At 4:21 a.m. EDT on Monday, 2 November, the International Space Station (ISS)—which has, to date, provided an off-the-planet homestead for no fewer than 220 humans from 17 sovereign nations—will pass its 15th year of continuous occupation, extending back to the historic arrival of Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd of NASA and his Russian crewmates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, aboard the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft. Launched two days earlier from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the three men had been training together for more than four years and would go on to spend more than 4.5 months overseeing perhaps the most critical period of ISS activation. During their 136 days aboard the nascent station, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev welcomed three Space Shuttle crews and in that relatively short span of time saw their orbital habitat expand to become the largest and most massive inhabited structure ever delivered beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
In anticipation of Monday’s historic 15-year milestone, NASA plans a 30-minute press conference—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.”
For Shepherd, his personal and professional relationship with the creation that would become the ISS had extended to a time far earlier than commanding its first long-duration increment. In fact, as pointed out in the memoir Riding Rockets, it struck fellow astronaut Mike Mullane—who flew with Shepherd on the STS-27 shuttle mission in December 1988—as somewhat ironic that the hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL wound up sharing a space station with a pair of Russian cosmonauts. In June 1993, with three shuttle missions under his belt, Shepherd was named by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin as an Assistant Deputy Administrator (Technical), based at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, with responsibility for leading the transition effort as the former Space Station Freedom was rescoped and redesigned to become the embryo of the future ISS. Only a few months later, Shepherd was named as the Space Station Program Manager at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, a position which he held for the next two years.
Remaining available to return to active astronaut training, it seemed likely that Shepherd would draw an early ISS assignment and, in January 1996, he was named with Krikalev to the Expedition 1 crew, with launch initially targeted aboard a Russian Soyuz-TM spacecraft in the early summer of 1998. Krikalev, who had trained extensively with NASA and had become the first Russian to fly aboard the shuttle, seemed an obvious choice. Interestingly, the third member of the Expedition 1 crew went unannounced for some time, which Bryan Burrough, in his controversial book, Dragonfly, attributed in part to the thorny question of whether a Russian or an American should command Expedition 1. Burrough suggested that veteran cosmonaut Anatoli Solovyov—who had commanded three previous long-duration missions—had been assigned to Expedition 1, but had resigned his position when it became clear that Shepherd would command. “His resignation,” wrote Burrough, “capped months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.” Whatever the reality of the situation, Yuri Gidzenko’s name was attached to Expedition 1 and by May 1997 he was deep into training with Shepherd and Krikalev, tracking a launch toward the new space station in the spring of 1999.
Unfortunately, as outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, delays in the arrival of Russia’s Zvezda service module—which provided critical quarters and life-support functions for the early expedition crews—pushed its launch back from the fall of 1998 to April 1999 and beyond, before it eventually reached orbit in July 2000. This created a domino-like impact on a stream of shuttle assembly missions and the Expedition 1 crew found their own launch pushed back to 31 October 2000, exactly 15 years ago, today.
“The day went by really fast,” Shepherd remembered in a 2010 NASA interview to commemorate the 10th anniversary of continuous occupation of the ISS. “It was foggy, a kind of dew on all the windows. I waved goodbye to my wife, got on the bus, went down to the Launch Assembly Area and we got our space suits on. Then, out of nowhere, my wife came up when we were suited up and gave me a big hug, which was something you just don’t do in our program.” Upon arrival at Baikonur’s Site 1/5—the famed “Gagarin’s Start”, from which Yuri Gagarin had begun his epochal voyage into orbit—they beheld the enormous Soyuz-U booster, topped by their Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft, and about 400 well-wishers. To Shepherd, it could not have contrasted more markedly from his shuttle career. “This is a couple of million pounds of rocket, all ready to go fly in pace, all sitting there steaming and smoking, and we got 400 people, right there,” he said, incredulously.
