You're reading


In mission control rooms around the world – in Houston, Moscow and Munich – a daily reality TV show is played out on giant screens. It is the dullest reality show you will ever watch. There is no conflict or peril, little tension and certainly no romance. The best you can hope for is a view of an astronaut’s backside floating past the camera.

This is the reality of day-to-day life on the International Space Station (ISS): astronauts living and working together to strict timelines – eating, sleeping, exercising, conducting scientific experiments and fixing the plumbing.

The ISS may lack the drama of missions like Apollo 13, but that’s how mission control would prefer it (Credit: Nasa)

It may not be Apollo 13, but this is exactly the way the space agencies like it. Since the ISS was first permanently occupied in 2000, Russian, American, Japanese, Canadian and European astronauts have lived and worked together 400 kilometres (250 miles) above the Earth. One of the greatest triumphs of the ISS is to make space appear routine, boring even.

We should not, however, take the apparent success of the ISS for granted or ever imagine space travel to be as easy as it looks. And when you investigate the story of how we ended up with a giant orbiting laboratory, circling the planet every 90 minutes, it is remarkable the ISS was ever built at all.

20 November 1998: Zarya

I have never been so cold. Huddled out of the bitter wind behind a rock in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe, with a phone clutched to my ear, I am attempting to commentate for BBC radio on the launch of the first stage of the ISS.

I am one of only three international journalists who have managed to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to make it this far. The Russians are not used to allowing international media into the once top-secret Baikonur Cosmodrome. They clearly, however, have a sense of humour: the flat area we are standing on turns out to be the cover of a nuclear missile silo.

Behind us an ancient loudspeaker crackles into life with a monologue detailing the events leading up to launch. In the distance, blending into the grey sky, the white Proton rocket carrying the Zarya module.

One senior UK government official tells me it is ‘an orbiting white elephant’

There is no countdown. The launch time comes, and the rocket goes. A few seconds later and the noise hits, a throaty roar disappearing into the thick cloud.

Despite the dismal weather, the launch is undeniably spectacular and merits a headline on the evening news bulletins. But the media narrative surrounding the event has been, for the most part, sceptical. Already the project is over-budget and the Zarya launch more than a year behind schedule.

The emerging space station provided the Space Shuttle fleet the job of resupply and replacing crews (Credit: Nasa)

Most people I interview doubt the ambitious space programme will ever be fully realised. Despite being a signatory of the original ISS agreement, Britain declines to put any money into the project. One senior UK government official tells me it is “an orbiting white elephant”.

It is not an auspicious start.

“Within Nasa people tend to be overly optimistic and outside of Nasa people tend to be overly sceptical about these big projects,” says Valerie Neal, space historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

“There was never really a strong push to abandon it but there were threats,” she says. “It was very nearly killed by a single vote at one of the committees of the US Congress.”

‘It is a symbol of what technologically advanced and aspirational nations can do’ – Valerie Neal, space historian

But there has always been more to the ISS than just another space mission. Its political and diplomatic roles have been just as important as its scientific ambition.

“It is a symbol of what technologically advanced and aspirational nations can do,” says Neal.

April 1971: Salyut 1

The idea of a space station dates back more than a century. It is the logical step for space-faring civilisations between one-off missions to orbit and longer missions to the Moon and Mars. As the Space Age dawned in the 1950s, visionaries such as V2 designer Wernher von Braun plotted out a course that envisaged a permanently occupied orbital station as a staging post for the journey into deep space.

“That was the thinking until 1961,” says Nasa chief historian Bill Barry. “Then President Kennedy says ‘no, we’re going to sprint to the Moon’ and the whole idea of a space station gets put on the back-burner.”

With the race to the Moon won, Nasa needed a new mission – which led to the launch of Skylab (Credit: Nasa)

But with the race to the Moon won, Nasa returned to the White House with a plan to build a space station and a reusable shuttle to service it. After almost two years of deliberation, the answer came back.

“The decision was to build the Space Shuttle,” says Barry. “President Nixon realised that they really needed not to kill the space industry and the least expensive option was to build the Space Shuttle.”

On 19 April 1971 the Soviets launched Salyut 1 – the world’s first space station

There was an obvious flaw in this plan: there was little point in having the shuttle without a space station.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, saw an opportunity. “They had a very energetic programme to beat the Americans to the Moon,” says Barry. “They didn’t want to admit that in public so their answer was, ‘We were planning to build a space station all along’.”

