Building the International Space Station

The International Space Station is an architectural feat and a cross-country collaboration like no other.

Suspended approximately 400 kilometres above the Earth’s surface the habitable artificial satellite weighs almost 400 tonnes and required more than 40 missions to assemble. Space administrations from across the World joined to form the world’s largest international cooperative programme in science and technology.

As British Army Air Corps officer Tim Peake becomes the first British European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut to live on board the International Space Station, we take a look at how the ISS was built.

The Early Stages

Zarya, which means sunrise, was the first module of the International Space Station launched in November of 1998. The Functional Cargo Block was originally intended to be a module of Russian space station Mir – the first modular space station abandoned in 2001 – but the design was adapted following the end of the Mir program to provide electrical power, storage, propulsion and guidance to the ISS during the initial stage of assembly.

Shortly after the ‘Unity’ Node – the first US-built component of the ISS – was launched on Space Shuttle Endeavour. It added essential space station resources such as fluids, environmental control and life support systems.


The First Crew

Preparations for the ‘Zvezda’ Service Module began in May 2000 before the module headed into orbit aboard a Proton rocket on July 12, 2000. The launch was famed for carrying advertising for Pizza Hut, which they were reported to have paid $1 million to do. Along with life support systems, the module provided living quarters for two crew members and became the structural and functional center of the Russian portion of the station.

The space station was ready to welcome its first cosmonauts in November 2000, initiating an era of uninterrupted human presence on the station which still continues to day. The first crew docked to the station aboard Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-31, and went on to carry out various tasks such as activating systems, unpacking equipment and welcoming visiting space shuttle crews and supply vehicles.


Research and Development

A state-of-the-art research laboratory was berthed to the Unity model in February 2001. The Destiny module was delivered aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis providing electrical power, cooling water, air revitalization, and temperature and humidity control. The lab can hold 13 payload racks – systems that store and support research – for experiments in numerous disciplines.

The Destiny module

Airlock and Docking

The Quest Joint Airlock, designed to host spacewalks, was attached to the ISS in July 2001 after a successful launch on Space Shuttle Atlantis. The Pirs docking compartment arrived shortly after in September which provided another another airlock from which Orlan spacewalks can be conducted. This component is set to be detached from the ISS in 2017 to make room for the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module Nauka.

Quest Joint Airlock

The Integrated Truss Structure

The Integrated Truss Structure (ITS) is a formation of connected trusses – frameworks composed of beams, girders, or rods – on which components such as logistics carriers, radiators, solar arrays, and other equipment can be mounted. It supplies the ISS with a bus architecture that transfers data between components.

The first starboard truss segment arrived on Space Shuttle Atlantis in October 2002 and the last component – the S6 truss solar array – arrived in March 2009.

International Space Station

Columbus and Kibo Laboratories

In October 2007 the European-made Node-2 Harmony module arrived on the Space Shuttle Discovery. The utility hub became the first permanent living space enlargement to the ISS after the Pirs docking compartment was added in 2001.

Shortly after, in February of 2008, the European Columbus laboratory was attached to the starboard hatch of Harmony, adding ten active International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs) for science payloads which are controlled on the ground by the Columbus Control Centre. The Japanese Experiment Module Kibo – the largest single ISS module – was attached to Harmony in March, with a module and robotic arm added in May and exposed facilities added in July the following year.

Harmony Module

Most Recent Developments

Russia added the Poisk Docking Compartment to the space station in 2009, which also added space for scientific experiments, power-supply outlets and room for two external scientific payloads.

In February 2010 the Tranquility module was added to the International Space Station which provides six berthing locations. The launch on Space Shuttle Endeavour also brought Cupola, a large window module and robotics work station to the ISS.

In May of the same year Space Shuttle Atlantic launched on its final planned mission to deliver an Integrated Cargo Carrier and the Russian-built Mini-Research Module-1. Shortly after in February of 2011 the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) was installed which is used primarily for storage, spares, supplies and waste.

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