With Gidzenko in Soyuz TM-31’s center seat, commanding the flight uphill, Krikalev in the left-side “Flight Engineer-1” position and Shepherd in the right-side “Flight Engineer-2” position, the first long-duration crew of the ISS began their voyage at 12:53 p.m. local time (2:53 a.m. EST). “The main thought I had was now it’s starting,” Krikalev recalled in a NASA interview, ten years later. “This is our first work and, oftentimes, it’s the way you start is how it’s going to go next. I felt a huge load of responsibility.”
Rising rapidly, the Soyuz-U—powered uphill by the single RD-108 engine of its core stage and the RD-107 engines of its four strap-on boosters—exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of clearing the tower. As they ascended, television images of Shepherd revealed him to be pumping his fist. “As a crew, we had waited a long time to get to that point in life, where this is actually happening,” he recalled, “and I was very keen to emphasize, you know, Let’s go get this done!” At T+118 seconds, the tapering boosters were jettisoned, leaving the core alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By two minutes, Gidzenko, Krikalev and Shepherd had surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h) and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud were jettisoned, exposing Soyuz TM-31 to the near-vacuum of the rarefied high atmosphere.
A little less than five minutes since leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster was jettisoned at an altitude of 105 miles (170 km) and the third and final stage ignited, accelerating the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time it separated, about nine minutes into the flight, Gidzenko, Krikalev and Shepherd were in an orbit of 144 x 113 miles (233 x 182 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. They deployed their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and electricity-generating solar arrays and, 90 minutes later, opened the hatch between the cramped Descent Module and the slightly roomier Orbital Module.
The crew spent a standard two days in transit, before Gidzenko oversaw a smooth, automated docking at the aft longitudinal port of the station’s Zvezda module at 2:21 p.m. Baikonur time (4:21 a.m. EDT) on 2 November. At the time of Contact and Capture, Soyuz TM-31 and the ISS were orbiting high above central Kazakhstan. An hour later, at 3:23 p.m. Baikonur time (5:23 a.m. EDT), the hatch was opened into Zvezda’s main compartment, with Gidzenko and Krikalev entering first, followed by Shepherd, who had to prepare tools to sample the station’s atmosphere and collect gas specimens. “I think Sergei was the first guy in,” Shepherd chuckled later, “but then there was kind of a very busy scramble to do the initial things that we had to do and, particularly, to find the TV hook-up and the TV cable so that we could give you that downlink. We were really close to the wire getting all that rigged and happy and we almost missed it.”
The trio clasped hands in unison, although Shepherd reflected that they were too busy to regard themselves as pioneers at that time. “After the downlink was done, we just kind of all sat back and said, ‘Okay, we’ll call it a day’, because it was very hectic.” For Krikalev, it represented a historic moment, too, but it was actually the second time that he had opened the hatches to the ISS, having also flown on STS-88—the inaugural shuttle assembly mission—back in December 1998, during which he and Bob Cabana had opened the hatches between the newly installed Unity node and the Russian-built Zarya control module. Asked about whether he considered himself to be a pioneer, Krikalev’s thinking mirrored that of Shepherd, that their arrival was too busy, bringing the infant station and its systems to life. It was not like his two previous long-duration increments aboard Mir, both of which had brought him to an already fully functional orbital outpost. “At that moment, we were thinking of the present,” he said, “although, subconsciously, we understood that was a certain threshold we were supposed to cross.”
There could be no denying that it was a historic occasion. Although Soviet and Russian cosmonauts had occupied the Mir space station continuously from September 1989 through August 1999—more than 3,600 days—it was expected that the ISS era would usher in an unbroken new age of human habitation of the heavens. “If all goes well on this and future missions,” NASA explained in a pre-launch press release, “30 October 2000 will be the last day on which there were no human beings in space.” And notwithstanding the trials and tribulations and tragedies and geopolitical difficulties which befell the project in the years which followed, those words have retained their accuracy to this very day.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.