have worked together and contributed money and equipment to build something greater than each country could have made on its own.
With its groundbreaking experiments on human health and also microgravity, the space station offers a model for understanding how humans can live, work and thrive in space for months or even years. Hundreds of people now live on the station, providing biological information that will inform future spacecraft and exploration missions.
Therefore, the space station offers humanity a path towards cooperation and sustainability in spaceflight.
Recently, at the urging of NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the Biden White House agreed to extend the space station until 2030. The United States still has to strike agreements with its international partners to keep the station operating for this decade, and there may be some lift to bring Russia . But the space station, as these photos show, is definitely worth flying as long as it can still do so.