Tag Archives: NASA (United States)

Space Walk at the ISS

Building the International Space Station (ISS)

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.

International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS)

By far the most known man-made object in space must be the International Space Station, or ISS. As large as a football field, with some patience and knowing where to look (check here for its current position) you could even spot it with the naked eye. The best chance to see it would be the hours before sunrise or after sunset, when the ISS is sunlit but the ground and sky are dark. Not only is it a behemoth of a construction, it was also astronomically expensive. If you look at the modules alone, you are talking around the 60 to 70 billion dollar mark… including transportation to and from (shuttle flights at $1.4 billion each for example) and other partners’ budget, it would be closer to $150 billion dollars. That’s $150,000,000,000!  A sum even Bill Gates, often quoted to be the richest man on the planet, couldn’t afford.

The Space Station is much more than an expensive construction for those few lucky astronauts though. As a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility it provided the facilities to inspire a generation with science shows and genuine mini-concerts, provided tons of research data already and is probably the greatest ever human feat of international cooperation. In fact, you can check for yourself what the inhabitants are currently up to here (including sound)!

NASA‘s ISS website is pretty comprehensive – it even tells you who’s on the station right now, and who will be on the next mission for instance. But let’s not forget that it wouldn’t have been possible to build the station without the funding and technical input and resources of the European Space Agency (or ESA, which is comprised of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), the Russian Federal Space Agency (commonly referred to as Roscosmos, i.e. Russia), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this last one only having been established in 1989! All these nations’ organisations came together in January 1998 to sign the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) which basically lays out who owns which modules, the station usage by the participant nations, and responsibilities for resupplying the whole mission.

Next time, we will check how the station was actually built. And perhaps you’ll see the ISS flying by next time you look up but better pay attention cause at 28,000 km per hour, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. Stay tuned!

SpaceX Dragon


In May of last 2012, Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous and connect with the International Space Station (ISS) and with that it put SpaceX firmly on the map. For those curious on how that would have looked like, check out the following link and make sure to drag your cursor around. Resupply missions aside (regular cargo flights started in October 2012), SpaceX is developing a crewed variant of the Dragon called DragonRider, which will be able to carry up to seven astronauts to and from low Earth orbit – those seven will probably be best of friends by the time they arrive as the pressurized part of the capsule is only 10 cubic metres “big” inside so it will be quite a cramped ride.

Taking the more conventional approach (unlike Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo combination), Dragon sits on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for lift off. The capsule is made up of a disposable cone, the spacecraft itself housing the astronauts (or specialized cargo) and the trunk, which can carry up to 14 cubic meters of cargo. You can see the specifications here. Its second resupply mission will take place this November, but Elon Musk, SpaceX‘s billionaire founder and CEO is already looking towards the future. In March this year he gave away some details about the second version, and it won’t be your conventional capsule anymore either. The next version will have side-mounted thruster pods and pop-out legs so it can land on solid ground. More details to be unveiled later this year; no more tweets telling them to go fishing then…

For a time table of milestones to look forward to, December 2013 will see a pad abort test (in which Dragon will use its abort engines to launch away from a stationary Falcon 9 rocket – it’s one of the safety tests required), followed by an in-flight abort test coming April 2014 (same test, but this time in flight), and the first crewed Dragon (DragonRider) flight is currently scheduled to happen mid-2015. The last in a series of impressive feats will then see a crewed spacecraft dock with ISS no sooner than December 2015.