In part two of our coverage of the ISS (you can check out previous coverage here), we will take a closer look at how the station was actually built. With over a dozen countries involved, and so many different components (159 had been installed as of June 2011) that would make up this marvel of space architecture and international cooperation, things could never have been easy. The assembly of the International Space Station began in November 1998 when an autonomous Russian Proton rocket delivered Zarya into space, the backbone module of what would become the ISS, providing propulsion, attitude control, communications and electrical power but lacking long-term life support functions. Two weeks later NASA attached its first module, called Unity – this module then allowed the Space Shuttle to dock to the space station – to Zarya, and assembly was now truly underway.
It was to be another two years before the station would have a module for permanent habitation attached, when in July 2000 Zvezda was launch. This Russian module added sleeping quarters, a toilet and kitchen, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, plus a whole array of communications amongst other things and it soon took over computer command control from Zarya. The first resident crew arrived in November of that same year in a Soyuz capsule at a time when MIR was being decommissioned and in the two years following, assembly milestones included the larger solar arrays, the primary US research facility Destiny and the station’s main robot arm Canadarm2. Then the unfortunate happened, as Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, putting the entire Space Shuttle programme and further expansion of the ISS at risk, but luckily assembly continued in 2005 as the investigation was concluded and modifications to the Shuttles were made.
In the years following, the station expanded rapidly with more truss segments and solar arrays being added, being able to support a growing number of modules including Harmony (also known as Node 2) which by itself expanded the station’s internal space by 20%, the European laboratory Columbus, and JAXA’s Kibō which was not only Japan’s first manned experiment facility, but is also the largest laboratory on the International Space Station. Early 2010 a third node, Tranquility, got added alongside Cupola, ESA‘s observatory module which you can partly see in Chris Hadfield‘s music video “Is Somebody Singing” as he looks out of its seven windows while playing the guitar. Space Shuttle Discovery’s last mission was to bring module Leonardo to the station, and by June 2011 a total of 15 modules made up the ISS.
Originally planned to have been finished by 2004/2005, it took till 2011 for it to be officially finished. However development is still ongoing in 2013 without the Space Shuttle programme and while there is already talk about decommissioning the station, new modules and components are still being added. If you want to know more, be sure to not miss this Discovery Channel documentary, and this handy infographic. Upon completion the station will have a mass in excess of 400 tonnes and if you look carefully into the nightsky, you might see those lucky few astronauts orbiting around 400 kilometers above you.