The International Space Station: 20 Years of Promise, Peril and Fun


Nov. 2, 2000

Credit…NASA Johnson

The first space station crew — William Shepherd of NASA and Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev of Russia — launched from Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz rocket on Oct. 31, 2000. “It was very foggy,” Mr. Shepherd recalled. “It was a day that NASA would not have launched to space.”

The Soyuz docked at the space station two days later. “Our main job that first day was to assemble a cable, a camera, lights and some other components to do a live television downlink,” Mr. Shepherd said. He said the three went around “with our hair on fire for about three hours trying to get this set up, because none of the components were in places where we expected to find them.”

Everything was put together, and the broadcast went as planned.

In the early days, the crew often received one set of instructions from NASA’s mission control in Houston and then later the Russian controllers in Moscow would change the plans. And vice versa.

Finally, Mr. Shepherd, the commander, made his annoyance known. He said he told the people at mission control, “We’re not doing that. We are the International Space Station. We’re a program for Houston and another one for Moscow. And we’re not going to work a plan until you get one plan for one station. So you guys get your act together.”

That, Mr. Shepherd said, “was my happiest day in space.”

April 28, 2001

Credit…Russian Space Agency, via Associated Press

Until 2001, everyone who went to orbit was a government-employed professional astronaut. Then Dennis Tito, an American businessman, became the world’s first space tourist, buying a ticket for a seat on a Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station. Mr. Tito had originally bought a trip to the Russian Mir space station, but those plans fell through when Russia decided to deorbit Mir and focus on the I.S.S. Mr. Tito then arranged for his trip to the I.S.S., which reportedly cost $20 million. NASA objected, but Mr. Tito got his weeklong visit.

Over the next seven years, six more wealthy space tourists visited the space station. Anousheh Ansari was the only woman to buy a ticket; Charles Simonyi made two trips.

No space tourists have flown to orbit since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011. NASA then had to buy seats on Soyuz rockets for its astronauts, and the price that Russia charges has steadily increased to $90 million, for a seat for NASA astronaut Kate Rubins on a Soyuz that launched to the space station in October.

NASA has since changed its mind about space tourists. A private company, Axiom Space, is arranging a trip that may launch as soon as next year.

Feb. 1, 2003

Credit…Jason Hutchinson, via Associated Press

The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth from orbit, killing the seven astronauts aboard. Columbia had not gone to the space station; it was instead on a free-flying science mission. But the loss reverberated through the space station program.

Donald Pettit, one of two NASA astronauts on the space station at the time, was scheduled to be picked up by another shuttle that month, but his stay was extended to May and he returned on a Soyuz instead.

“We didn’t have time to go through a grieving process like everybody on the ground, and I had three classmates on Columbia,” Dr. Pettit said. “I knew all seven of them really well.”

Construction on the space station paused for two and a half years when the remaining three space shuttles were grounded. The size of the space station crew was reduced from three to two. The only transportation available were Russian spacecraft: the Soyuz capsule for astronauts, the Progress vessel for cargo.

Oct. 19, 2007

Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

In 2007, Peggy Whitson set off on her second trip to the space station and soon became its first woman commander. At the time, she was one of only three women to have lived on the I.S.S. Sunita Williams later commanded it in 2012, and Dr. Whitson had command again in 2017. They are the only women ever to take command of the station.

Both women are amazing, but why did it take so long to have a woman commander. And why have there been just two?

Partly it’s statistics: Only 66 women have been into space, compared to just over 500 men. When approximately 90 percent of space travelers are men, it’s easy for years to pass in which the space station is populated by all-male crews.

The record for the number of women in space simultaneously is four; that was set when the Space Shuttle Discovery visited the I.S.S. in 2010. At the time, there were nine men and four women in space. That year also was the first time that two women served on the space station simultaneously — but it took another decade for the feat to be repeated.

In 2019, Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled to conduct the first all-woman spacewalk — until NASA discovered that there weren’t two spacesuits that fit both astronauts. Spacesuits are generally too large for many of the women astronauts, who are then unable to participate in all aspects of a mission.

That limitation, in turn, reduces the number of appropriate slots for women on missions, so fewer women fly, which leads to fewer commanders. Even so, Ms. McClain accomplished a first on that mission: She became the first woman to serve in two different crews with other women.

Pause for a moment to unpack that. Until last year, with that one exception in 2010, every woman who has lived on the I.S.S. did so with an otherwise all-male crew.

Months later, in October 2019, that all-woman spacewalk finally happened. But while Jessica Meir and Ms. Koch were the only people outside the space station, they were still outnumbered inside by men.

NASA has been working to achieve gender parity in its astronaut classes. But even if it balances out the American astronaut corps, an all-female I.S.S. crew remains a distant dream, because our international partners fly almost exclusively men.

