Memorable Milestones on the International Space Station
BY EDWARD GOLDSTEIN
That many space “firsts” have occurred onboard the International Space Station is unremarkable. As the biggest human space facility constructed (slightly larger than a football field) and an outpost that has provided continuous long-duration access to space for 20 years, the space station was bound to be the setting for unique accomplishments. Here is a sampling that encapsulates the wide variety of firsts the orbiting laboratory has made possible.
ADVANCING SPACE EXPLORATION
A consequential space station first, from the standpoint of space exploration, is the first use of space research to enable even longer duration missions to places such as Mars. Dr. Michael Barratt, who flew twice to the orbital outpost and later managed the Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center, said, “One of the big things was certainly the ability to improve the ability of humans to live in weightlessness. We have known for decades that you lose bone mass, you lose muscle, you lose aerobic capacity. With station, we feel that [with] our new suite of advanced countermeasures, which includes resistive exercise, we can maintain a human in a way that we have never been able to do before. It has been a quantum step forward in maintaining human performance in space. So, we bring people down with small to negligible losses of bone mass, and muscle strength, and aerobic capacity. What we return from station now is a much more fit astronaut than what we used to return from space, even long duration. And that insight into how to field those advanced countermeasures is a big deal for us. It’s a big confidence builder when we think about durations of much greater length in time.”
Two “firsts” critical to the space station’s sustainability and to the future of space activities is the first participation of commercial companies launching cargo and astronauts to the facility. Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, founded in 2002, and its Falcon 9 rocket fulfilled the promise of NASA’s commercial cargo program in 2012. And this year, SpaceX became the first commercial company to launch astronauts to the space station, with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley flying the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Demo-2 mission.
Congress in 2005 designated the space station as the first U.S. National Laboratory in space, enabling research and development access to a broad range of commercial, academic, and government users (other than NASA). Through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the ISS U.S. National Laboratory is charged with promoting and brokering a diverse range of research in life sciences, physical sciences, remote sensing, technology development, and education. In 2014, the ISS National Lab began sponsoring its own series of protein crystal growth investigations, and many have yielded high-quality crystals for analysis. Most projects focus on structural determination for drug design, but others aim to improve drug formulation, manufacturing, and storage.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS- 02) particle physics experiment module, launched in 2011 as the most sensitive particle detector launched into space, has recorded data on more than 150 billion cosmic rays produced by supernovae explosions in our galaxy.
Results from AMS’ data show that cosmic ray electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, emanate from all directions in space, rather than from specific locations.
In 2017, a space station experiment called Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) was the first instrument to discover two stars that revolve around each other every 38 minutes. One is a super dense spinning pulsar and the other is a lighter white dwarf that spins around it as the larger star slowly vacuums it up.
In 2005, John Phillips became the first astronaut to testify before Congress while in orbit. The Expedition 11 crewmember spoke about the space station’s role in preparing humans for longer-duration missions before the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
“We constantly learn new lessons up here,” Phillips told the legislators. “The experiences we gather will enable us to establish a long-term station on the Moon and to go on to Mars.”
ESPRESSO AND EXOTIC CUISINE
For many people, coffee is a must-have item in their daily diet, and astronauts aboard the space station are no exception. In fact, astronaut William “Bill” Shepherd, the commander of Expedition 1, logged his suggestion for a dedicated coffee locker after their coffee supply ran out. But while sachets of coffee have been available since the very beginnings of the space station, on May 3, 2015, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti had the honor of drinking the first-ever shot of espresso in space. The espresso was made with ISSpresso, developed for use aboard the orbital laboratory by Argotec and Lavazza in a public-private partnership with the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Cristoforetti used a special cup designed by Portland State University researchers to allow sipping in microgravity. The exotic shape of the cup allows an astronaut to actually sip the coffee rather than suck it through a tube.
A contributor to space station cuisine in the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations category of exotic firsts was Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Akanuly Aimbetov. On his mission to the space station in 2015, as astronaut Scott Kelly relates in his book Endurance, Aimbetov brought up the first traditional Kazakh meal comprising horse meat soup, cheese made of horse milk, and horse milk to drink. Kelly writes that his taste buds responded accordingly: “The horse meat is a little gamey, but I eat all of it. The cheese is really salty, which is a nice change from the low-sodium food we generally have. I comment that the horse milk is really sweet – as commander, I feel like as a gesture of goodwill I should try everything – and Aidyn tells me that it is the closest in taste to human breast milk. That does it for me. Now my concern is what to do with a nearly full bag of unpasteurized horse milk. I tell Aidyn I am going to put it in the small fridge along with the condiments and some science experiments and drink it in the morning with my breakfast. When he is not looking, I triple-bag it and dispose of it in a spot reserved for the smelliest items.”
