My early teens were informed by David Bowie’s Space Oddity (amongst his other hits), blasting from my stepbrother’s bedroom. The tune and lyrics have been etched in my memory ever since.
In May 2013, that song took another giant leap for mankind when Chris Hadfield, Commander of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station (ISS), sang a revised version to the world to conclude his time aboard the ISS. Watching it, I had tears in my eyes, mostly because I didn’t want him to return to Earth. Over the previous five months the man, his camera and his Twitter feed had made space a very real place and, for me, compelling viewing.
Just to be clear, I’m not a space junkie. Star Trek is only watchable for Patrick Stewart and Doctor Who finished when David Tennant regenerated.
I find science fiction implausible but the ISS is real, very real, and in April 2014 I watched it fly over my house, being chased by a Dragon. And I didn’t use a telescope.
Launched in 1998, the International Space Station is a habitable artificial satellite which is in low Earth orbit. It consists essentially of 15 different modules, external trusses and, usefully, a large collection of solar arrays that generate its power. It’s pretty small in the great scheme of things, and most of the ISS is dedicated to microgravity and space environment research with a few sleeping quarters thrown in. I’m no expert, but it’s basically a giant science laboratory in the sky, designed to encourage exploration which us Earthlings can learn about through NASA’s education programme.
It was amazing watching the ISS pass over in its low Earth orbit. To me space is incomprehensible and ISS “low” isn’t the type where you need to mind your head. The space station was visible because it flies in the first 100-200 miles of space. It’s this low orbit that allows you to view it with your naked eyes. Some of my favourite holiday accommodation is that which allows you to fall asleep counting passing satellites in the clear skies above. Those passes were long, tracking passes, pin-like high in the inky blackness. The space station was bright, like no other satellite I had seen before. In its low Earth orbit the ISS was moving fast, averaging 17,100mph and taking just under 93 minutes to orbit Earth.
I knew to watch for the ISS following a retweet I’d received. The tweet also revealed that it would be chased by a Dragon. (Like something out of a Julia Donaldson children’s book, I smiled at the thought of the ISS being chased by a Dragon.) Thankfully this Dragon wasn’t of the fire-breathing variety – rather a NASA-launched uncrewed spacecraft bringing in fresh supplies. It certainly put online supermarket shopping into perspective!
I find the technicalities of ISS simply mind-blowing. It was just over a century ago that Orville and Wilbur Wright were credited with making the first controlled, powered and sustained aeroplane flight measuring 37 metres. Yet here I was standing in my garden watching the ISS and its crew pass overhead.
I couldn’t stop smiling – wonder what the Wright brothers would have made of it?
Despite the ISS being the brightest (due to reflective sunlight) man-made object in space, it will be a while before I can enjoy the spectacle again. The orbit of the ISS is a repeating ellipse – however, due to the Earth’s own orbit around the sun its view to Earth is different with every 90-minute orbital track. So it won’t be visible again in the UK for a while – NASA has a Sighting Location Lookup which tells us exactly when. But I look forward to giving the crew a wave when it’s back overhead!
Although I’m fascinated by it, I’m most definitely an Earthling and really don’t fancy a trip to the ISS, unless Scotty can ‘beam me up’. However, since 2 November 2000, the ISS has been continuously lived in by up to six crew members, the majority of which come from the United States and Russia. By the time I watched it fly over it had been home to 212 individuals, with stays lasting from a week or two through to many months.
The ISS is great for international relations and teamwork. Currently on Expedition 39, a total of 15 nations have been represented on the space station and although the United Kingdom has claimed (through place of birth) an astronaut, officially the UK has yet to visit.
However this will soon change when Major Tim Peake, a British Army Officer and a European Space Agency astronaut, is due to travel with Expedition 46, which departs at the end of 2015.
I’m beginning to hear the familiar tones of Space Oddity again. Can you hear me, Major Tim?
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