How Did They Build the International Space Station?

by Megan Ray Nichols 

The International Space Station has been in orbit around our home planet since 1998 when the first piece of the station was lifted into orbit. Now, the football field-sized space station sits in orbit above the Earth — but how did they build this massive piece of engineering? Let’s take a closer look the ISS and all the work that went into creating it.

A Global Collaboration

There’s a reason it’s called the International Space Station. It is the result of a massive collaboration with the space agencies in countries around the globe. It included engineers and experts from NASA in the United States, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos out of Russia.

The station itself is divided into two segments — the Russian Orbital Segment,which includes four Russian owned sections, and the U.S. Orbital Segment, which includes portions that are owned by the U.S. and the other member countries.One of these sections, Zarya, is included in the Russian Orbital Segment because Russia built it, but it belongs to the United States because we funded it. Zarya is the first component of the ISS that was sent into orbit.

Years of Construction

Construction on the ISS started in the early 1990s, even though the first segment didn’t launch until 1998. The idea dates back to the Reagan Administration. In 1984’s State of the Union address, the then-President directed NASA to build an international space station within the next decade. If only he had known then how far that declaration would carry us.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center could view pieces of the station being built on the ground in sealed clean rooms. Then, on November 20, 1998, Zarya launched on top of a Russian proton rocket. The name Zarya means sunrise in the Russian language.

Two weeks later, the first U.S. component launched on December 4. This was the first of many shuttle missions dedicated to building this monumental piece of history. The first astronauts didn’t set foot on the station until two years later. One astronaut, Bill Shephard, and two cosmonauts, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergi Krikalev, were the first humans to reside on the station in 2000.

More pieces have been added over the years as other countries joined the project.The U.S. lab went into orbit in 2001, followed by the European lab which was named Columbus in 2008. Kibo, Japan’s lab, was added to the station in 2008.

In 2011, a third-party company called Casis was selected to manage the U.S. national lab on the station, making it easier for scientists on Earth to utilize the unique environment on the station to conduct their experiments.

Materials and Engineering

What goes into creating something like the International Space Station? The station itself weighs roughly 925,000 pounds. NASA likened the design to a soda can on Earth — the cylindrical can is designed to contain the pressure created by the carbonated soda. On the ISS, the sections of the body are designed to hold a pressurized atmosphere for the astronauts to breathe.

The station itself is primarily made of materials like aluminum, titanium,high-grade steel and kevlar. Aluminum might not seem like the most reliable material for use in outer space, but it provides excellent protection against micro meteoroids and piece space junk that might impact the station while it’sin orbit. The exterior is also wrapped in a 10 cm thick ‘bulletproof vest’ made of kevlar and ceramic to help deal with these impacts. They tested this vest by shooting itwith high-velocity guns while it was still down here on Earth.

Inside the station are living quarters, laboratories and even a zero-gravity gym where the astronauts can exercise. You might also see a few things that look familiar, like an air compressor. In space, compressors are used for managing air supply and creating water,but they look very different than the one you might have in your garage.Earth-bound compressors rely on oil for lubrication, but that doesn’t work in zero-G, where the oil might pool in awkward places or leak out and cause problems inside the station. The compressors in orbit are oil-free, relying on other forms of lubrication to keep the motor running.

Compressors also rely on being able to pull in atmospheric air from the area around them to function. In space, where oxygen is limited, the use of a compressor is limited.

The modules themselves are held together by 16 connecting bolts that are automatically tightened by the Common Berthing Mechanics. Those bolts are tightened down with 19,000 pounds of force — we’d like to see the impact wrench you have at home do that!

The International Space Station is a marvel of modern engineering that is expected to remain functional and in orbit until at least 2024. Now, you have a better idea of what it takes to build something like a space station. The station itself passes over roughly 90 percent of the sky during its orbits. If you want to take a peek, NASA’s Spot the Station tool will tell you when the station will be passing overhead so you can see it from home.

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