Rick Robinson

Jan 16th 2018

20-Year Mission — History of the ISS


The International Space Station (ISS) is rounding the track toward its 20th year in orbit. On Nov. 20, 1998, according to the station chronology at CASIS, the first section of the ISS was launched into orbit by Zarya, a Russian Proton booster rocket. A year later, the first American-built section was carried up aboard a shuttle. And on Nov. 2, 2000, the station’s first crew — an American and two Russians — reported aboard.

The Miracle of Routine Operation

Notably, when Space Safety magazine listed major mishaps in the history of spaceflight, none of them involved the ISS. However, to call the history of the ISS a history of routine operation is a misnomer because nothing about space travel is routine, or will be for a long time to come.

More than anything else, the station is a training mission for the long-duration spaceflights of the future, to Mars and beyond. According to NASA, the One-Year Mission accomplished by astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko on the ISS was twice as long as most U.S. missions. Missions to Mars are approximately 30 months long, said NASA, so the One-Year Mission is shedding “new insights into how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and stress of long duration spaceflight.”

The ISS has shown us that we can indeed build spacecraft capable of safely carrying humans on such long-duration missions.

The history of the ISS has also shown us that, as NASA observed, we can do this collaboratively, through cooperation that has persisted for nearly two decades, even through the ups and down of earthly international relations. This is an equally breathtaking piece of good news because outer space is simply too big for any one country to explore. If we are going to do it — and we will! — we will be doing it together.

Spaceship and City

This quiet and amazing double achievement did not happen by itself. It involved solving a lot of technical challenges. First of all, the ISS is big. It is a true spaceship, larger and heavier than any airliner. And it continues to grow, with new modules still being added. “The space station is approximately the size of a football field … it is about four times as large as the Russian space station Mir and five times as large as the U.S. Skylab,” said CASIS.

At the same time, the central role of cooperation and collaboration makes the ISS in some ways the prototype of something even more futuristic: a city in space. The sections and modules that make up the ISS are at once self-contained, like buildings in a city, yet tied together by shared infrastructure facilities, such as the station’s power-generating solar wings.

This semi-decentralized approach created a host of engineering complications involving features as basic as the docking collars that connect station modules — and which needed to conform to both American and Russian specifications. At the same time, the reward is greater flexibility and survivability due to having essentially two independent life-support systems, each of which is capable of supporting the entire crew in a pinch.

Similar engineering complications — and advantages — are reproduced in the provision for attaching European, Japanese and other modules. Each has its own role, while also adding to the overall capability of the station. Again, the result is suggestive not so much of our traditional notion of a spaceship as of a city in space, its three-dimensional streets filled with multiple languages and an endless variety of activities.

Part interplanetary training mission, part prototype space city — the final remarkable thing about the history of the ISS is that these roles have taken form as the station itself did, over nearly two decades of operating experience in space.

And where does the ISS go next? That part is up to you.