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10 Unusual Facts About the International Space Station

Jana loves compiling and sharing lists about the natural world, science, and history.


The International Space Station (ISS) is the biggest structure humans have ever built in space. Different nations use the ISS for research and missions. But let’s face it. Space is weird. One can expect plenty of bizarre facts about this floating behemoth.

Some are light-hearted, like when Pizza Hut made a delivery to the ISS or the new species that popped up on the astronauts’ dining table. But darker times also visit. From the world’s first space crime to a suspicious hole in the ISS, the drama makes headlines every time.

1. 16 Sunsets A Day

Those who love sunsets - get ready to feel a twinge of envy. The crew of the ISS see 16 sunsets every day (and 16 sunrises).

How is this possible? It all comes down to the speed of the station’s orbit around Earth. Travelling at 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,500 miles per hour), the ISS takes about 90 minutes to circle the planet. In 24 hours, which is a normal Earth day for the rest of humanity, the crew experiences 16 mini days, complete with the rising and setting of the Sun.

2. The Space Hero Reality Show

One lucky civilian could go to the ISS and hobnob with astronauts. But first, they have to compete against other civilians who want the same experience. The arena? A reality TV show called Space Hero.

Space Hero plans to place 24 contestants in a “space village” on Earth. The village will screen the group emotionally, physically, and mentally in a process that is very similar to real astronauts training.

If NASA agrees to the idea, Space Hero will also broadcast the winner going up to the ISS and living with professional astronauts for 10 days. The cost for this brief visit is $55 million, a bill that could be footed by companies that dream of launching private space stations and cashing in on civilians who want to holiday in space.

Space Hero is currently looking for contestants and anyone older than 18 can apply.

3. Tea Leaves Found A Year-Long Leak

The ISS is always leaking air. This is so normal that missions are launched to resupply the station with more air. So, in 2019, when crew members realized that the ISS had sprung another leak they were not concerned. But after a year, the leak began to rapidly take air from the station and it had to be patched.

But there was one problem. Nobody could find the leak. Not even after an intensive 2-month search.

One of the cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin, came up with a brilliant idea. He tore open a tea bag and allowed the leaves to drift in microgravity. After doing this in different areas of the ISS, the leak was discovered in the Russian quarters when the leaves floated towards a gauge in the wall. The crack was closed with a special tape that can stick to surfaces in zero gravity.

Anatoly Ivanishin, the cosmonaut who came up with the simple yet brilliant solution to find the leak.

Anatoly Ivanishin, the cosmonaut who came up with the simple yet brilliant solution to find the leak.

4. The ISS Has Better Internet Than Earth

The crew live with many discomforts. The living quarters are small. There is nothing luxurious about the bathrooms. Astronauts also experience medical issues like nausea, dizziness, and losing muscle mass.

But their Internet rocks.

In 2019, NASA upgraded the connection to 600 megabit-per-second (Mbps). Few people back on Earth enjoy this level of connectivity. One of the reasons for the upgrade was to keep the ISS at the frontier of space exploration by strengthening the speed at which it receives and sends data. Indeed, a lot of the research and experiments onboard the space station could help humans to return to the Moon, step foot on Mars for the first time, and reach even deeper into space.

5. New Species On The Dining Table

Between 2011 and 2016, scientists collected samples from different places in the ISS. Four of the samples contained mysterious microbes. Three revealed a new species that was found, among other places, on the dining table. The others came from a research station and an air filter. The fourth was a known microbial species named Methylorubrum rhodesianum.

All four were different strains but the microbes had something in common. They were related to bacteria on Earth that live in freshwater and soil. More specifically, a group of bacteria that fights off plant diseases and helps foliage to grow.

The ISS crew has been growing food for years and this might have something to do with finding the microbes on the station. A closer study of the unknown species, now named Methylobacterium ajmalii, showed that all three strains encourage healthy growth in roots and shoots. Since they can clearly survive in space, the microbes are particularly useful for veggie gardens in space.

6. The Pizza Hut Delivery

Once upon a time, there was a sad Russian. Yuri Usachov was craving pizza but he was stuck on the International Space Station. There was a tiny ray of hope. If Usachov could wait two months for the pizza to pass all the necessary tests - and if a pizza restaurant was willing to pay to have their product shot into space - he could sink his teeth into some pepperoni.

