On Station

Right now, two hundred miles above your head, five men and one woman are falling freely through space, probably enjoying a healthy lunch and doing a little email. They are the crew of the International Space Station (just ‘Station’ for short, as there is only one, and likely we will not be able to afford another).

You can see them tonight, or most nights, if you pop outside at the right time and look up. Station is so big it’s clearly visible to the naked eye, crossing the sky like a lazy meteor, or a 17,000mph spacecraft, which is what it is. HeavensAbove.com will give you Station’s ephemeris (not an unsightly skin disease, but just the times when you can see things in the sky).

Skywatching is quite fun even if you do not have a telescope or binoculars, as the Mark I eyeball is quite a sensitive optical instrument and you can use it to detect Station, meteors, satellites, and even quite a few things that do not exist (at least according to the US Government).

Space is closer than you might think, only 60 miles or so away. You could drive there in an hour, assuming your car went straight up, which some cheaper models do not. The odd thing is that just getting to space does not mean getting away from the Earth. What goes up must come down, as Newton pointed out, and the only exceptions to this rule are objects travelling faster than about seven miles a second. Probably Newton could not throw an apple this fast, so we should let him off.

Why doesn’t Station come down, you inquire, worriedly. It does, but the Earth keeps moving out of the way. Imagine a bullet. The faster you fire it, the further it goes before it falls to Earth. If you fired it fast enough, it would make it all the way round the world before coming down. This is exactly what Station does - and it sinks a little bit on every orbit, like a slowly settling blancmange. If it did not get a regular boost from Shuttle or other visitors, it would fairly soon become a meteor itself and we would be treated to a very expensive firework show in the upper atmosphere.

It is worth remembering that in all the astonishing æons of life on Earth, or the tiny recent sliver of time that is human history, we are the first to cross that sixty-mile gap to reach space, and there are plenty of people alive today who were born before the Space Age. In the brief time since, we have visited the Moon and played golf there, sent robot explorers to Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the outer planets, and established a permanent human colony in Earth orbit. Have a look at it some night.

(See also keithlard’s guide to alco-stronomy.)

1 comments on On Station

  1. Anonymous (not verified)
    Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:44

    L.Ron Hubbard would argue with you about being the first - beware! the thetans may get you yet

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