How Did They Build the International Space Station?

by Megan Ray Nichols 

The International Space Station has been in orbit around our home planet since 1998 when the first piece of the station was lifted into orbit. Now, the football field-sized space station sits in orbit above the Earth — but how did they build this massive piece of engineering? Let’s take a closer look the ISS and all the work that went into creating it.

A Global Collaboration

There’s a reason it’s called the International Space Station. It is the result of a massive collaboration with the space agencies in countries around the globe. It included engineers and experts from NASA in the United States, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos out of Russia.

The station itself is divided into two segments — the Russian Orbital Segment,which includes four Russian owned sections, and the U.S. Orbital Segment, which includes portions that are owned by the U.S. and the other member countries.One of these sections, Zarya, is included in the Russian Orbital Segment because Russia built it, but it belongs to the United States because we funded it. Zarya is the first component of the ISS that was sent into orbit.

Years of Construction

Construction on the ISS started in the early 1990s, even though the first segment didn’t launch until 1998. The idea dates back to the Reagan Administration. In 1984’s State of the Union address, the then-President directed NASA to build an international space station within the next decade. If only he had known then how far that declaration would carry us.

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Million Dollar Space Pens or Pencils

If six years ago you had forgotten a Fisher space pen in your car’s glove box and you pull it out today, it will write without a hiccup. It will also write underwater, in extreme heat and in freezing cold. In fact it will write in space too. It has been used for exactly that for decades.

You must have heard of that story where NASA spent millions to invent a pen that writes in space. That is not really true. The millions in research was Paul Fisher’s own money that he spent to develop a pen which would write in weightless conditions. Well, NASA was spending money on it at almost the same time too. But their research program’s budget spiraled out of control and had to deal with public pressure before going back to using pencils.

There’s a good chance you must have received an email like this one, maybe around April 15th:

When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly Discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero Gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a Decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero
Gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass And at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.

Your taxes are due again — enjoy paying them.


The Russian one line solution compared to the “$12 Billion” dollar Americans used sounds like a smooth story to tell. But that is not really how it all went down.

At the height of space race, both Americans and Russians used pencils to write in space. But since pencils use graphite to leave a mark, and graphite is flammable, it made pencils not the best things to take into space, especially after the Apollo 1 fire incident. Secondly, graphite conducts electricity pretty well. That means a broke piece of pencil tip, or even the small amount of graphite dust from it could get into the electronics and cause shorts. And then there’s paper, wood and eraser which go with a pencil. All of which produce particles when used and are combustible.

Mechanical pencils were a better solution as they eliminated wood but the graphite was still a problem. Grease pencils or wax pencils solved it to some extent. But again the mark left by any pencil was not as reliable as a pen. Ballpoint pens worked pretty well. However the problem with normal ball pens was that the ink was not designed to work well at low pressures, nor would it do very well in extreme space temperatures. Felt tip pens again used a much thinner ink which wasn’t an ideal choice for usage in low pressure environments like space.

Fisher solved all of these problems by inventing a pen that used an ink cartridge that was pressurized at 35 psi. This ensured the ink would come out irrespective of the orientation of the pen, or the pressure it was in. It also used a non-newtonian  thixotropic ink which acted like ketchup – stayed put as long as the pen was not intending to write, and flowed due to a change in viscosity when the pen had to write. Oh and the ink was designed to work well at -25 to 120 degrees C, not 300 C.

This original spacepen – Antigravity 7 or AG7, the one which was used on Apollo 7 space mission in 1968 after 2 years of testing by NASA, sells on Fisher spacepen’s website for about $60.

This video talks about how it all started from a sandwich:

[Wikipedia], [], [Fischer spacepen], [Snopes]

New Technology Could Change Our Approach to Space Exploration

by Megan Ray Nichols

NASA and other space agencies continue to work tirelessly on finding new technology to make deep space exploration a possibility. The Korean Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, as well as NASA are currently working on a new technology involving self-healing silicon chips for spacecraft that will make the interstellar trip in the near future.

NASA will present the technology at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco in December 2016. The largest hurdle scientists have faced in regards to sending deep space probes is the intense radiation from the other stars and planets. This new technology will allow the silicon chips to heal after radiation exposure using a transistor made from nanowire technology.

How Self-Healing Chip Technology Works

As a deep space probe travels, its exposure to large amounts of radiation causes degradation before the probe can reach the end of its journey. Although a space shuttle or probe may run into other challenges such as heating and cooling or fuel issues, scientists believe the destruction from radiation scenario is avoidable by using a gate to surround the nanowire transistors.

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