NASA astronauts added fizzy, colorful liquid into a floating ball of water and then captured images with a high-definition camera.
CAPE CANAVERAL — Young people up to the age of high school sophomores have never known a day when humans were not living and working aboard the International Space Station.
NASA and partner agencies on Monday celebrated 15 years since a crew including American Bill Shepherd arrived at the fledgling outpost to start the station’s first expedition, and the uninterrupted human presence ever since.
Time will tell if the $100 billion project ultimately achieves scientific and technological breakthroughs that change life on Earth or enable exploration far beyond it.
But the six astronauts and cosmonauts now living on the station said Monday that the world could already learn from the 15-nation partnership that has built the laboratory complex orbiting 250 miles up and kept it continuously occupied all these years.
“The international partnership is kind of the glue that binds this program together,” NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the Expedition 45 commander, said during a space-to-ground news conference with reporters in three countries. “I think we’re very lucky to have this space station and this program and to be able to learn the things we’re learning from it.”
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden recently said the station should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, a case advocates have made for years.
“I believe the station should be considered the blueprint for peaceful global cooperation,” Bolden said in a statement Monday. “For more than a decade and a half, it has taught us about what’s possible when tens of thousands of people across 15 countries collaborate to advance shared goals.”
Cooperation on the ISS between the U.S. Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia is expected to last at least nine more years, until 2024.
After that, if NASA’s human exploration program is to build momentum toward a stated goal of a mission to Mars, it may become difficult for the space agency to continue to spend $3 billion a year on the station, a total expected to grow to $4 billion.
For now, the agency considers the station the ideal place to test life support and other systems that will be needed for deep space missions.
“The space station really is a bridge,” said NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, a member of the Expedition 45 crew. “It’s a test bed for technologies that we need to develop and understand in order to have a successful trip to Mars.”
A former flight surgeon, Lindgren said the station also is improving understanding of how extended periods of microgravity affect people’s health, and how to counteract known issues like bone and muscle loss and radiation exposure.
Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko now are more than halfway through the station’s first yearlong mission, twice the usual six-month duration, to test those health limits. A Mars mission would likely last at least twice as long.
After 15 years with a human presence, the ISS is enjoying remarkably few serious technical problems. Kelly said he’s not performing any more maintenance now than during his last visit about five years ago, and the station is well stocked with spare parts.
“We have plans for changing those things and keep this space station flying a long time into the future,” he said.
During remarks at Kennedy Space Center in September, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said that while recent legislation ensures the ISS will operate through 2024, he expects it go longer, “to the end of the decade.”
But discussions are already beginning about what should follow the ISS in low Earth orbit, perhaps including a privately operated space station.
Bigelow Aerospace, a Nevada-based builder of inflatable modules, hopes to send a test module to the ISS next year that could help pave the way for a launch of its own habitat for science or tourism.
Kelly said anything on the scale of the ISS obviously could be prohibitively expensive to develop commercially, but he envisions smaller stations serving more focused research goals.
“It’s something that I would really love to see some day,” he said. “It would be fantastic to have researchers of all different flavors, and many different people be able to go to the space station and do their research, and also for people to go there just to experience the majesty of space and looking out at the Earth, and the privilege that we have up here to do that.”
The current station crew representing the United States, Russia and Japan planned to gather for a meal on Monday to mark the 15th anniversary of station occupancy, reflect on accomplishments to date and discuss future exploration, said Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Station activities don’t tend to garner broad day-to-day interest unless problems arise, as when three different resupply missions failed over an eight-month span through this summer.
But maybe the world should be take more notice of the teamwork that has kept humans living together safely in space for 15 years, no matter the political differences and budget challenges back on the ground.
“The main achievement in my opinion is that people on ground sometimes fail to hear, to see each other,” said cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko. “Here in space, this is impossible. Everyone is important here, and the success of the program and sometimes even life depends on what each and every one of us does. So this is a perfect example of how cooperation can be achieved.”
Added Yui: “If such a unique culture is practiced on the Earth, the Earth will be much better place.”
Follow James Dean on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean
Bloomberg’s Vonnie Quinn highlights the photos illustrating headlines from around the world on “Bloomberg Surveillance.”
By the number: 15 years of ISS occupancy
• The International Space Station occupies 32,333 cubic feet of volume, with more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house.
• More than 220 people from 17 countries have visited the ISS since 2000.
• Researchers from more than 83 countries have performed more than 1,760 science investigations.
• More than 180 spacewalks have supported assembly and maintenance of the ISS.
• Crews have eaten more than 26,500 meals since Expedition 1.
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1MtUHNY