Pizza Hut stepped forward. This was a unique advertising stunt the restaurant could not resist. But pepperoni was not a good idea. During the testing phase, it kept growing mould. After more tests, salami proved to be the best topping.

In 2001, Pizza Hut paid over $1 million to send the pizza to the ISS and they became the first restaurant chain to deliver to space. The pizza arrived onboard a resupply rocket and Usachov enjoyed his meal. The delivery probably tortured every pizza-loving American on the station. NASA forbid the U.S. crew from accepting a slice due to the agency’s ban on advertising on all of its spacecraft.

7. A Looming Catastrophe

In 2021, Russia called the ISS a “catastrophe waiting to happen.” According to them, the 23-year-old space station is deteriorating too rapidly and that their cosmonauts might completely withdraw within the next few years. This might not seem like a news-worthy event but it could spell trouble for other nations. Without Russia, other space agencies will struggle to keep the station functional.

There is some good news. Russia is already building another space station to replace the ISS. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, also promised not to abandon the ISS until the new station was completed.

A Russian spacewalk team discovered this apparent micrometeorite impact site on the Zarya module.

A Russian spacewalk team discovered this apparent micrometeorite impact site on the Zarya module.

8. The Truth About The First Space Crime

In 2019, astronaut Ann McClain was accused of committing the first space crime. According to her estranged wife, Summer Worden, McClain tried to hack her bank account using the computers onboard the ISS.

The media had a field day but the experience was not fun for McClain. A lot of people just assumed that she was guilty. She was also going through a painful separation from Worden and when Worden freely spoke to reporters, McClain faced a career-ending charge and also became the first active astronaut to be “outed” for her sexuality.

Summer Worden painted the astronaut as a space hacker but before long, Worden herself was charged for making false statements to federal authorities. Worden claimed she had taken measures to keep McClain out of a particular bank account which McClain then attempted to hack. However, an investigation found that Worden had never taken any steps to lock McClain out of the account. If she is found guilty of lying, Worden could face up to 10 years in prison.

9. The Suspicious Drilling Hole

In 2018, astronauts realized that the ISS was losing air pressure. Alarmed, they searched the station and discovered why. Somebody had drilled a tiny hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule.

This created more concern. Why would anyone drill a hole in the spacecraft that transported astronauts to the ISS and back to Earth? But first things first. The crew sealed the damage with tape and epoxy and the air pressure normalized. Afterwards, the astronauts tried and failed to solve the mystery - but not because nobody knew what had happened. Russia knew. They just refused to say anything.

The Soyuz shuttle belonged to Roscosmos. After an investigation, the Russian space agency developed a severe case of Zipped Lips. The head of the Roscosmos did remark, “We know exactly what happened but we won’t tell you anything.” To be fair, he did not say this to NASA’s face. He was speaking to youngsters at a science conference.

For safety reasons, NASA really wants to know who drilled the hole in the shuttle. Did it happen on Earth or after the craft docked at the ISS? NASA might never get an answer. They cannot examine the shuttle because it burnt up in the atmosphere and Roscosmos remains silent.

The final resting place of the ISS.

The final resting place of the ISS.

10. The Death Of The ISS

The ISS began orbiting the Earth in 1998. Fans of the station might be sad to learn that its lifespan is almost over. NASA has plans to keep the ISS in orbit until 2024 (or 2028 at the latest). While the exact date remains unknown, the manner and place of the ISS’s death have already been decided.

On the day, the ISS will plummet back to Earth. Weighing 450 tonnes (496 tons), the station will break up as it enters the atmosphere. The debris will scatter across an area of 643 kilometres (400 miles) long and 48 kilometres (30 miles) wide. The pieces will also remain dangerously large. Needless to say, the ISS cannot be dropped willy-nilly anywhere on the planet. To avoid crushing a small town, NASA chose a remote spot in the ocean.

Located in the Pacific Ocean, it is far removed from all land. This hard-to-reach place is officially called the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. But it also has another name - the Spacecraft Cemetery. When the ISS finally disappears under the waves, it won’t be alone. For decades different nations have dumped their spacecraft there. One famous wreck in the Cemetery is Russia’s MIR station which orbited the Earth from 1986 to 2001.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jana Louise Smit

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