Since 2000, there have always been humans living and working on the International Space Station — and the streak could just be getting started. National Geographic reports: On Halloween in the year 2000, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and flew into the history books, carrying one U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to the nascent International Space Station (ISS). The crew arrived two days later, and the space station has been continuously occupied by humans ever since, a 20-year streak of living and working in low-Earth orbit. “There’s kids now who are in college who, for their entire lives, we’ve been living off the planet,” says Kenny Todd, NASA’s deputy program manager for the ISS. “When I was a kid, that was all stuff that was just dreams.”
The orbiting laboratory is among the most expensive and technologically complex objects ever built: a $150-billion pressurized habitat as long as a football field, whizzing 254 miles above Earth’s surface at 17,000 miles an hour. Over the decades, 241 women and men from around the world have temporarily called the space station home, some for nearly a full year at a time. “It’s pretty crazy — I’m surprised we haven’t, like, really seriously hurt anybody,” says retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year on one ISS stay. “It’s really a testament to the seriousness [with which] people on the ground take this job, the attention to detail.”
Upward of a hundred thousand people have worked together to design, build, launch, and operate the sprawling station, says David Nixon, who worked with NASA on ISS designs in the mid-1980s. “When you compare the station to the procession of great structures and buildings built by humanity since the dawn of civilization, it’s up there with the Pyramids, the Acropolis — all the great structures and edifices,” he says. The future of the ISS remains uncertain. “The station is currently slated to run until at least 2024, and much of its hardware is certified to operate safely until at least 2028, if not longer for its younger components,” the report notes.
“Will the ISS be disassembled and scavenged in orbit to construct a future space station? Will it be turned over to private companies as nations venture farther into space? Will the whole structure go out in a final blaze of glory, steered into a Pacific crash landing like the Russian space station Mir?”