Fifteen years ago, tomorrow, the first team of astronauts and cosmonauts arrived at the infant International Space Station (ISS) to begin a new era; one which would see no fewer than 220 humans from 17 sovereign nations living and working in low-Earth orbit on a continuous, unbroken basis. In so doing, they would provide our current best-possible analog for someday voyaging to Mars. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd of NASA and his Russian crewmates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, roared away from Baikonur Cosmodrome’s Site 1/5—the same launch pad at which Yuri Gagarin commenced his pioneering voyage—atop a mammoth Soyuz-U booster on the cold and foggy afternoon of 31 October 2000. Two days later, Gidzenko guided their Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft to a smooth docking at the aft longitudinal port of the station’s Zvezda service module. It was with an air of pioneers that Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev kicked off a 4.5-month expedition which, as of today (Sunday, 1 November), has seen humans living and working in an off-the-planet setting for no less than 5,477 days. And with last year’s decision by the International Partners (IPs) to continue permanent ISS habitation through at least 2024, it can be expected that this figure will dramatically increase to a minimum of 8,400 days, approaching a quarter-century of cumulative time in orbit.
In anticipation of the historic 15-year milestone, NASA plans a 30-minute press conference at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, on Monday—involving a space-to-ground hook-up with the incumbent Expedition 45 crew of Commander Scott Kelly of NASA, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui—and ISS Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd paid his own tribute in last week’s briefing ahead of the forthcoming U.S. EVA-32 and 33 activities. “We’re coming up on a pretty significant time for the program on 2 November,” Mr. Todd noted. “When you think about what you were doing 15 years ago, it’s a pretty impressive feat that we’ve managed to keep people off the planet for 15 years straight.”
Of course, at the time of Expedition 1, few could have foreseen the convoluted twists and turns which would come in the following years, much less the catastrophic loss of shuttle Columbia on 1 February 2003, which brought the structural assembly of the station to a grinding halt for almost four years. When asked in October 2010 if the ISS had turned into what he expected it to be, Sergei Krikalev noted that, in terms of configuration, there were differences, with various components canceled—including NASA’s Centrifuge Accommodations Module (CAM) and Russia’s Science Power Platform (SPP)—due to budget cuts or the consequences of the shuttle disaster. At the same time, few could have foreseen how the station would evolve: into a permanent home for up to six people, for months at a time, supplied by both national governments and commercial partners, and with a parallel Commercial Crew Program to deliver astronauts and cosmonauts to the ISS in the post-shuttle era. In terms of science, technology and the ability of humans to function away from Earth, the station has already broken significant ground as international eyes now focus upon planting human bootprints on the surface of Mars in the coming decades.
By Bill Shepherd’s own admission, though, it was not until after Expedition 1 that the three men had time to fully appreciate that theirs was a pioneering mission of exploration. After Gidzenko oversaw the automated docking at Zvezda on 2 November 2000, they were simply too busy—setting up food warmers in the station’s galley, putting together their respective sleeping quarters, establishing communications links with the respective Mission Control Centers (MCCs) in the United States and Russia and configuring laptop networks—to fully contemplate the epochal event upon which they had embarked.
Just 24 hours earlier, Russia’s Progress M1-3—which, in August 2000, had become the first unpiloted cargo ship to arrive at the ISS—had undocked from Zvezda’s aft longitudinal port to free it up in advance of the Soyuz TM-31 arrival. On their second day aboard the station, 3 November, the crew installed the Vozdukh regenerative air-scrubbing device into Zvezda’s living quarters to replace the previous supply of interchangeable lithium hydroxide canisters, as well as hooking up the Early Communications System and tending to a minor glitch with one of eight batteries in the service module, which had failed to charge properly. Krikalev pointed out that one of its connector pins appeared to be bent or broken. However, it was stressed that six batteries were more than sufficient to power ISS systems.
Over the following days, the crew installed and activated the station’s Elektron oxygen-replenishment system, as well as the TORU hardware to offer a backup manual docking capability for future unpiloted visitors—which needed to be in place, ahead of the planned Progress M1-4 launch—and found time to utilize the treadmill delivered in September 2000 by the crew of shuttle Atlantis. On 16 November, Progress M1-4 flew out of Baikonur and, two days later, approached the ISS for docking. Unfortunately, its automatic rendezvous system failed to lock onto a comparable system on the station and Gidzenko assumed manual control to guide the cargo ship to a smooth docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Zarya module.
The visitation of Progress M1-4 was an unusual one, coming as it did betwixt the arrival of the Expedition 1 crew and the planned launches of shuttle mission STS-97 to deliver the first set of photovoltaic solar arrays and radiators. However, its failed automatic docking caused a measure of consternation and a new software “patch” was developed as a possible solution. Only two weeks after its arrival, on 1 December, it was undocked from Zarya and inserted into a “parking orbit” by Russian flight controllers, at a relative distance from the ISS of about 1,550 miles (2,500 km). “Over the next few weeks,” NASA reported, “U.S. and Russian managers will discuss whether to attempt a redocking of the Progress in late December or another rendezvous without a docking, to test a software patch as a solution [to] an apparent problem in the Progress’ navigation system, which occurred during its automated approach to the ISS.”
In addition to satisfying the requirements of testing the software patch, Progress M1-4’s departure cleared a path for the rendezvous of shuttle Endeavour and her crew—Commander Brent Jett, Pilot Mike Bloomfield and Mission Specialists Joe Tanner, Carlos Noriega and Canada’s Marc Garneau—as they approached a docking at Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3, then affixed to the nadir interface of the Unity node. The STS-97 crew delivered and installed the P-6 segment of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS), atop the Unity node, during a pair of EVAs by Tanner and Noriega. Hatches between the shuttle and ISS were not opened until a few days later, on 8 December, due to the need to reduce Endeavour’s atmospheric pressure during the EVA preparations. With the respective commanders of Expedition 1 and STS-97 being active-duty U.S. Navy officers, it fell to Shepherd to traditionally ring the ship’s bell to welcome the shuttle crew aboard and for Jett, snapping a smart naval salute, requesting permission for himself and his men to come aboard.
