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International Space Station

The space race which began in the 1950s pitted the world’s two superpowers against one another. 

The Soviet Union appeared to have the upper hand in the early exchanges, putting the first living being, a dog named Laika and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. But this only spurred on the United States, with John F Kennedy famously proclaiming, ‘we choose to go to the moon’. And seven years later that was exactly what happened. On 16th July 1969, Neil Armstrong took his, ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. 

Despite the nuclear arms race taking place on Earth, the 1970s saw a mellowing relationship between the US and the Soviet Union as far as space was concerned, which culminated in the first joint expedition in 1975, something that would have been unheard of just ten years before. The  Apollo–Soyuz Test Project was seen as a ‘détente’, the easing of a strained relationship. It was not only regarded as a success, but paved the way for a much larger, more ambitious project which was to come. 

The concept of a space station was not a new one. In fact, the groundwork for these ideas, in the United States at least, began in the 1950s. Krafft Ehricke, assistant to the technical director of San-Diego-based Convair, was the first person to begin any serious planning on the subject. Ehricke had worked for Nazi Germany on the V-2 rockets which terrorized southern England during the final period of World War II, but now turned his attention to the Atlas booster, America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile which would be used to carry the early Mercury spacecrafts into orbit. His idea of using empty propellant tanks as habitable quarters was groundbreaking and just six months after the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite successfully blasted into orbit, his proposals were made public to Congress. However, plans were shelved after the Soviets launched the first man into space as it was decided that NASA should concentrate on matching their achievements.

The first space station, of sorts, was in 1969 when two Russian Soyuz vehicles were linked in space for the first time. In terms of an inhabited orbiting station, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, remained well ahead. The Mir Space Station, constructed in space between 1986 and 1996, became the world’s first continuously inhabited structure orbiting the Earth until its reentry in 2001.    

Back in the United States, 1984 saw the reemergence of plans which had received little attention for the best part of 20 years. The Space Station Freedom project was announced by Ronald Reagan during his 1984 State of the Union address, but with Congress tiring of the enormous costs associated with it never got past the planning stage. In 1993 a meeting between NASA and the Russian Space Agency agreed on a monumental step forward. The International Space Station, in theory at least, was born.             

The construction of the space station took over ten years and thirty separate missions to complete. It involved the collaboration of fifteen different countries, across five different space agencies. Quite simply nothing like it had ever been undertaken. 

When we see pictures of the International Space Station, or ISS as it is often referred to, it can be difficult to gauge its size. But the numbers associated with this behemoth are truly impressive. At 73 meters in length and 109 meters wide, it is approaching the size of a small football pitch – or soccer pitch for those of you watching from the U.S.  Unsurprisingly it’s also carrying a bit of weight, 460 tons to be exact, but of course, still manages to float effortlessly in zero gravity. 

Zarya module

Construction of the ISS began in November 1998 when the first module, Zarya, was launched on the back of a Russian Proton rocket. Two weeks later it was joined by the American module Unity, which was affixed to the waiting Zarya. The successful fusing of these two sections created the first station in space under international collaboration, but as of yet could not sustain human life. To describe the construction as painstaking would be an understatement. The challenges associated with such an ambitious project had simply never been attempted before. Each future module would need to be transported from Earth, then manually attached in space. The ISS needed to become inhabitable as quickly as possible. On July 12th, 2000, the fledgling station was joined by a third module, the Zvezda, which provided life support systems for the first time. 

In November 2000 the first astronauts arrived at the space station. Expedition 1, consisting of an American, Bill Shepard, and two Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei K. Krikalev blasted, blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Perhaps symbolically, the launchpad, named after Yuri Gagarin, ‘Gagarin’s Start’, was chosen as their launch site. It had been from this very point that the first person in space had departed from in 1961. After thirty-three orbits of the Earth, Expedition 1 successfully docked with the ISS on 2nd November 2000. Ninety minutes later, Bill Shepard opened the hatch and became the first person to set foot (metaphorically speaking of course) on the International Space Station. This began the continuous habitation of the ISS that has continued to this day.  


