Have you ever been gazing at a starry sky when suddenly a bright dot glided into view? If it wasn’t blinking, then you’ve had the distinct pleasure of seeing one of mankind’s greatest collaborative feats with your own eyes: The International Space Station. Roughly the size of six-bedroom house, and weighing more than 320 cars, the International Space Station is so large that no single rocket could have lifted it into orbit. Instead, it was assembled piece by piece while hurtling through space at 28,000 kilometers per hour, lapping the Earth once every 90 minutes.
It all started when sixteen nations signed the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement, laying out each partner’s expected contributions to the ISS, from modules and maintenance to sharing information and finances. At an estimated 100 billion U.S. dollars, the Space Station would be the most expensive object ever built. The whole world watched as a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into the sky. Zarya, meaning sunrise, was equipped with two solar panels and a propulsion system that had the important task of keeping the young station from crashing into the Earth by staying a safe 400 kilometers away.
The U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour followed two weeks later carrying Unity, a node module to which other modules could be connected, and an international six-person assembly crew. Then came Zvezda, which brought communications and living accommodations. Ever since the International Space Station’s first tenants arrived, it’s been continually occupied with more than 200 visitors spending an average of six months on board. Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti holds the record for the longest single space flight by a woman at 199 days on the ISS. 2001 saw the arrival of Destiny, the first of four research modules, where astronauts spend approximately 36 hours a week conducting extraordinary experiments in microgravity.
Their schedules are packed with exercise, two hours a day to fend off muscle atrophy, station maintenance and repair, and connecting with family or awe-inspired minds around the world. But they still find time for fun, with regular movie nights and even shooting the first music video in space. Destiny also controls the seven-jointed robotic Canadarm2. Capable of moving more than 100,000 kilograms, it’s perfect for unloading new arrivals from shuttles. 2001 was a busy year for the Space Station with the addition of Quest, the main airlock for strolls outside, and Pirs, a pier for Russian spacecrafts to dock including the ever-ready emergency escape vehicle, Soyuz.
Then, on February 1st, 2003, after delivering research modules to the ISS, the space shuttle Columbia exploded during reentry tragically killing the seven-member crew on board. After a four-year hiatus, work quickly picked up pace with the addition of more hubs, airlocks, docks, and an observation cupola for stunning 360-degree views of our world and beyond. Other critical components included platforms and trusses to support radiators that direct all the heat generated by the station’s electronics into space and solar panels that are efficient enough to power 55 homes. It took ten years and over 30 missions, but finally, the International Space Station was complete, coinciding with the U.S. Space Shuttle Program’s retirement.
The Space Station continues to serve as an incredible model for international collaboration. This year, two people began a one-year stay on the ISS, allowing scientists to study the long-term physical and psychological effects of being in space, which would prove useful for increasingly ambitious space travel, like trips to Mars. Over its lifetime, we’ve learned an immense amount scientifically, but also about our capacity to work together and accomplish truly remarkable acts.