Teenaged Space Station Thriving After 15 Years Of Science, Extreme Construction And Tricky Repairs

Extreme conditions surround the International Space Station’s scientific work, to say the least. It takes a rocketship to get there. Construction required more than 1,000 hours of people using spacesuits. Astronauts must balance their scientific work with the need to repair stuff when it breaks (like an ammonia coolant leak this past spring.)

But amid these conditions, despite what could have been show-stoppers to construction such as the Columbia shuttle tragedy of 2003, and in the face of changing political priorities and funding from the many nations building the station, there the ISS orbits. Fully built, although more is being added every year. The first module (Zarya) launched into space 15 years ago tomorrow. Humans have been on board continuously since November 2000, an incredible 13 years.

The bulk of construction wrapped up in 2011, but the station is still growing and changing and producing science for the researchers sending experiments up there. Below are some of the milestones of construction in the past couple of decades. Did we miss something important? Let us know in the comments.

It’s a baby space station! The Russian Zarya module (left) and U.S. Unity module after they were joined on Dec. 4, 1998. Photograph taken by the STS-88 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The space station with newly installed U.S. solar arrays (top) in December 2000. Picture taken by the departing STS-97 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew, which docked with the space station on Nov. 2, 2000. From left, NASA’s Bill Shepherd, and Roscosmos’ Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Humans have lived continuously in orbit since that day, more than 13 years ago. Credit: NASA
STS-114 NASA astronaut Steve Robinson in 2005 aboard Canadarm2, a robotic arm designed specifically for International Space Station construction. Canadarm2 was installed during STS-100 in 2001. It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking assembly to put the station together. Credit: NASA
With NASA Expedition 2 astronaut Susan Helms controlling Canadarm2, the Quest airlock is brought over for installation on Unity Node 1 aboard the International Space Station. Today, Quest is the usual departure point for U.S. spacewalks. Credit: NASA
From time to time, astronauts are called upon to perform tricky repairs to the International Space Station. This October 2007 spacewalk by NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski during shuttle mission STS-120 repaired tears to one of the station’s solar panels — while the panel was powered. Spacewalks have also addressed ammonia leaks, among other things. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel works on installing the ESA Columbus laboratory in 2008. The ten racks on board Columbus can be worked on by astronauts or controlled remotely from a center in Germany. NASA is trying to position the station as an orbiting laboratory that can perform experiments that are impossible on Earth, but astronauts must balance science work with maintenance tasks aboard the station. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson (Expedition 23/24) reflects on the view from the ISS’s Cupola in 2010. This panoramic window to Earth was a late addition to the station, in February 2010. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA
Space station construction is still ongoing. In 2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the station as a sort of inflatable room. The test will examine the viability of inflatable structures in space. Pictured in front are NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace in 2013. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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