The Soviet Union’s Salyut 1 was the first working space station (Credit: Wikimedia)

While the US continued its Apollo Moon missions to dwindling public interest, on 19 April 1971 the Soviets launched Salyut 1 – the world’s first space station. Two months later a three-man crew docked and took up residence above the Earth. The cosmonauts spent three weeks living and working in the 20-metre-long cylinder, setting a new space duration record.

On 29 June, the three cosmonauts boarded their Soyuz spacecraft for the return to Earth. But during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere a faulty valve opened, sucking the air out of the capsule. Without spacesuits, the crew were killed in seconds. The first anyone knew of the tragedy was when ground support staff opened the spacecraft hatch.

May 1973: Skylab

Back in the USA, with the Moon programme cut short and the Space Shuttle still on the drawing board, Nasa had several enormous Saturn 5 rockets and state of the art Apollo space capsules going spare. Cobbling together a space station programme out of the two was not a giant leap of imagination.

“Skylab was vital for underpinning the resurgence of interest in having a more permanent station,” says David Baker, a former Nasa engineer-turned-author, who worked on the Apollo, Shuttle and space station programmes. “Instead of having to design each element, [we] simply took what existed and morphed it into something you could use for a different purpose.”

Skylab contained laboratories, sleeping and rest areas; there was even a shower

“The third stage shell of the Saturn 5 was fitted out with separate compartments,” says Baker. “Crews could remain there for three months at a single visit.”

Two complete Skylab laboratories were built, but only one was launched. Today, the other takes pride of place in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, where you can walk through its luxuriously roomy interior. The design owes more to the science fiction concepts of how a space station should look than the cluttered reality of the ISS.

Skylab contained laboratories, sleeping and rest areas; there was even a shower – a design that even those with only a tentative understanding of weightlessness can see is deeply flawed. Above the compartments there was an open area where astronauts could enjoy the thrills of microgravity aerobatics.

“Compared to the space capsules that astronauts were used to,” says Neal, “it was like being in a house.”

Compared to cramped capsules, Skylab was like being ‘in a house’ (Credit: Nasa)

“Skylab gave us a taste of what it would be like to have a permanent human presence in space,” she adds. “In many ways the ISS is Skylab multiplied – building up the modules like Lego into a larger unit.”

Over a period of nine months, three crews lived and worked in Skylab. The first mission, however, was to be one of the most challenging Nasa had ever undertaken.

During Skylab’s launch on 14 May 1973, a protective shield and one of the solar arrays on the side of the laboratory had sheared off, and another solar array only partly deployed. The space station was losing power and dangerously overheating. When the first crew – led by the third man to walk on the Moon Pete Conrad – docked 11 days later their first job was to save the station.

The Skylab missions also helped redefine the relationship between ground control and orbiting astronauts

Working in temperatures of more than 50C (122F), they managed to deploy a hastily stitched together sunshield through an airlock. A few days later, during an improvised spacewalk, Conrad and Joe Kerwin freed the jammed solar array.

The rescue proved that it was possible to carry out repairs in space – experience that would later come in handy with Hubble, Mir and the ISS.

The Skylab ‘mutiny’ helped planners realise the complexities of prolonged living in space (Credit: Nasa)

The Skylab missions also helped redefine the relationship between ground control and orbiting astronauts. Isolated above the Earth, the crew of the third Skylab crew got increasingly annoyed with having every hour of their time scheduled.

They decided to take a day off. The incident, described in some accounts as a mutiny, taught Nasa managers that the stresses and strains of living in space for a prolonged period were very different to those experienced during a quick dash to the Moon and back.

January 1984: Freedom

“America is back, standing tall, looking to the ‘80s with courage, confidence and hope,” stated President Ronald Reagan at the opening of his State of the Union Address on 25 January.

Nineteen minutes into the speech and the President gets onto space. “America has always been greatest when we dared to be great,” he tells Congress. “Tonight, I am directing Nasa to develop a permanently manned space station and do it within a decade.”

It took some four years for the international partners – Europe, Canada and Japan – to agree to the final design

There were distinct echoes of Kennedy’s 1961 speech directing America to reach for the Moon. Only this time, the US was not going alone. “Nasa will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity and expand freedom for all who share our goals.”

The result was to be space station Freedom – an international space station. It would produce “quantum leaps” in science, help promote private sector investment in space and provide the now operational Space Shuttle with a destination.

