25 years ago, the largest investment in Earth orbit began

It was once called the most expensive building in the history of mankind, and now it has been surpassed by earthly investments. It has been visible in the sky for 25 years, although it did not make much of an impression in its early days. This is the origin of the International Space Station (ISS).

The history of man’s long stay in Earth’s orbit began in 1971, when the Russians began placing single-unit Salyut stations in orbit. Over time, their design evolved, and with the addition of additional vehicles, including manned Soyuz vehicles, the stations seemed larger. The Americans once tried to invest in their own station – Skylab, but their second idea – the Freedom Station, was not implemented. However, this station is very similar to the current International Space Station (ISS), which was created through the joint efforts of NASA, ESA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency, as well as Roscosmos and other space agencies.

Seeing the International Space Station

MSK in 2011
A view of the completed International Space Station as construction begins and appears in 2011. As you can see, there are some differences, but in general the layout of the station was known from the beginning.

In 1998, when construction of the International Space Station began, Google was founded, Elon Musk was 27 years old, and SpaceX only existed in his dreams. Intel released the first Celeron, Nokia introduced the legendary 5110, Netflix began its career as a movie rental company, the biggest cinematic hit was Armageddon, Aleksander Kwasniewski was president of Poland, and the MIR space station was still in orbit.

End of 1998 – the beginning of the construction of the International Space Station

The construction of the International Space Station continues with some interruptions to this day, as the station is constantly enriched with new elements that allow more experiments to be carried out. Some are carried out in an accessible space inside the units, others are placed on pallets outside. It can be accessed during a spacewalk.

Zarya Building
Zarya is under construction on the land.

Zaria 1998
Zarya in orbit in 1998.

The first MSK unit was the Zarya, which was built in Russia with support from Boeing. Co-financed by the USA, so this is not just an achievement for the Russians. The Zarya module, or more precisely the FGB module, that is, the functional cargo block, was launched into orbit on November 20, 1988. At the time when the Russian MIR station was still in orbit, built of elements of the same type. Zarya was also supposed to become part of MIR, but things turned out differently. MIR was deorbited three years later.

The module remains on Earth and the STS-88 mission begins.

STS-88 crew
STS-88 crew. From left, Sergey K. Krikalo, Jerry L. Ross, Robert D. Cabana, Frederick W. Sturko, James H. Newman, and Nancy J. Korean.

“Zarya” weighs about 20 tons, including equipment, and is 12.6 meters long and 4.1 meters in diameter. For several weeks, this module floated independently in orbit, but on December 4, the STS-88 mission began. A crew of six flew on the space shuttle Endeavour, including Roscosmos representative Sergei Krikalov, who was also part of the first expedition (a mission to the International Space Station). The shuttle’s cargo area contained the module block, the first all-American component on the station.

Assemble the module module in orbit.

Inside Zaria
He works within Zaria.

MSK 25 years ago
Two built-in modules, Zaria and Unity, i.e. MSK 25 years ago.

The merger of Zarya and Unity took place on December 6, 1998, and this day can be considered the beginning of the operation of the International Space Station. However, before the first permanent crew arrived on board the station in November 2000, further flights took place, during which equipment installation on board the station continued, the orbit was raised, and another Russian Zvezda module was added. It houses basic life support systems that enable astronauts to remain in orbit without interruption.

The station after joining Zvezda
MSK after adding a second Russian unit in 2000.

Thus, the space station as we know it today was created

Before Expedition 1 began in 2020, the station also added the first element of the station’s truss frame. This was the beginning of the basic phase of building the space station, which will last more than 10 years until the end of NASA’s space shuttle era. The video below shows exactly how her look has changed.

Start the video

When the station acquired its main solar panels located at the ends of the station frame, it became one of the brightest objects in the sky. Initially, its brightness was exceeded by iridium satellite flares, but now the International Space Station is the brightest artificial object that we can often admire during flights to Poland. In 1988, the two-module ISS was no brighter than any other satellite in orbit, and its passage was difficult to distinguish from others.

The next stages of building the International Space Station
Later stages of construction of the International Space Station. From 1998 to 2011.

How do you find the Zarya module in the images of the International Space Station, what are these white panels?

When Zaria with Unity was the beginning of MSK, solar panels played an important role. Today it is complicated because otherwise it might interfere with other elements of the station. Thus, we can find Zarya in the photos by looking for the distinctive harmonica on both sides of the unit. There is another eye-catching element in the images of the International Space Station. The white panels look like solar panels, but are actually heat sinks that prevent the station from overheating. Because although it is already in the theoretically cold vacuum of space, a lot of heat is generated during operation. The temperature inside the station modules where the crew resides is around 22 degrees Celsius.

Zarya folded boards Terminal heat sink
In the foreground (left) are the folded panels of the Zaria unit. Temporarily assembled station heat sinks (right).

Station 2023 elements
This is what the International Space Station will look like in 2023.

Why a heat sink? From your experience in using computers, you probably know that the cooler makes it easy to dissipate heat because of its large surface. On Earth, we have an atmosphere and air molecules that facilitate the release of heat even if the heat sink is not particularly large. In Earth’s orbit, where there is no air, heat can only be released by radiation. That’s why MSK has such large radiators, because the larger the surface area, the better the cooling. It can be folded if necessary, but this is exactly why the Zaria module’s solar panels have to be folded at some point in order to unfold.

Source/Image: NASA

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