By Jillian Oliver

The ever-receding horizon of the oceans once held a promise of grandeur and fresh adventure. Then one day, ships braved that horizon, balanced atop seas of unknown fathoms, sailing briskly at countless leagues.

With the exploration of that new frontier came channels between lands and cultures, not to mention mystery and strife. Space now holds similar promises, with the Apollo missions instilling in Americans the belief that the universe itself could offer new voyages–perhaps ones more magnificent than their nautical counterparts.

Circling planet Earth is a vessel, a behemoth, of steel the size of a football field. Like the Nautilus, it sails in subterfuge to the naked eye, lending itself to occasional sightings by the average stargazer.

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Photo probably not taken in a Hollywood soundstage…probably

When we leave the surface of Earth and land on this vessel, we see that it's not a mere fantasy. 15 astronauts living in orbit, with little to remind them of home.

The International Space Station held what Ronald Reagan called in 1984, an enormous potential for commerce. That potential would be realized over the next ten years of its construction. And with it dawned a new era of space exploration.

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Giant Leap for Mankind

For decades, forward-thinking dreamers in both the United States and Russia thought about building ships that could voyage to other worlds and even seek the colonization of other celestial bodies.

By racing to reach the stars, the fastest nation could be the first to colonize. It's this notion that partly made our competition with Russia, another powerful country, spur many of our innovations in space travel.

In 1958, the Soviet Union had already launched Sputnik and the U.S. was thinking in earnest about a manned space flight. While the race to the moon wasn't yet on, the nation realized this uncharted territory was prime real estate.

Soon after Sputnik, Russian engineers launched a dog named Laika into space, proving they too were interested in achieving a manned space flight.

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A mutt from the Moscow streets, Laika died on her 4th orbit from overheating

Pop culture exploded with visions of human colonies on Mars, alien visitations, and ships exploring the galaxy. But after the moon landing in 1969, Congress and NASA had lost some of their focus.

They soon decided to look into making its first operating space stations smaller and simpler and to use them to study the long-term effects of weightlessness, more accurately known as microgravity.

The disturbing loss of bone tissue during the early Mercury and Gemini space missions had to be studied, and they needed ways to either control or counteract it if humans were going to survive long journeys in space.

The Soviet Union had an edge on the U.S. with the whole space station idea as well. Between 1971 and 1986, Russia developed its first manned space station called the Salyut program. It broke mission duration records and also achieved spacewalk records.

They had that edge for a while. A Russian visionary named Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky published a book in 1883 called Free Space in which he outlined his concept of a space station.

In his mind, it was a spaceship that continuously orbited Earth and held inhabitants. Sound familiar?

He inspired later engineers and scientists. Perhaps his work even contributed to the dystopian novel We from 1920. It's considered the grandfather of dystopian fiction and involves an effort to expand a totalitarian society into space after the construction of a spaceship.

In other words, Russia had taken celestial endeavors seriously for a long time and by the '80s it was time for the U.S. to get in on the game.

NASA made a plan to launch their own mission named Freedom in response to Salyut. And in 1985, science ministers from the European Space Agency countries approved the highly ambitious Columbus program which was spearheaded by Germany and Italy and included a module that would be attached to Freedom.

In 1993, Al Gore and the Prime Minister of Russia, Chernomyrdin, announced a new project that would eventually become the ISS. Meanwhile, the U.S. was getting involved in Russia's Mir space station program.

By 1998, the space station became truly international, with 15 governments taking part in an intergovernmental agreement. The treaty included the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and The United Kingdom. And thus, what we know of as the ISS was born.

Floating in a Tin Can

Astronaut Chris Hadfield gained internet popularity in 2013 with his rendition of Space Oddity, which he performed from the appropriate setting of the ISS. He holds many career distinctions as an engineer and commander of the ISS, but he also holds the record for being the first person to create music in space.

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Hadfield in the cupola of the ISS

Such a human activity brings the ISS down to Earth, so to speak, and makes us wonder–what is it like to live on an alien structure that's traveling around Earth at 4.76 miles per second?

Some of what happens up there is strangely familiar.

The morning routine for astronauts isn't too different from the routine on Earth, except for the whole weightlessness thing.

Astronauts wash their hair with a dry shampoo that was originally developed for hospital patients who were unable to shower. Beginning in 2022, however, they'll start using wipes that lift dirt off the scalp.

Many astronauts can customize their ablutions with a personal hygiene kit. The kit contains items of personal preference, such as particular brands of toothpaste. And aside from blobs of water that occasionally try to float away, dental hygiene is basically the same as on Earth. Astronauts choose to either swallow the toothpaste or spit it out in a paper towel.

Not glamorous, but undoubtedly necessary.

Because of microgravity, the space station toilet is more complex than what people use on Earth. The astronauts have to position themselves on the toilet seat using leg restraints.

The toilet itself works something like a vacuum cleaner with fans that suck air and waste into a narrow hole. Each astronaut has a personal urinal funnel that has to be attached to the hose's adapter and fans suck air and urine into the wastewater tank.

This has to be done carefully lest you end up with a mess that looks like a gas station bathroom.

As far as dining goes, there's been some myths surrounding that, including the astronaut ice cream myth. Although it was originally developed for astronauts, no one liked the freeze-dried ice cream enough to actually bring it to the ISS or any other mission. But thanks to the magic of marketing, the public gobbled it up.

Like on Earth, they have a variety of cuisine. Some foods can be eaten without adding water, such as brownies and fruit. But like with camping, some foods require adding water, such as macaroni and cheese or spaghetti.

Believe it or not, an oven is provided in the space station for heating, but there are no refrigerators, so space food must be stored properly, especially on longer missions.

But don't think of reaching for the salt and pepper, at least not as you know it on Earth. It's only available in a liquid form. This is because normal salt and pepper would simply float away and possibly clog air vents, contaminate equipment, or get stuck in someone's eye.

Not worth the trouble when you think of it that way.

Chris Hadfield made us think more about leisure in space and it comes as no surprise that a favorite pastime is looking out the window during the incredible 90-minute revolution the ISS takes around the Earth.

Some astronauts like to see where they are, whether they're above Africa, the Americas, or the vast oceans; or perhaps they just watch the shades and textures from the sunsets and sunrises.

But as they're living, working, and gazing out into space, we can't help but wonder: have any ISS mysteries perplexed its inhabitants?

Anomalies and Oddities

Anomalies aren't unheard of in the world of space exploration and the ISS is no exception. From UFO sightings to unexplained microbes, the ISS has seen its share of space oddities.

One such event occurred in 2021 when researchers from the U.S. and India collected samples across the ISS and discovered strains of bacteria that were unknown to science. Although four of the samples were identified, three were unexplained.

While it is likely they have Earthly origins, it goes to show that the unexpected can arise at any moment in space.

Another recent event still inspires awe in the public–and remains unexplained.

Thanks to the internet, many of us can look at the ISS live stream and get a taste of space without actually being there. In 2019, people watching the ISS saw a fleet of what looked like spacecraft on the live stream.

A Russian astronaut must have seen something as well since he declared It's a ship as the lights drifted by.

Even though there's doubt about UFO sightings and unusual bacteria, there's no question that the ISS is in a unique position for spotting anomalies, both natural and unexplained.

From the lights of the auroras to volcanic eruptions, this home of ingenuity is one of the most impressive inventions of humankind. And although it's slated for retirement in the Pacific Ocean in 2031, future voyages of equal or greater magnitude will surely follow in its tracks.