A home for humans in space: visiting the construction site

It's hard to believe that in the passage of three short decades, the idea of humans in space has become ho-hum. But if there's any doubt that we take this remarkable feat for granted, try these questions: How many countries are cooperating in the current International Space Station venture? (Answer: 16).

When did the first humans take up permanent habitation on the space station? (Answer: Nov. 1, 2000.) Were you even aware that the United States was involved?

If your answer to that last question included a pause, then The Discovery Channel has just the program for you. To help overcome complacency about this "giant leap for mankind," to quote Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, the education-minded channel is launching "Inside the Space Station" (Dec. 10, 9-10 p.m.), simulcast in 149 countries and 27 languages.

Guaranteed to reintroduce the meaning of deep-space awe, not to mention wanderlust, to a new generation of restless humans, this program uses computers to project what the final station will look like as well as deliver a relentlessly detailed but engaging picture of how astronauts live in outer space.

If you want to have some fun, come pick up these pants," offers Phil West, a NASA engineer, pointing to the space suit. "They're the heaviest pants you'll ever lift in your life." Not surprisingly, astronaut training includes activities from deep-water weightlessness training to snowy wilderness cold-temperature training.

A quick laundry list of fun facts about the space station only enhances the "wow" factor of the show:

*The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest structure ever built in space - 356 feet wide by 290 feet long. That's the length of a football field by a bit over the height of the Washington Monument.

*When completed (target date: 2005), the ISS will be the third-brightest object in the night sky, after the moon and Venus. The finished ISS will have a mass of almost 460 tons. More than four times as large as the Russian Mir space station, the completed ISS will have almost an acre of solar panels to power six state-of-the-art laboratories.

*On the May 2000 mission, the crew replaced three fire extinguishers, four fans, and 10 smoke detectors for the simple reason that all of their warranties had expired.

The mere fact of space travel is not the only aspect of NASA's work that has normalized. Women astronauts are now routine, a reality that one of today's working astronauts recalls with a sense of personal wonder.

"When I was growing up, I never saw any women astronauts," says NASA astronaut Mary Ellen Weber. "It was not something I even considered. I didn't think about becoming a fairy princess either, it was just not something that was in the realm of possibilities."

The door opened when she was in graduate school. "I was in science," says Ms. Weber, when two important events took place. "The Challenger [shuttle] accident happened, but also the return to flight happened, which was a major event for our country." She decided to enroll in the program and succeeded.

The lack of fanfare over space habitation doesn't concern Weber. "The space station is a whole new era. It's not necessarily about trying to do a one-shot to get to one particular place, and all cheer afterward," she says.

"We're trying to take space and adopt it into our lives and use it to improve our lives."

The Discovery Channel has an interactive Web site ( that will take fans inside the ISS to explore milestones in the construction and design of the station. The station tour is on display throughout the month.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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