Now the retirement of the station is on the horizon. Will a third woman ever command it?

November 2008

Credit…NASA TV

The first patented invention made in space was a coffee cup.

In November 2008, Donald Pettit wanted to drink his tea and coffee from an open vessel. While aboard the I.S.S., he tore out a plastic divider from his Flight Data File and used the magic of fluid dynamics to create an open cup. Until then, astronauts drank everything out of a plastic bag with a straw.

We interact with coffee through aroma as much as through taste. In a bag, half of the experience was gone; Dr. Pettit said that he wanted to add “back the dimension of what it’s like to be a human being.”

When Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space, went to the I.S.S., the Italian Space Agency in collaboration with Lavazza and Argotec, built a zero-g espresso machine, the ISSpresso. To save her from drinking espresso in a bag, Mark Weislogel, an engineer at Portland State university, designed a true ‘zero-g cup’ based on Dr. Pettit’s invention.

Credit…NASA

In 2015, as Dr. Kjell Lindgren was preparing to launch for NASA, he had concerns about coffee.

“I love coffee and I was worried that our standard freeze-dried brew wasn’t going to cut it,” he said.

So he worked with Dr. Weislogel and Drew Wollman on a further iteration to study fluid dynamics on the station. Together, they created a brewing system that would combine some of the charm of an open cup with the essential chemistry of a good Earth-based pour-over.

This isn’t just about cups of coffee. It highlights how astronauts adapt to life in space away from Earth’s comforts. Going from a plastic binder to a pour-over demonstrates how human ingenuity will find solutions to future problems. And they also managed to drink some good cups of coffee. For science.

“Fresh brewed or freeze-dried, it was all terrific,” Dr. Lindgren said. “I still think about the coffee I drank on the I.S.S.”

March 12, 2009

Credit…NASA

Earth’s orbital environment is littered with debris, from forgotten rocket boosters to scraps from broken satellites or perhaps even a camera an astronaut lost his grip on. This detritus can move at speeds of more than 20,000 miles per hour, and can collide and cause serious damage to anything that crosses its path, including the space station.

Usually, when NASA gets a warning that something might come too close — which has happened as recently as this September — it has several days to move the station out of the way. But on this day, an old satellite motor was expected to pass within about three miles of the space station, without enough warning time to maneuver the space station.

The three astronauts aboard the station took shelter in a docked Soyuz capsule for about 10 minutes as the motor zipped by. Had the debris hit the station, the astronauts would have quickly undocked and returned to Earth.

With ever more satellites being launched, space is getting more cluttered, and the dangers to astronauts in orbit will increase.

July 17, 2009

Credit…NASA

With the docking of the space shuttle Endeavour, 13 astronauts — the seven on the shuttle plus the space station crew of six — roamed the space station for the first time. That is the most that have ever been on the station at once.

There is plenty of space in the space station, which is as voluminous as a large passenger jet. But too many people onboard for too long would overwhelm systems like the scrubbers that prevent carbon dioxide in the air from rising to poisonous levels, highlighting the challenges that must be overcome before humanity can accomplish visions of whole societies thriving in orbit and beyond.

It was perfect timing for one of the two toilets on the space station to break and flood. Mission control told the astronauts to put an “out of service” note on it. But the astronauts were able to fix it and it was back in working order the next day.

February 2010

Credit…NASA

On Feb. 25, 2010, Terry Virts was in the cupola. The NASA astronaut and two other crewmates had finished installing this seven-windowed dome on the space station an hour earlier.

He had opened the covers to give everyone on board their first view of “the intensely beautiful light from our planet,” he wrote in his autobiography. “All of a sudden the entire module was bathed in a pink-red glow.”

The station had passed over Australia for the first time, and the iron-red soil of the continent reflected up into space.

When the I.S.S. was conceived, the cupola was intended to provide the crew with a view of the exterior of the space station, to make it easier to maneuver its robotic arm. But it also provided astronauts with “an umbilical cord connecting the crew on the station to Mother Earth,” as described by Doriana Buffa, the cupola project manager for Alenia Spazio, the European company that built it.

When off-duty, many astronauts float in the cupola watching the vistas scroll below.

Credit…NASA

“Until the cupola module was added, our only way to see the Earth was through single, portal-like windows,” said Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who traveled to the station in 2010. “Your favorite places on Earth would flash by the tiny window so quickly, you couldn’t take them in. But from the middle of this dome, you can watch Earth come and go and feel like a person in your own little spacecraft, with the best window imaginable for looking at our world.”

Especially beautiful were the nighttime views of Earth with the aurora borealis. In the early years, those views were reserved for astronauts, because the rate at which Earth spun past meant that night photos were blurred. But Donald Pettit, a NASA astronaut on the station in 2012, rigged “a barn-door tracker” to be able to send the first crisp photos of our nighttime planet back from the I.S.S.

