Life on the International Space Station

A trio of astronauts from the U.S., Russia and Japan blasted off from Kazakhstan on December 17 for the International Space Station, orbiting 400 kilometers above Earth, where their experiments could help get humans to Mars and beyond.

Scott Tingle from the U.S., Anton Shkaplerov of Russia and Norishige Kanai of Japan will live at the space station for the next five months.

International partners from the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe constructed the space station, which has been in continuous operation for 17 years. Astronauts from these space agencies crew the station, and more than 100 different nations have participated in science and education projects on the outpost.

Astronauts walking down staircase (© AP Images)
Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (foreground) Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai (middle) and U.S. astronaut Scott Tingle prepare for launch on December 17. (© AP Images)

“There’s no way NASA could do it alone,” said Julie Robinson, who oversees science on the International Space Station for NASA, the U.S. space agency.

The trio of astronauts launched into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, just as previous crews have in recent years. Partly because of this, NASA astronauts learn Russian to work with their cosmonaut counterparts. Although the official language of the station is English, labels and procedures appear in both languages.

Robinson said the U.S. and Russia accomplish more in space by working together than if each country tried to go alone. “We will do things differently on a Mars mission someday because of our Space Station experience together,” she said.

The kind of research conducted on the station varies. In March 2015, for example, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko began a mission to study the health effects of long-duration spaceflight — preparation for the extended missions that would get humans to Mars.

Astronaut working on equipment in space (NASA)
NASA astronaut Patrick G. Forrester tends an experiment testing how different materials perform in space in 2001. (NASA)

One experiment that the latest crew will undertake could lead to the production of higher-quality fiber optic products for use in space and on Earth.

The crew can bring pieces of home with them while they are living at the space station. Shkaplerov, the Russian cosmonaut, brought his daughter’s stuffed toy dog on board to be the spacecraft’s “zero-gravity indicator.”

Whatever research the crew discovers during its time on the space station will be shared. “Those benefits come not only to the countries” that helped build the space station, Robinson said. “They actually come to the whole world. And that’s a pretty exciting long-term benefit for humans.”

Astronauts showing pizzas floating in air (© AP Images)
Astronauts from the U.S., Russia and Italy take a break from their research and share made-from-scratch pizzas at the International Space Station. (© AP Images)