With the departure of STS-97, the ISS now had five times more electrical power-producing capability—around 50 kilowatts overall—which, among other benefits, allowed the Expedition 1 crew to run the Elektron system continuously. And two weeks later, on 26 December, Progress M1-4 was maneuvered to a distance of about 650 feet (200 meters) and manually redocked by Gidzenko at the Zarya nadir port. It remained in place for a further six weeks, until 8 February 2001, serving as a reservoir for trash and other unneeded equipment. During this period, having already observed Thanksgiving and eaten a dinner of ham and smoked turkey aboard the Zvezda module, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev became the first ISS crew to spend Christmas in orbit, opening presents and receiving holiday greetings from NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.
With the shuttle manifest taking shape, it was already clear that their return to Earth aboard Discovery on STS-102 would be delayed from late February 2001 until mid-March, due to the need to replace ten Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters. However, in the opening months of the year made famous by Sir Arthur C. Clarke and later made infamous on 9/11, Shepherd and his crew witnessed the arrival of the U.S. Destiny laboratory—ferried aloft aboard Atlantis in February by STS-98 Commander Ken Cockrell, Pilot Mark Polansky and Mission Specialists Bob Curbeam, Marsha Ivins and Tom Jones—whose addition to the rapidly expanding space station allowed it to eclipse Russia’s Mir in size and pressurized volume and become the largest and most massive inhabited object ever operated beyond Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere. In fact, by the time the STS-98 crew departed, the ISS comprised the Zarya and Zvezda modules, the Unity node, the Z-1 and P-6 components of the expansive truss structure, three PMAs and the Destiny laboratory and tipped the celestial scales at 224,000 pounds (101,600 kg). Added to this was its pressurized extent of 13,000 cubic feet (368 cubic meters), which exceeded even the voluminous Skylab.
It was to this fledgling version of today’s expansive ISS that Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev bade farewell in March 2001, as they prepared to return to Earth aboard shuttle Discovery. With STS-102 originally scheduled to fly a 12-day mission from 15-27 February, the Expedition 1 crew might have anticipated a total time spent in space of 119 days, but several weeks of delay meant that by the time their feet touched terra firma on 21 March, they had accrued 140 days aloft, of which 136 had been spent aboard the new space station. Both Gidzenko and Krikalev would visit the ISS again—the former on a visiting “taxi” mission in the spring of 2002, the latter in command of Expedition 11, which welcomed the resumption of post-Columbia shuttle flights, in mid-2005—but Shepherd retired from NASA to pursue private interests.
Since the pioneering voyage of Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev, no fewer than 44 expeditions—involving Russians and Americans, Germans and Frenchmen, Japanese and Belgians, Canadians and Italians, Dutchmen and, in mid-December 2015, for the first time, a UK Government-sponsored Briton—have occupied the station for extended periods from as little as 48 days by Leopold Eyharts to the current 218 days (and counting) of the incumbent One-Year crewmen Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko. In addition to the expeditions, men and women from eight sovereign realms have visited the ISS aboard the shuttle, including the first national astronaut from Sweden and Japan’s first woman in space.
Over the last 15 years, records have been made, and re-made. This has been particularly true in 2015, when Italy’s first female spacefarer, Samantha Cristoforetti, seized the crown in June for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a woman and, just three weeks later, Russia’s Gennadi Padalka establishing an empirical record for the longest cumulative amount of time spent off-planet by any human being. Veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first women in history to command a space station, whilst Suni Williams is currently in possession of the record for the greatest number of EVA hours attained by a female space traveler. Private citizens, spearheaded by Dennis Tito, have also flown to the multi-national station, as well as the first national spacefarers from South Africa, Brazil, Malaysia, South Korea, Denmark and—via dual nationality—also Iran.
Birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated aboard the ISS, with Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko even exchanging wedding vows with his Houston-based bride, Eketrina Dimitriev, in August 2003 and U.S. astronaut Mike Fincke missing the birth of his second daughter in June 2004. Tragedies have also been solemnly observed from inside the space station’s walls, with the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities witnessed by Expedition 3 Commander Frank Culbertson, news of the Columbia disaster having been broken to the Expedition 6 crew on 1 February 2003 and the untimely death of Dan Tani’s mother reaching the ears of the Expedition 16 crew in December 2007.
Interestingly, NASA’s Expedition 1 press kit made reference to the fact that the pioneering crew of Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev would “set the stage of a continuous human presence in space by international researchers for at least the next 15 years”. At least now appears to be exactly that, for the ISS will receive a multitude of visitors through at least the beginning of 2024. In Shepherd’s mind, the usefulness of the station in preparing the human body for the long journey to Mars is critical. When he returned to Earth in March 2001, after more than 140 days in space, he talked the Expedition 1 flight surgeon in letting him drive a van around a nearby parking lot. “I was feeling really good,” Shepherd recalled, years later. “I was able to walk around, stand up. I didn’t have any problems with getting around.” Then a thought struck him: If he could climb into a vehicle and drive it, “without hazarding myself or anybody else”, then a multi-month voyage to Mars, followed by a landing and walking or driving on the surface was conceivably possible.
“I very strongly had that sense,” Shepherd told a NASA interviewer. “I drove the van around the parking lot a little bit, got up, shut the door and said to myself: We can do this!”
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 20th anniversary of STS-74, the second shuttle mission to dock with Russia’s Mir space station.