Those views do not show national borders. Astronauts report feeling a cognitive shift as they watch the fragility of our planet below them, something Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut, calls the “orbital perspective.” It shapes them even after they return to Earth.

A decade after he helped install it, Mr. Virts said, “The cupola is the place where astronauts can connect with our planet and the universe; you realize that you are ‘up here’ and Earth is ‘over there.’ It’s a profound realization, which shapes your perspective on nearly everything.”

Credit…NASA

May 16, 2011

Credit…NASA Johnson

The second-to-last space shuttle mission essentially marked completion of construction of the space station.

“That was a very momentous moment for us all,” said Michael T. Suffredini, then the space station program manager at NASA. “Because it went from that part where we saw renderings to where we could take a picture of the whole space station.”

March 2012

Credit…Radiological Society of North America

One of the driving goals of the space station program is to understand the long-term health effects of living in an environment where everything, including everything inside the astronauts’ bodies, floats.

Some effects, such as the weakening of bones, have long been known. (That particular problem is thought to be largely counteracted through drugs and daily exercise.)

But in 2012, scientists were surprised to discover that some astronauts were experiencing changes with their vision, and had flattening of their eyeballs or swelling of their optic nerves.

The issue is not fully understood, much less solved. Recent research suggests that fluid pressure in the cranium is not much higher in a zero-g environment, but on Earth, brains get a break when we lie down to sleep. It could be a major concern on distant missions to Mars.

May 25, 2012

Credit…NASA

SpaceX is now a dominant player in the business of launching things to orbit. But back when it won a NASA contract to develop a robotic cargo ship to the space station, the company had yet to launch its Falcon 9 rocket.

During its first trip, glitches in navigation sensors on the Dragon capsule delayed its arrival by a couple of hours.

But since that trip, SpaceX now does regular cargo runs to and from the space station, and NASA’s investment enabled SpaceX to build a thriving business launching commercial satellites.

May 2013

Credit…NASA TV

Although Chris Hadfield’s performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” ranks among the International Space Station’s most iconic moments, the Canadian astronaut insists he is not a “backwards looking guy.” He prefers to anticipate the next set of challenges in space.

“It seems surreal that we could be settling the moon,” Mr. Hadfield said. “But playing ‘Space Oddity’ from the space station? For a Canadian kid who was born before the very first astronaut even flew in space, that’s pretty surreal. And yet that happened so far just in my lifetime.”

Released in May 2013, Mr. Hadfield’s rendition really made the grade. David Bowie himself praised it as “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”

The video hinted at the station’s potential as a stage and film set. Recent talks between NASA and Tom Cruise suggest that the actor might shoot a movie there, a reflection of the agency’s push to open the I.S.S. to more commercial activities. But if Mr. Cruise makes the trip, it won’t be easy.

“You have limited power, extremely limited circumstances, and he’s not going to be able to bring any production crew up there,” Mr. Hadfield said.

The astronaut had to record the vocal and guitar parts in rare pockets of spare time, although he credits an international ensemble of musicians and contributors with the smashing success of the final version with full instrumentation.

“The wider point of the video, as far as I could see it, was highlighting the multinational contribution of the I.S.S.,” said Elizabeth Howell, an expert on Canada’s space program.

“Hadfield gives us a subtle tour of the I.S.S., highlighting the contributions of many nations,” she added. “And the views of Earth you see in the video are of Earth as a globe, not Earth highlighted in a single region.”

The contributions of international partners have gone beyond sending crew to orbit. Canada’s robotic arm was key to assembling the station; Japan’s Kibo module is an essential orbital science lab, and the European cupola has provided an unparalleled view of Earth.

It’s fitting that Mr. Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space and the first Canadian commander of the I.S.S., created such a resonant expression of the station’s most enduring legacy — the awesome power of human collaboration.

“That song isn’t really done justice by just one voice and a guitar,” he said. “It’s a lovely, big, powerful orchestral song.”

July 16, 2013

Credit…NASA

Through 20 years of astronauts on the International Space Station, there have been no major accidents or injuries. The closest brush with disaster occurred during a spacewalk by Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut.

About 45 minutes into the spacewalk, which aimed to prepare the station for a new Russian laboratory module, Mr. Parmitano reported feeling wetness at the back of his neck and head. Because of a clogged filter, water had started filling up in Mr. Parmitano’s helmet. By the time he was able to get back into the space station, there was one-quarter to one-third of a gallon in his helmet, and water filled his eyes, ears, nose and part of his mouth, and he was having trouble breathing.

Video showed his crewmates fervidly working to free him from the suit after he had finally returned inside the station.

“Karen unfastens my helmet and carefully lifts it over my head,” he wrote after the incident. “Fyodor and Pavel immediately pass me a towel and I thank them without hearing their words because my ears and nose will still be full of water for a few minutes more.”