Over the next two years, the station expanded steadily with the Pirs docking compartment, Destiny laboratory and Quest airlock all being added, while the Canadarm2 became the station’s main robotic arm. It appeared the station would continue to expand quickly, but in 2003, tragedy struck. On February 1st, NASA’s mission control at Houston lost contact with the Space Shuttle Colombia as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The shuttle, which had spent 16 days in space, had suffered critical damage on takeoff leading to the heat shield being compromised, with the entire shuttle eventually breaking apart and falling to Earth. This was the second fatal accident involving the Space Program after the 1986 loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

As a result, US Space flight operations were suspended for over two years while investigations took place. The brisk construction of the ISS ground to a halt, with the Russian Roscosmos State Space Corporation providing the only resupply flights to and from the station. 

Assembly resumed in 2006 and over the next five years, a steady stream of modules and components were added to form what is today the recognizable station. There are currently 15 modules, with a further five awaiting delivery. 

2007 was notable because it brought the first non-American or Russian involvement to the ISS.  The European Space Agency, ESA,  launched its Harmony module on October 23rd as part of a larger mission from the Kennedy Space Station in Florida. It now serves a wide range of functions, from providing sleeping accommodation to power supplies and electronic data.

This module had originally been named Node 2, but became part of a nationwide re-naming competition. Over 2,200 students from across the USA took part and were asked to build a model of the Space Station and write an essay proposing a new name and an why. The winning entry came from the Browne Academy in Virginia, and the name Harmony has been used ever since. 

Over time the ESA has launched a further two modules, with Columbus becoming part of the ISS in 2008 and Tranquility launching in 2010. Columbus now forms the largest of the ESA modules but was in fact first planned to be part of an autonomous space station solely controlled by the ESA, an idea that never truly got off the ground (pun intended).        

The Japanese Experimental Module nicknamed Kibo, meaning hope, was launched over three separate flights and currently forms the largest single module on the ISS. This is predominantly a scientific module and has been carrying out experiments ever since.  

Understandably, considering where it is, the costs involved with the construction have been enormous, and it has been dubbed the most expensive single item ever constructed. As of 2010, the cost had totaled close to $150 billion. The thirty-six shuttle flights needed to build and transport good, had cost just over $50 billion – or $1.4 billion per flight.  

As I mentioned earlier, the space station has been inhabited continuously since the year 2000. The number of long term ISS crew who have lived on board stands at 109, while others, categorized as ‘visitors’ number 228.  The allocation of places among countries involved is dependent on how much each contributes to the overall budget. The U.S, as the largest financial contributor has sent 145 people to the ISS, while Russia has sent 46.

In general, the ISS supports a crew of between three and six but has been known to be as high at thirteen, but only for short changeover periods. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, it left only the smaller Russian Soyuz spacecrafts as forms of human transportation to and from the ISS. These ships can carry three passengers at a time, and typically teams like this are rotated every six months. Two Soyuzs are also permanently kept on hand at the Space Station should the crew need to return to Earth in an emergency. 

Between 2015 and 2016 an experiment in space endurance took place. American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko spent a total of 340 days onboard before landing safely in Kazakhstan on March 2nd, 2016. The purpose of their extended stay was to examine how the human body would cope physically and mentally with extended time in space, and indeed for long-distance space travel. Yet while 340 days broke the record on the ISS, Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent a whopping 437 days and 18 hours on Russian Mier station between 1994 and 1995. 

So what is the purpose of the Space Station? Well, the crew on board spend most of their time performing experiments and carrying out routine maintenance. Many experiments involve everyday things that we have on Earth to assess their potential uses and hazards in space. 3D  printers, espresso machines, and fire extinguishers are just some of the trials that have been undertaken on board, while in 2015 those part of Expedition 44 were able to sample the first vegetables grown in space – red romaine lettuce, in case you were wondering.    

