As a child, the space shuttle completely ignited my imagination about exploration. I watched every space movie I could find, and carried around a well-worn copy of the Space Shuttle Operators Manual in one hand and my astronaut doll in the other. My elementary school classes crowded around the television to watch each launch, and those brave orange-suited astronauts were the first to teach me about hard work, adventure, and courage.
I confess that somehow the space station has never quite captured my heart in the same way. I’ve never watched it launch; I’ve never touched its tiles or seen it fly. Long minutes on the front lawn, squinting at the sky, looking for streaks of light across the horizon – it’s hard to connect that to eleven years of continuous human presence in space.
But here’s the thing I’m learning: my exploration dreams have to grow up. The lessons of the International Space Station are different than those of the shuttle – and vital in a whole new way.
The station teaches me that it takes time to build a real future in space. We started talking about a space station in the early 80s, and launched the first node in the late 90s. More than ten years later, we still have a few modules to go. We’re in this thing for the long haul.
The station teaches me that experience builds capacity. The more we live and work in space, the more skill and expertise we are gaining to enable us to accomplish our future – whether the Moon, Mars, or somewhere beyond. Living in space isn’t the same as visiting space.
The station teaches me that science is really what changes things. Exploration is awesome and noble and romantic – and our chief goal must remain to explore the unknown. But the reality is that science enables us to make sense of what we find there – and put it to good use.
The station teaches me that together, we can do anything. If we can surmount budget crises and bureaucracies and international relations to do something as amazing as this – in the harsh and unforgiving vacuum of space – then how could we not do the same thing on earth?
I still frequently wear a sterling silver space shuttle around my neck; somehow I imagine that it will always be my first love. The shuttle taught me about humans going to space. The station teaches me about space coming to humans on earth – not just for a handful of crewmembers – but for all humanity.
How do we tell that story? How do we get the public to connect to the space station the same way that millions flocked to watch shuttle launches? Most importantly, how do we engage the world in the kind of international collaboration that built the space station and makes the future possible?
You can explore the inside of the station and mission control on ISS Live! - and in the future you will be able to grab live station telemetry via API.
You can watch (probably over and over, like I have) this amazing time-lapse view of the trip around the globe and back to Earth.
And here’s what encourages me the most: there are so many who are telling this story. Our flight doctors – with incredible expertise in telemedicine to long-term remote, closed environments – took that experience to Chile to help rescue the trapped miners. We are using the lessons of long-duration spaceflight to make ultrasound technology available in places that need it most. The orbital perspective is inspiring humanitarian projects all over the world to help preserve our fragile oasis. Even kids are getting inspired to train like an astronaut - working together to get stronger and healthier – combating the global issue of childhood obesity.
What inspires YOU about the space station? What kind of world will it make possible?