A few nights ago I went outside to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. Unfortunately, the moon was almost full and very bright, and clouds covered much of the night sky, so I didn't see any shooting stars. However, a buddy of mine had mentioned the International Space Station (ISS) was passing over, so I watched for that.
I've seen the ISS before, but I never really thought about something--it's amazing that humanity has built something in space that's so large we can see it from the ground 220 miles/250 kilometers below without using optics. Building anything in space is difficult for the simple reason that it takes an enormous amount of fuel to get the pieces up there. So for every pound/kilogram of building material, you have to expend x number of pounds/kilograms of rocket fuel.
The Russian Federal Space Agency placed the first ISS module in orbit in 1998. Since then, 15 countries and five space agencies have worked together to build a station that is as long as a football field. When the Space Shuttle delivered the new Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS in March, it brought the total pressurized area of 14 rooms to 35,493 cubic feet/1,005 cubic meters of which about 15,000 cubic feet/425 cubic meters are habitable.
Although the last US module is in place, the Russians plan to add another room to the ISS. Because the crew of six uses about 4 tons/3630 kilograms of food every six months, resupply is critical. With the US Space Shuttle fleet retiring, supply will be handled by three automated craft--the Russian Progress, the European Union's Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan's H-2 Transfer vehicle. Looking to the future, NASA is working with private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for possible supply flights.
On some days when we look around the Earth, we see war and hate and suffering. Things can appear very bleak. But if you look up and see the International Space Station soaring through the night sky, you will see a powerful example of what we can accomplish when we work together.
(The picture is from http://www.space.com/, which also had two helpful articles by Remy Molina and Denise Chow. I also used this article at dimensionsguide.com)