At least 2 hours every day is dedicated to exercise or personal care. This may sound like quite a bit when you compare to what most people do back on Earth, but one significant drawback of space travel, that we are only really beginning to address, is how bone density shrinks. In fact, an astronaut can lose between 1 and 2% of their bone mass each month, so regular and specific exercise not only keeps them healthy but quite literally maintains their bodies. And it’s not only the bones that suffer. Problems with the cardiovascular system and eyes are common complaints, with many astronauts reporting permanent changes to their vision after returning to Earth.

But life on the space station isn’t all about science experiments and workouts. There is always a considerable amount of maintenance work that needs to be done, not to mention the odd unforeseen circumstance, but considering where they are, even the smallest jobs can take many hours. Take the spacewalk as a perfect example. This is when astronauts are required to leave the relative safety of the station and venture out into space. Most spacewalks are for routine maintenance and you would be surprised how much time is spent cleaning the windows outside. It’s not uncommon for a space walk to last for 6 hours, in which everybody involved needs to be at maximum concentration because the dangers are so great.  It certainly puts some perspective on washing the car every Sunday morning back down on Earth.  

Thankfully the ISS has so far been free of any serious issues while astronauts are out on spacewalks, with one notable exception. On July 16th, 2013 Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was taking part in a spacewalk when his helmet began filling with liquid. It’s difficult to imagine just how harrowing this must have been in the most precarious of situations. It was later found that a spacewalk done a week earlier had experienced a water leakage also but had wrongly been attributed to a faulty drink bag. The incident was enough for NASA to classify it as a “high-risk – close call”. Half an hour into a six and half hour spacewalk, Parmitano reported back to mission control that he could feel cold water on his neck. Shortly after the decision was taken to cancel the spacewalk and Parmitano began making his way back to safety while a slow but steady stream of water was entering and slowly filling his helmet. He later said that the water was entering his eyes and nose, making it difficult to breathe, with others commended him on his astonishing calmness in the face of such a potential catastrophe. Once safely back inside roughly one and a half litres of water came gushing out. It was a reminder of the potential dangers involved in these kinds of activities.

More recently there has been a more mysterious, but potentially even more damaging incident. As the astronauts lay asleep on the night of August 30th, 2018, a warning signal alerted NASA that the air pressure on the ISS had fallen slightly, suggesting a small leak somewhere on the station. Since it was relatively minor the decision was taken not to wake the astronauts, but in the morning they were instructed to scour the whole station. It was not long until a tiny hole was discovered in one of the Soyuz spacecrafts. While oxygen levels were boosted, the hole was covered with tape, then sealed permanently with sealant and gauze. The pressure on the ISS stabilized and the hole was initially blamed on micrometeoroids, small rocks which on occasion have struck the station and other spacecrafts. But like any good mystery, things were about to take a most unexpected turn. After NASA published a photo on Twitter numerous users began questioning the meteor theory, and the post was quickly deleted. Shortly after, Russians investigating the hole announced that they believed it had been man-made, possibly with a drill, and had most likely come from inside the Soyuz rather than outside. They were not able to determine whether it had been made before or after the spacecraft had left Earth, and to this day it remains an unexplained mystery. 

The continuation, and indeed the existence of the ISS has been brought into question in recent years. In 2014 the U.S placed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin responded by saying the Roscosmos State Space Corporation would reject requests by the U.S to prolong the use of the station past 2020. Nine months later it would seem that everything had changed with Roscosmos announcing that they would be part of the ISS program until at least 2024.

With the short term future of the Space Station resolved, the next few years are likely to see significant changes. Space tourism is now on the horizon, and just last January NASA announced it had chosen a company to build a private hotel on board the ISS, that could be launched as early as 2024. It is entirely possible that within the next ten years the International Space Station could be transformed from primarily a research facility to one of the most exclusive holiday destinations. With private funding and blossoming ambition, it’s likely the ISS  will undergo a radical transformation. This is just the beginning. 

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