International Space Station Celebrates A Grand 15-Year Journey Beginning With Humble Zarya Mission

By Ajit Jha on November 21, 2013 9:32 AM EST

Celebrating Fifteen Years of the International Space Station
Astronaut James H. Newman waves during a spacewalk preparing for release of the first combined elements of the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

November 20 will be written in the annals of space history as the day when the first piece of the largest man-made space structure was launched. On this day in 1998, a Russian rocket lifted a module called Zarya (meaning 'dawn') up into orbit.

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The lift off from Kazakhstan was the beginning of the International Space Station. This shared laboratory in the cosmos just celebrated its 15th birthday. Zarya launched atop a Proton-K rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kazakhstan) was followed two weeks later by NASA launched Unity. The Zarya project kicked off a global collaboration unprecedented in space history, and by the year 2000 a thriving $100 billion International Space Station was in operation. The project involved a collaboration of five space agencies representing 15 nations including rotating crew of space flyers.  The size of the space station roughly measures that of a football field with the living space of about a six bedroom house. It ranks next to moon among the night sky's brightest objects.

Here are some more interesting facts on International Space Station: While building the space station, 136 space flights on seven different types of launch vehicles were conducted. With a speed of 7.71 km/second, it can reach moon and back in about a day. The station weighs one million pounds and has about 8 miles of wire just to connect the electrical power system. This completely livable station has a 360 degrees bay window, a gymnasium, and a bathroom. According to NASA, "there are 52 computers controlling the ISS." Just for the US segment, there are "1.5 million lines of flight software code run on 44 computers communicating via 100 data networks transferring 400,000 signals."

Zarya, the original module that actually started it all is today mostly used for storage and hence is also known as the Functional Cargo Block (FGB). Its original function was to serve as a central node of electrical power, control, and communication, according to NASA.

The launch anniversary was an occasion for the space industry leaders to remember the historic day, 15 years ago. "We were in the control center in Houston that night to watch Zarya launch, along with a good number of people from the program," said Bill Bastedo,  the launch package manager of the U.S.-built module, Unity, in a statement. Bastedo, now senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, was excited at the time because the Unity mission was to follow next, on Dec. 4, 1998. Unity, also referred to as Node1, was eventually linked to Zarya.  

"I was very confident in our ability to dock the two," Bastedo added in a statement from NASA. "I was most worried about making sure we could verify that Unity, the mating adaptors and Zarya all worked as a system together and we could safely leave it on orbit, because it was going to be about a six-month gap until the next flight. It turns out it was a lot of worry about nothing, because it almost went flawlessly."

On October 31, 2000 — less than two years later — the Russian Soyuz capsule brought in the first crew to live in the International Space Station. The crew of the Expedition 1 consisted of three astronauts: Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko and NASA's Bill Shepherd. On Nov. 2, 2000, the crew of three entered the station heralding a new era of humanity's continuous space presence.

Currently, there are six crew members occupying the space station's Expedition 38 mission, including NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Michael Hopkins, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryazanskiy, Oleg Kotov and Mikhail Tyurin and; and the Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. 

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