Via NASA — Nov. 20, 1998, was a day to mark in history. The Russian Space Agency , now known as Roscosmos, launched a Proton rocket that lifted the pressurized module called Zarya, or “sunrise,” into orbit. This launch would truly be the dawn of the largest international cooperation effort in space to ever come to light.
Zarya was the first piece of the International Space Station. Also known as the Functional Cargo Block (FGB), it would provide a nucleus of orientation control, communications and electrical power while the station waited for its other elements, including the Zvezda service module and Unity.
“We were in the control center in Houston that night to watch Zarya launch, along with a good number of people from the program,” said Bill Bastedo, who is currently senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. At the time, Bastedo had the technically demanding task of launch package manager for Unity, also known as Node 1. “It was actually, for us, exciting to have Zarya on orbit so we could get our chance to execute our mission.”
Two weeks later, on Dec. 4, 1998, NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour launched Unity, the first U.S. piece of the complex, during the STS-88 mission. The two space modules built on opposite sides of the planet were about to be joined together in space, making the space station truly international.
STS-88 carries the distinction of being the first space station assembly mission, and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana was its commander.
“We definitely knew there was no margin for error on that first mission—we had to be successful,” Cabana said. “We also knew that it wasn’t all on the crew. This was a team effort, and everyone was giving it all they had to ensure success. We had the privilege of following Node 1 from an aluminum shell…to a fully functioning spacecraft on orbit.”
Three years before Unity’s launch, Bastedo was leading the teams that developed Unity and its two pressurized mating adaptors.
“We had to work closely with the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Shuttle Program Office and the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) to plan the launch, on-orbit operations for the 14-day mission and define every detail of how we would assemble it on orbit,” Bastedo said.
With Unity being the first U.S. component of the space station, Bastedo’s teams and Cabana’s crew set the standard for future space station assembly missions.
“I was very confident in our ability to dock the two,” Bastedo said. “I was most worried about making sure we could verify that Unity, the mating adaptors and Zarya all worked as a system together and we could safely leave it on orbit, because it was going to be about a six-month gap until the next flight. It turns out it was a lot of worry about nothing, because it almost went flawlessly.”
Since that first meeting of Zarya and Unity, the space station grew piece by piece with additions from each of the international partners built across three continents and leading to the largest and most complex spacecraft ever constructed.
The space station, now four times larger than Mir and five times larger than Skylab, represents a collaboration between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, representing 15 countries in all.
The first crew to inhabit the space station launched on a Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 31, 2000, as Expedition 1 and consisted of one NASA astronaut, Commander Bill Shepherd, and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko. Their arrival on board the station Nov. 2 marked the start of a permanent human presence in space.
The crew of Expedition 1 set the framework for international cooperation and attitude in space, displaying mutual respect and teamwork. Since the Expedition 1 crew’s example aboard the space station, there have been 37 expeditions following the same solidarity in space, working toward common goals. This makes the International Space Station home to the longest continuous human presence in space of all time.
In support of station assembly and maintenance, station and shuttle crews have conducted 174 spacewalks totaling almost 1,100 hours – the equivalent to nearly 46 days of spacewalks to build and maintain the complex. The station, with a mass of almost a million pounds and the size of a football field, is second only to the moon as the brightest object in the night sky.
Over the years, a great deal of research has been done on the space laboratory, which has already yielded tremendous results toward various fields. The science of the space station has provided benefits to humankind in areas such as human health, Earth observation and education. Many more results and benefits for both space exploration and life on Earth are expected in the coming years.
More than 69 countries have put research on the orbiting laboratory that advances space exploration and provides a multitude of benefits to humans on Earth. A few examples of the benefits provided by research performed on the space station are highlighted in NASA’s new feature “Benefits for Humanity.” These highlights include neurosurgical medical technology in Canada; water purification technology in rural Mexico; agricultural monitoring in the northern Great Plains of the United States; student amateur radio interaction with the space station in the U.S. midwest; and, remote telemedicine in rural Brazil.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since we joined Unity and Zarya in orbit and laid the cornerstone for the International Space Station,” Cabana said. “Station is truly an engineering marvel and a testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together. I think one of the most enduring legacies will be the international cooperation we have achieved in building and operating it. It has provided us the framework for how we will move forward as we explore beyond our home planet, not as explorers from any one country, but as explorers from planet Earth. We have seen great results in areas such as biotechnology, Earth and space sciences, human research, the physical sciences and technology being accomplished in this remarkable laboratory in space. It takes time, but I truly believe there will be even greater amazing breakthroughs that come from it, especially in the field of medicine. The ISS is the engineering test bed that enables us to prove the systems we need and deal with the crew health issues that must be solved for us to actually go beyond Earth for extended periods of time, when we eventually go to Mars and beyond.”
Station Facts and Figures
- The ISS has 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume and weighs more than 900,000 pounds providing more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house.
- The U.S. solar array surface area is 38,400 square feet (.88 acre) – large enough to cover eight basketball courts (94 ft x 50 ft x 8 = 37,600 sq ft).
- Crews have eaten about 25,000 meals since the first Expedition in 2000. Approximately seven tons of supplies are required to support a crew of three for about six months.
- The ISS travels an equivalent distance to the moon and back in about a day.
- The ISS solar array surface area could cover the U.S. Senate Chamber three times over.
- ISS has an internal pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, or equal to that of a Boeing 747.
- Four pair of US solar arrays each have a wingspan of 240 ft – longer than that of a Boeing 777 200/300 model, which is 212 ft.
- Fifty-two computers control the systems on the ISS.