Astronauts have conducted more than 200 spacewalks — extravehicular activities, or E.V.A.s in NASA talk — from the International Space Station. That dwarfs the number that had been conducted up until then.

“We had so many E.V.A.s as part of construction,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the NASA space station manager from 2005 to 2015. “We’ve done so few up until that point. That was one of our big concerns.”

March 2, 2016

Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian space agency landed in Kazakhstan after 340 days on the International Space Station. That did not set a record for consecutive days in space; a Russian astronaut, Valery Polyakov, holds that distinction with 437 days on the Mir space station in 1994 and 1995.

But this time there was more careful tracking of the health of the two astronauts to determine the long-term effects of living in space. Scott Kelly also had a convenient comparison on Earth: his twin brother Mark, a retired astronaut who is running to be Arizona’s next senator.

Genetic comparisons between Scott and Mark Kelly revealed some changes in terms of which genes were turned on and off as result of weightlessness and other stresses of spaceflight. In an interview, Mr. Kelly said he has not experienced any noticeable changes as a result of his long stay in space. But scientists still pore over the data, hoping to find clues to what might happen during journeys to Mars or long stays on the moon.

May 2016

Credit…NASA

If you think of space as Earth’s backyard, imagine the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module as the bouncy castle you put up for a birthday party.

In 2016, two astronauts attached the new compartment to the rest of the space station, just off the Tranquility node that hosts environmental systems. Made with inflating textile walls, it is seen by some as a design for future space station construction.

Aleksei Ovchinin, who helped install the space station’s first inflatable room, said he felt “a little concerned” when he floated in and felt the cloth walls, soft to the touch, the only thing separating him from the void of space.

“It’s still there, and it still works,” he said, although it is used as storage shed, with the hatch usually closed, lest it spring a leak.

But he imagines something like it “could be used for a lunar station” in the future, highlighting the space station’s utility as a test bed for technologies that could help future human colonists of the moon and other worlds beyond our own.

Oct. 11, 2018

Credit…Bill Ingalls/EPA, via Shutterstock

A routine trip to send new crew members to the space station became one of the most dramatic moments in the recent history of Russia’s space program.

Two astronauts, Aleksey N. Ovchinin, a Russian, and Nick Hague, an American, were blasting off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They were traveling in a variant of Soyuz, Russia’s workhorse capsule that has been lofting humans to space since 1967. After the space shuttle retired in 2011, and until SpaceX launched its crewed spacecraft this year, the Soyuz had become astronauts’ only ride to the I.S.S.

Suddenly, one of the capsule’s old-school, analog lights lit up red, indicating the rocket had failed. Video from inside the capsule showed the moment when the spacecraft jolted in distress.

The emergency escape system separated the ship from the exploding rocket about 31 miles above Earth’s surface. Mr. Ovchinin then flew manually for a few moments to align the capsule and plunged back down, experiencing seven times the normal pull of gravity.

“It was like having a cement block on your chest weighing seven times your weight,” he said.

Both he and Mr. Hague were unharmed and later got back on the bronco that had bucked them off, making the trip to the space station in 2019. The incident was the only time the Soyuz’s emergency escape system has been used during dozens of flight to the station.

While it was the most serious close call for the Russians in the 20 years of the space station’s operation, it also showed the reliability of their approach, which involves flying rockets and capsules that are modernized only incrementally. SpaceX’s 21st-century ride to orbit has impressed astronauts with its capabilities, but Soyuz will continue carrying crews with the engineering and ingenuity that has kept it useful for more than five decades.

May 30, 2020

Credit…SpaceX/EPA, via Shutterstock

Two NASA astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the first time that people headed to orbit in an American rocket launching from the United States since the previous space shuttle mission, in 2011.

More remarkable was the rocket and the capsule, which was designed and operated not by NASA but by a private company: Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley named the capsule Endeavour, a tip of the hat to the former space shuttle the astronauts first traveled to space aboard.

The next day, the Dragon capsule docked at the space station.

“As you are performing your inventory, please collect all your food and water bottle trash,” Anna Menon, a SpaceX mission controller in Hawthorne, Calif., reminded the two men before they exited their spacecraft.

Mr. Hurley and Mr. Behnken returned to Earth in August, and four more astronauts are scheduled to head to orbit this month in the next Crew Dragon flight.

By choosing a commercial provider, NASA hopes to save money and spur development of new space businesses, as SpaceX can also sell seats on its Dragon capsule to non-NASA customers. (NASA has also selected another private company, Boeing, whose capsule’s first flight with passengers has been delayed, likely until next year).

”This is really just the beginning,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, said after the successful splashdown. “We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit and onto the moon and then ultimately onto Mars.”



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