The Space Station Turns 10 Years Old Today
Where were you 10 years ago today? If you were in Kazakhstan, you could have looked up and perhaps seen a Proton launch vehicle rising through the atmosphere toward an orbit in space, carrying atop it a payload consisting of the first component of the International Space Station (ISS).
On 20 November 1998, the Russian space agency placed the 19,300-kilogram (21.3-ton) Zarya control and cargo module (also known as the Functional Cargo Block) into an orbit 400 kilometers (250 statute miles) above. According to an online statement from NASA, "The launch began an international construction project of unprecedented complexity and sophistication."
The Zarya (Russian for "dawn") was built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow, funded by a grant of US $220 million from the United States. It featured: three docking ports for connections to other modules and spacecraft; two solar power arrays; six nickel-cadmium batteries providing 3 kilowatts; 16 external fuel tanks filled with over 6 metric tons of propellant; and 24 large steering jets, 12 small steering jets, and two large engines for reboost and major orbital changes.
The U.S. space agency launched the second component to the ISS, the Unity Module, on 4 December 1998 aboard the shuttle Endeavour. American astronauts connected it to the Zarya three days later. Zarya was initially supposed to fly autonomously for only six to eight months, but production delays affecting the Russian Service Module, Zvezda, the third ISS module, delayed human occupancy and control of the orbital platform for nearly two years (until 26 July 2000).
A CNN article from 10 years ago observed that the launch of the Zarya represented the start of the "most complex and costly engineering project ever attempted." The same article noted that the ISS consortium expected to continue construction of the space station until 2004 at a cost of between $40 billion and $60 billion. Today that figure has reached an estimate somewhere between $35 billion and $100 billion, depending on accounting standards.
The ISS is a joint venture between NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and 11 members of the European Space Agency (ESA): Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. More than 100,000 people from space agencies and contractors throughout the world are involved in ISS-related activities, according to NASA.
Ten years later, the mass of the ISS has expanded to more than 314 tons. Since Zarya's launch as the early command, control and power module, there have been 29 additional construction flights to the station, according to NASA. Zarya passed the 50,000-orbit mark in 2007.
"The station's capability and sheer size today are truly amazing," NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini noted this week. "The tremendous technological achievement in orbit is matched only by the cooperation and perseverance of its partners on the ground. We have overcome differences in language, geography, and engineering philosophies to succeed."
We congratulate everyone involved around the world in this truly historic cooperative engineering project at the high frontier of human enterprise.