“It was more than a station,” says Jeffrey Manber, who was later involved in negotiations for the ISS and is now chief executive of Nanoracks, a company operating private laboratory payloads on the ISS.

Ronald Reagan’s plan for a permanently manned space station ultimately led to the ISS (Credit: Getty Images)

“It was a reflection of who we are as Americans,” Manber says. “We could sense the Soviet Union was crumbling, we had a sense that we were right and space station Freedom reflected that optimism.”

The design of the station was certainly ambitious. As well as a laboratory, living quarters and fully equipped sick-bay, the modular structure included a satellite repair facility and was designed to serve as a staging base for onward expeditions to the Moon or Mars.

From the off, the programme did not go nearly as well as President Reagan envisaged and it took some four years for the international partners – Europe, Canada and Japan – to agree to the final design. In the meantime, very little was actually built.

If the space race had been about developing a permanent settlement in space, then Russia would have emerged the winner

“As a programme it was in very difficult shape,” says Manber. “It was done in the usual way with a bunch of contractors and they were over budget – we had spent $8bn and had nothing to show for it.”

Added to that, the Iron Curtain that had been so important in giving Freedom a political and diplomatic purpose was rapidly coming apart.

February 1994: Shuttle-Mir

If the space race had been about developing a permanent settlement in space, then Russia would have emerged the winner. While Freedom was tied up in committees, crews had been living in space station Mir for more than five years.

However, with the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russian space industry was severely lacking in cash. The economy was in such a desperate state there was a real chance the country’s space programme could fizzle out completely.

“There was a strong sense this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Neal. “The idea arose that we could capitalise on this expertise by inviting them into this partnership.”

Not every moment on the ISS is scheduled – allowing the astronauts some free time (Credit: Nasa)

“More broadly, there was concern that if Russia’s space programme was no longer viable, their expertise might be hired by other nations,” she says. “There was a strong desire to keep Russia in the fold.”

On the Russian side, Energia – the organisation that built Sputnik, launched the first man and woman into space and built the Mir space station – was now a private business and needed money to operate.

Manber represented Energia in negotiations with the United States and later wrote about his experiences in a book, Selling Peace  “We were beginning to get traction with the Clinton White House, saying this may not be a bad idea,” he says.

“Everyone was scared on the American side but then a political decision was made: ‘Why not send a Russian cosmonaut on the Shuttle?’” he says. “Then the Russians pushed it further and said: ‘Why don’t we have the Shuttle visit Mir.’”

Rather than building two separate space stations – Mir2 and Freedom – a joint project made more sense

On 3 February 1994 Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev joined the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery on an eight-day orbital mission. A year later astronaut Norman Thagard flew in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to spend 115 days on Mir and on 29 June 1995, Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to the Russian space station.

Manber sat in meetings where Energia found common ground with American contractors building the Freedom space station. Rather than building two separate space stations – Mir2 and Freedom – a joint project made more sense. “Suddenly it all fell into place,” he says. “Freedom was gone.”

“The ISS is a legacy of Mir,” agrees Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Lazutkin, who was on Mir when it was struck by a Progress supply ship in 1997. “The modules that form the International Space Station had been done already on Mir,” he says. “But the international cooperation, with our space industry working with America and other space industries across the globe, that is the most important thing the ISS is doing.”

The ISS’s existence owes much to the diplomatic offensive to forge cooperation between the US and Russia (Credit: Nasa)

However, the challenges of merging the two programmes proved tough. There were some in the US who treated Russia as junior partners – losers in the Cold War – and failed to accept their greater knowledge and expertise. 

Russia struggled with delays caused by cash-flow, corruption and failing infrastructure. Other countries signed up to Freedom, but now finding themselves part of the ISS, were uncomfortable being sidelined for diplomatic expediency. Nevertheless, on 29 January, representatives from 15 countries met in Washington DC to sign the agreement establishing the ISS: an equal partnership between nations in space. Well, at least in theory.

February 2011: Building the ISS

No one said building a giant 420-tonne structure 400 kilometres (250 miles) above the Earth designed for continuous human occupation was going to be easy. Multiple teams in multiple countries, speaking multiple languages had to design and build tens of thousands of components and get them to fit together.

“American engineering was using imperial units, the Russians and Europeans used metric – there had to be a convergence and a common set of standards,” says Baker. “The project used a common digital workplace and was one of the first examples where teams from all over the world, speaking different languages, could work on exactly the same thing.”