Kelly was also involved in growing the first crop for consumption aboard the space station: “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce. The lettuce was grown for 15 months in the Veggie plant growth facility, which uses red, blue, and green LED lights to grow plants in a small space. This was an important first, as, given space and weight constraints for food storage on a mission to Mars, astronauts will rely heavily on food grown en route or on the Martian surface.
In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield made a music video of David Bowie’s 1969 classic “Space Oddity,” viewed by more than 47 million on YouTube, which juxtaposes a lone astronaut’s profound sense of isolation with the majesty of the space station and the incredible beauty of the planet below. Bowie called Hadfield’s cover “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”
Astronaut Kjell Lindgren expanded the range of space station instrumentation in 2015, playing a custom-made set of bagpipes. He played “Amazing Grace” in tribute to his friend research scientist Victor W. Hurst, who had suddenly passed away.
While there have been musical instruments aboard the space station for years, what may have been the first major jam session on the space station occurred in 2018, featuring a quintet comprising the “AstroHawaii” crew of Expedition 55: Andrew “Drew” Feustel and Scott “Maker” Tingle on guitars, Ricky Arnold on the drum (a Russian solid waste container), and cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev on the pan flute and Anton Shkaplerov on the Irish flute.
While most of the musical performance “firsts” from space were for fun, one had a more formal purpose. On Aug. 10, 2003, astronaut Ed Lu played Mendelssohn’s traditional “Wedding March” on an electric keyboard as his crewmate and cosmonaut bridegroom Yuri Malenchenko floated down the aisle to exchange his wedding vows with Ekaterina (“Kat”) Dmitriev. The space station was just south of New Zealand and Dmitriev was situated in the Gilruth Center at the Johnson Space Center when the proxy wedding, allowed by Texas state law, occurred. “I was a supportive crewmate,” Lu told me. “They emailed up the copy of the music and I said, ‘Sure, I can play this.’” The happy couple are still married today and have one child.
Lu was also involved in another space station first: the first magic trick from space. (Astronaut Edgar Mitchell was involved in a debunked effort during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971 attempting to prove the validity of extra sensory perception). Lu explained he wanted to collaborate on a trick with his friend James Randi, a magician, out of admiration “for his support of science, science education, and things like that. I think it is a great message.” Lu added, “Somehow or other he set it up such that he had me trying to shuffle cards in space and pulling out a card randomly. I have no idea how he had me pull a seven of diamonds out. I did look at the deck before and it was a clear deck. I to this day do not know how I pulled that particular card out.”
THE SILVER SCREEN
Video game developer Richard Garriott, the son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, flew to the space station on a Soyuz as a “private astronaut” in 2008. There, he enlisted his fellow crewmembers Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, and Yuri Lonchakov as actors in the first science fiction film made from space, Apogee of Fear. An homage to the classic films The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and Galaxy Quest, the 8-minute film focuses on a search for an alien aboard the space station.
Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy get the credit for the first Olympic torch relay handoff during a spacewalk, three months before the 2014 Winter Olympics began in their home country’s resort city of Sochi. For obvious reasons, the torch was unlit.
On April 16, 2007, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams became the first person to run a marathon in space. The Massachusetts native took part in the Boston Marathon while in orbit, completing the 26.2-mile race on a space station treadmill called TVIS, for Treadmill Vibration Isolation System. Williams finished the run in four hours, 23 minutes, and 10 seconds, and circled the Earth nearly three times in the course of the race.
It was space vs. Earth in a chess match for the ages. In 2008, astronaut Greg Chamitoff, using a Velcro chessboard, took on an elementary school chess team that would pick potential moves that people could vote for online. The winning move would be Earth’s play, and then Chamitoff would respond. Chamitoff conceded defeat after team Earth turned its pawn into a queen.
Ten years later, NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold teamed up to defeat fellow NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst in the first microgravity tennis match in space. The competitors used tiny tennis racquets and a tennis ball that was not allowed to bounce around lest it hurt any equipment. The match was projected live onto the Unisphere globe at the site of the New York World’s Fair (1964-65), next to where the U.S. Open is played.
CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 2004
Back in 2004, when NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe delivered commencement remarks for the University of North Dakota’s graduating seniors, UND contacts asked if O’Keefe’s speech could be complemented with live images from the Mars Curiosity rover. Instead, and even better, a downlink from the space station allowed a beaming astronaut Michael Fincke, along with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, to send their congratulations to the newly minted graduates. Fincke spoke about enjoying the beauty of North Dakota’s rolling plains from space and his excitement about the world of possibility the orbiting laboratory and other scientific endeavors were opening for the millennial generation. These remarks were featured as the “First Extraterrestrial Graduation Address” in Vital Speeches of the Day.