NASA could not have staged it any better: 10 people in orbit for the 10th anniversary of the world's most elaborate and expensive housing project, the international space station. On Nov 20 1998, the first part of the space station was launched by the Russians from Kazakhstan. NASA followed up two weeks later with the, second piece carried up by a space shuttle. Astronauts and cosmonauts moved in two years later, and the rest, as they say, is history. The space station has grown into a behemoth outpost 355 kilometres up, home to three people at any given time - soon to be six.
Thanks to the newly arrived shuttle Endeavour, the space station now has five sleep stations, two baths, two kitchens and two mini-gyms. All told, there are nine rooms, three of them full-scale labs. Three-quarters complete, the total mass is 627,000 pounds (284,000 kilograms). NASA says it is about the size of a five-bedroom house. Other fascinating facts include: the space station has travelled 2.1 billion kms, orbited Earth more than 57,300 times, hosted 167 people from 15 countries, and served up more than 19,000 meals.
The space station has taken longer for NASA and its international partners to build, cost more money and produced less science than originally envisioned. But that hasn't spoiled the celebrations going on all over the world - and off. For the record, the linked Endeavour and space station sailed past the 10-year mark at 6.40am GMT on Thursday while the astronauts slept. Mission Control marked the occasion by showing video of the first rocket's launch in 1998.
"After 10 years, we wish the international space station a happy birthday and we hope to see many, many more," Endeavour commander Christopher Ferguson said in a taped message from the orbiting complex. Before rocketing away aboard Endeavour last Friday, astronaut Donald Pettit noted that every major engineering marvel has had its share of dragged-out schedules, budget overruns, controversy, even scandal.
"How long did it take us to build the Panama Canal, Brooklyn Bridge?" Pettit said. As for the space station, "We're 10 years down the road, and it still isn't built. It's almost built. And it's an amazing, wonderful piece of technology that once it's done, people probably won't even think too much about how long it took to build," said Pettit, who called the complex home for five months in 2002-2003.
To date, it's taken 80 rocket launchings from Florida, Kazakhstan and French Guyana (the launching site for the European Space Agency's cargo carrier) to make and staff the space station. The price tag, from start to finish, is often quoted at $100 billion. That includes money spent not only by the US and Russia, but Canada, Japan and the 18-nation European Space Agency. NASA disputes that amount and estimates its share at $44bn, including shuttle launch costs. As for delays, the 2003 Columbia disaster set space station construction back by a few years. So did Russian financial problems in the 1990s that significantly delayed the launch of the first crew's living quarters.
Its objective also has shifted. NASA views the space station as essentially a place to learn more about astronaut health and other issues that could make or break future expeditions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Before, the emphasis was supposed to be on basic scientific experiments, such as protein crystals and cell tissue. The Russians, meanwhile, have used the space station as a cash cow, selling rocket rides to the occasional millionaire tourist to help keep their program going.
NASA expects to wrap up space station construction in 2010 when the three remaining space shuttles are retired. Astronauts then will have to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft until NASA's new rocketship is available to crews, most likely in 2015. Online: NASA:http://www.nasa.gov/mission%E2%80%93pages/station/main/index.html * AP