‘The Columbia tragedy had a huge impact on the whole programme’ – Bill Barry, Nasa chief historian

Once built, the sections of the ISS had to be launched in sequence and assembled in orbit. “There are hundreds of people from each country for every system we have, that had to communicate and design systems that would fit together first time,” says Shuttle and ISS astronaut Michael Barratt.

On 31 October 2000, the first permanent crew launched in a Soyuz to the infant ISS – at this stage little more than a cylinder adrift in the void. By February 2001, the US Destiny laboratory was added with six further construction missions that year. The pace of assembly was picking up – with the Space Shuttle playing a crucial role in delivering, positioning and joining the modules.

The 15 years of research onboard has proved invaluable for future missions into space (Credit: Nasa)

Then, on 1 February 2003, after a busy and successful scientific mission unrelated to the ISS, Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry killing all seven astronauts on board.

“The Columbia tragedy had a huge impact on the whole programme,” says Nasa’s Chief Historian Bill Barry. “The basis of the space station – its construction and operation – all presumed you had the Space Shuttle.”

After the accident the US government was reluctant to sanction further Shuttle flights and there was talk of grounding the surviving fleet and halting further construction of the ISS – leaving modules from Europe, Japan and the Canadian robotic arm stranded on Earth.

Right now there are six people living and working in orbit

“President Bush decided that we would meet our commitments but that was all we were going to do,” says Barry. “We’d use the Shuttle to complete the space station but not for anything else and then we’d end the programme.”

With the European Columbus laboratory, Japanese Kibo lab and Canadian robotic arm attached, the station was almost complete. On 24 February 2011, astronaut Barratt strapped into one of the final Shuttle flights – the last of Discovery. As the ISS passed above Turin, Italy a few days later, Barratt and European Space Agency Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli used the robotic arm to manoeuvre the final main section of the ISS, the Leonardo Module, into place.

Britain’s Tim Peake will have six months to get to know this most ambitious space project (Credit: Nasa)

“It was a bit emotional,” says Barratt. “I was able to pull this thing out of the Space Shuttle payload bay with the Canadian arm and it was just beautiful to see this in space with the Earth below.”

“I was thinking…boy I don’t want to mess this up,” he confesses. “But when it latched into place, we relaxed and realised where we were, we were over Italy putting this Italian module on, it was successful and that’s when you really feel an emotional high.”


Right now there are six people living and working in orbit. Every day for the past 15 years, humans have lived off the home world. People from countries that back on Earth are barely talking to each other.

“There’s no room for politics when you’re working in space,” says Barratt. “It’s a sacred place – the world may call it diplomacy but we just call it the space programme – it works quite magnificently.”

The diplomatic role of the ISS is certainly significant as is the engineering achievement of building this remarkable machine

“I would say some of the most special times are around the galley table when all the crew gathers to tell jokes and solve the world’s problems,” he says. “If we could invite a world leader to share dinner with us once a week I think that would be world-changing.”

The diplomatic role of the ISS is certainly significant as is the engineering achievement of building this remarkable machine. Even in terms of science, the station is delivering. Astronauts now spend most of their working week as orbiting science technicians and space station research has led to the publication of several hundred scientific papers.  

No one is entirely sure how much this grand project has cost – estimates vary from $100bn (£66bn) to anything in excess of $150bn (£100bn) billion – making it possibly the most expensive object ever built.

Neither do we know how long it will last, although it probably has at least another 10 years in orbit. Four years after its completion, the ISS is still growing: a new, privately built, inflatable module is due to be added to the station in 2016.

It has taken more than 50 years to make the space station dream a reality, so has it been worth the effort?

It’s been a great model for countries to come together to work alongside each other – Baker

“The International Space Station is the engineering and political marvel of the 20th Century,” says Manber.

“It’s been truly worth it,” agrees Baker. “It’s been a great model for countries to come together to work alongside each other, to understand each other and launch out to the planets together.”

When I covered the launch of the first section of the ISS in 1998, it was challenging to find anyone outside Nasa or Energia who thought the project was a good idea. Now it is tough to find critics. Sure, many are still sceptical about human spaceflight but the narrative of the ISS has changed – even the UK is on board, financially supporting human spaceflight as Britain’s first Esa astronaut, Tim Peake, begins his six-month mission.

“If you add 10 more years of discovery,” says Barratt, “I don’t think there’s any question of how valuable the space station will have been in the history of spaceflight.”

Follow us on Facebook, TwitterGoogle+LinkedIn and Instagram.

Around the bbc