Representing a global partnership of 16 nations, the International Space Station is an engineering, scientific and technological marvel that ushers in a new era of human space exploration.
Construction on the 454 000kg facility started in 1998 and it will take more than 40 space flights - 16 of which have already been completed - three different types of rocket and five years before the mammoth project is completed. Once it has been completed and is ready for its research duties, this huge construction, which cruises about 400km above the Earth and orbit it at about 8km per second, will consist of more than 100 components assembled during 160 space walks totalling 1920 man-hours.
Laboratories and space trucks
The final design of the ISS calls for living quarters for up to seven permanent residents for up to six months at a time, as well as six laboratories in an area with a total internal volume of 1200m - roughly equal to that of the passenger cabin of a 747 jumbo jet. Future plans also include the construction of a new six-seat space-to-Earth craft. This Crew Return Vehicle will replace the current Soyuz "lifeboat", initially serving as a rescue craft to return ISS residents to Earth under controlled flight in case of an emergency, but later versions may function as orbital buses and utility trucks.
Next stop ... Mars
Provided the ISS is successfully completed, it will offer almost infinite practical benefits to mankind. In addition to the opportunities for every branch of science to test new theories and conduct experiments in microgravity, the station will undoubtedly produce new advances in space technology and pave the way for the next major leap into space - a manned mission to Mars.
Tracking the ISS
The ISS can be seen with the naked eye and will be over South Africa during most of Mark's mission. Click here to track the station in real time, or here to see its expected course.