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Image: International Space Station
NASA
The International Space Station as of February 2010 is featured in this image, photographed by a crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.
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updated 11/2/2010 11:32:26 AM ET 2010-11-02T15:32:26

Humans arrived at the International Space Station exactly 10 years ago, and the orbiting laboratory has not been empty since.

While crew members come and go, NASA and its international partners have been occupying the laboratory in the sky uninterrupted for a decade. The space station itself spent two years without a permanent crew before the first astronaut and cosmonauts arrived on Nov. 2, 2000.

"I think it's kind of incredible," said astronaut Peggy Whitson, chief of NASA's astronaut office at Houston's Johnson Space Center. "It's miraculous to have had people on orbit for 10 years continuously."

More than a dozen countries and space agencies from the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan have been building the $100 billion space station since 1998. Under NASA's new space plan, the station is expected to continue operating through 2020.

The space station, now about as long as an American football field and including about the same internal living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, is practically complete.

NASA's space shuttle Discovery is poised to blast off on Wednesday to deliver the last major U.S. addition to the station — a windowless storage room — along with a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2. [Graphic: The International Space Station Inside and Out ]

Overcoming setbacks
Despite the enduring nature of the space station, there have been some setbacks — most notably from the devastating tragedy of the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003 and the subsequent 29-month grounding of the space shuttle fleet until flights resumed.

At the time, the space station's crew size was cut from three people to just two occupants — one American and the other Russian. Even during those lean times, the only time the station was left unoccupied was when crew members performed spacewalks outside the confines of the structure.

"We've overcome so much, and to know that we've kept the station permanently occupied that whole time, to me makes us a spacefaring civilization," NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, told Space.com. "I have also said I do not feel I will have been a success at this job if there are days ahead where we do not have people living and working in space. So 10 years is a good start — we need to keep it running."

The Columbia disaster slowed down the pace of space station construction because the shuttles were the only vehicles capable of carrying up some of the outpost's larger components. The shuttle fleet returned to flight status in 2005, with station construction resuming in 2006.

Now, four years later, the orbiting lab is nearly complete. [Gallery: Building the International Space Station]

"Visually it's just stunning," said astronaut Tom Jones, who visited the first station's crew - called Expedition 1 during the STS-98 shuttle flight in 2001. "If I look at my snapshots from 10 years ago on STS-98 and then you look at what's up there today, it's just incredible growth in that facility."

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As of Nov. 2, the space station has completed 57,361 total orbits around the Earth with humans onboard, said NASA space station flight director Royce Renfrew. The lab circles about 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the Earth's surface.

Expedition 1
The first expedition of astronauts to live at the International Space Station arrived Nov. 2, 2000 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule that had launched Oct. 31, 2000, from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Three spacefliers were aboard: American commander William Shepherd of NASA and flight engineers Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko of Russia's Federal Space Agency. They stayed onboard for a total 136 days, or a little more than four months.

Astronauts who have come since, such as Nicole Stott, who served on Expeditions 20 and 21 in 2009, expressed their gratitude to the pioneers who began the station program.

"It just was such a great starting point for all of us, who now get to experience this ginormous volume and still sharing in this spectacular international program that has made it such an international success," said Stott, who is returning to the station this week aboard Discovery.

Over the years since that first mission, space station living has changed quite a bit. While early crews had a rather spartan existence, spending almost all of their time keeping a fledgling station running, current crews can devote much more time to research, and take advantage of wider food and entertainment options and even choose among a variety of exercise equipment (such as the relatively new COLBERT treadmill) to stay in shape.

"One thing that I noticed over that time is both the quality of life in training and the quality of life onboard the space station has continued to improve," said NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who served for almost 60 days as a flight engineer for Expeditions 19 and 20 in 2009. "And that's a great thing. I think we're learning how to live in space. And every step and every crew is doing it better and getting smarter and the program is getting smarter."

Looking forward
Now that the space station is largely complete, crews living there can focus much more of their daily efforts on science research, rather than building the station's complex network of modules and tunnels.

In 2005, Congress designated the station a U.S. national laboratory, opening the outpost's U.S. science facilities up for use by non-NASA researchers. More than 400 scientific experiments in fields such as biology, human physiology, physical and materials science, and Earth and space science have been conducted there over the last decade.

Yet there is still a long way to go toward taking full advantage of the station for science, some say.

"What we havent done with the space station, I think, and which is a huge opportunity, is to use it as a test bed for going beyond," Jones said. "It should be the test bed for life support systems and communication gear and new generations of spacesuits — and even tiny self-propelled spacecraft that will allow us to explore an asteroid. Those should all be checked out, assembled and proven at the space station in the next 10 years."

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There may be some growing pains ahead for the station when NASA's space shuttles retire, likely next year, and take with them their huge capacity for carrying large cargo to space. The space station will have to rely on Soyuz spacecraft, as well as unmanned European, Japanese, and possibly commercial cargo ships.

"It's going to be a little bumpy at first as we get used to not having that powerful cargo ship coming to the station, however, just like any other challenge we have faced at NASA we overcome it and we learn a whole lot from it," said NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who recently returned from a six-month sojourn at the station as part of Expedition 24. "So I think we have a lot of good things to look forward to."

A new bill passed by Congress, and recently signed into law by President Obama, authorizes NASA to continue the space station program through at least 2020.

"I see the space station as just beginning," Whitson said. "I have hopes that we're not halfway through — we're less than halfway through."

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Interactive: All about the International Space Station

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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