By far the most known man-made object in space must be the International Space Station, or ISS. As large as a football field, with some patience and knowing where to look (check here for its current position) you could even spot it with the naked eye. The best chance to see it would be the hours before sunrise or after sunset, when the ISS is sunlit but the ground and sky are dark. Not only is it a behemoth of a construction, it was also astronomically expensive. If you look at the modules alone, you are talking around the 60 to 70 billion dollar mark… including transportation to and from (shuttle flights at $1.4 billion each for example) and other partners’ budget, it would be closer to $150 billion dollars. That’s $150,000,000,000! A sum even Bill Gates, often quoted to be the richest man on the planet, couldn’t afford.
The Space Station is much more than an expensive construction for those few lucky astronauts though. As a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility it provided the facilities to inspire a generation with science shows and genuine mini-concerts, provided tons of research data already and is probably the greatest ever human feat of international cooperation. In fact, you can check for yourself what the inhabitants are currently up to here (including sound)!
NASA‘s ISS website is pretty comprehensive – it even tells you who’s on the station right now, and who will be on the next mission for instance. But let’s not forget that it wouldn’t have been possible to build the station without the funding and technical input and resources of the European Space Agency (or ESA, which is comprised of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), the Russian Federal Space Agency (commonly referred to as Roscosmos, i.e. Russia), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this last one only having been established in 1989! All these nations’ organisations came together in January 1998 to sign the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) which basically lays out who owns which modules, the station usage by the participant nations, and responsibilities for resupplying the whole mission.
Next time, we will check how the station was actually built. And perhaps you’ll see the ISS flying by next time you look up but better pay attention cause at 28,000 km per hour, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. Stay tuned!