Completing an orbit around the planet every ninety minutes, it witnesses fifteen sunrises and sunsets each day. It flies almost 40 times higher than the top altitude of conventional airliners, orbiting Earth at an altitude of over 200 miles. Space Complex Alpha is the most expensive and arguably most advanced project ever undertaken by mankind, a testament to human ingenuity, engineering, and technology. Yet it is also alone and isolated, accessible only after a powerful rocket launch and days of orbital maneuvering hurl a tiny space capsule into a rendezvous trajectory. Space Complex Alpha is a lonely oasis of life surrounded by the deathly emptiness of space. What purpose does this outpost serve? What is the space station?

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100 meters from end to end, the station is hardly larger than a small apartment complex. It can house up to 9 astronauts at a single time, but hardly comfortably. The crew compartments are cramped and cluttered with experiments, equipment, and instruments. The living facilities are often cold and stuffy. Little time can be devoted to entertainment or relaxation. These are the unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable, consequences of the role Space Complex Alpha serves: top-of-the-line, incomparably advanced research laboratory. Almost all free space has been commandeered for an experimental or scientific purpose. Along with possessing vital engineering and technical skills, the crew aboard must be highly skilled scientists. They conduct the most complex, most revolutionary, literally ‘out-of-this-world’ scientific investigations of modern times. They represent the apex of human discovery and investigation. The space station is thus a vessel of learning and knowledge, propelling our understanding of the universe even further than before.

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Multiple rocket launches, carrying a variety of cargoes, capsules, and modules, were needed to bring together Space Complex Alpha. Its construction is the result of years of preparation and planning, hundreds of high-risk, high-tension man-hours of in-orbit construction, and billions of dollars spent. Every single piece of it was installed and activated in space. Although small in size and meager in accommodations, the station is the most complicated and most difficult construction project ever begun by humanity. The effort and energy of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians from dozens of nations was necessary to bring it to completion. Throughout the entire construction, the opportunity for failure was enormous. The space station is the pinnacle of human engineering, the result of our most audacious and advanced designs.

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An astronaut’s tour of duty aboard Space Complex Alpha generally runs for six months. Occasionally, depending on the size and complexity of the science being conducted aboard, an expedition can last up to an entire year. As they fly cross the Earth’s surface at 17,000 miles per hour, they are the fastest and most distant humans alive. Their entire existence is confined within the walls of their vessel. Their lives depend entirely upon its continued proper functioning. Everything necessary to their activities, both personal and professional, must be found and contained inside the few compartments of living space. Space Complex Alpha is humanity’s small outpost in the vast beyond. The space station is humanity’s home away from home.

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As humanity begins to break the bonds of the Earth and explore the universe firsthand, it relies upon these rudimentary habitats for survival. As technology and the drive to settle space develops further, so too will the size and complexity of the space station. These stations will one day litter low Earth orbit, making up neighborhoods of colonists settling the first human-produced worlds. They will serve as the departure points to the distant worlds of the Moon, Mars, and even beyond. What is the space station? The answer is simple, but also profound: the space station is the beginning of humanity’s future.