International Space Station hits 15-year mark

CBS News

Fifteen years ago Wednesday, a Russian Proton rocket carrying the first module of what would become the International Space Station roared to life and climbed into orbit, kicking off one of the most complex -- and expensive -- engineering projects ever attempted.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 4, 1998, the space shuttle Endeavour thundered away with the second module nestled in its cargo bay, a multi-hatch connecting node that, together with the Russian-built, NASA-financed Zarya propulsion module launched by the Proton, would form the cornerstone of the International Space Station.

The International Space Station sails through orbit in a dramatic shot from a visiting shuttle. The ISS is the most complex space project ever attempted, a 925,000-pound laboratory spanning the length of a football field that has been continuously manned since Nov. 2, 2000. In this shot, a Japanese cargo ship, wrapped in gold-colored insulation, is visible at top center while a European Space Agency supply craft, with distinctive x-shaped solar arrays, can be seen docked at the station's aft port. (Photo: NASA)

Endeavour commander Robert Cabana, now director of the Kennedy Space Center, made the first entry in the station's logbook, writing "from small beginnings, great things come."

"I really believe that small beginning set the tone for the entire space station assembly, for how we worked together," he said in an interview with CBS News. "It just went perfectly. What a phenomenal team effort to pull that first mission together."

On the 15th anniversary of the station's first launch, senior managers met Wednesday and approved an engineering review that officially clears the lab complex to fly through 2020 and, with a bit of luck, continued funding and ongoing international support, all the way to 2028, three decades after the program's beginning.

Easily visible from the ground, the space station rivals Venus as one of the brightest "stars" in the sky, a moving point of light that represents what station program manager Michael Suffredini believes is the "largest international peacetime achievement in human history."

"It's something to think about," he said in an interview. "Not only did we build what is by far the largest spacecraft ever assembled in low-Earth orbit, you're making impacts on the world (through ongoing research) that are far larger than what we probably imagined when we were doing this."

The start of station assembly came nearly 15 years after President Ronald Reagan endorsed the project in his 1984 State of the Union address, when he challenged NASA "to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade."

It ended up taking longer than a decade, undergoing multiple redesigns and a major change of course: in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the Clinton administration brought the Russians into the project as a foreign policy initiative.

Nearly 15 years after Reagan's speech, Cabana and cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev floated from Endeavour into the infant space station together, becoming the first to board the outpost. Later, the crew spent a few minutes "talking about the future, exploration, working together, going beyond our home planet, all it meant at that point in time," Cabana said.

"To see it actually become a reality, to go from a computer graphic, from an animation, to being a real space station up there that is just working so phenomenally well, it's just so very special," he said Wednesday.

After 37 shuttle missions, 92 Russian assembly, logistics and crew ferry flights, after 174 construction and maintenance spacewalks by 113 astronauts and cosmonauts, the space station now stretches the length of a football field across its huge solar array truss and includes a dozen pressurized modules with the habitable volume of a six-bedroom house.

The Russian Zarya module, left, was launched 15 years ago Wednesday, on Nov. 20, 1998. Two weeks later, the space shuttle Endeavour's crew attached the multi-hatch Unity node, right, to form the cornerstone of the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

Rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts have been living and working aboard the station continuously since November 2, 2000, consuming 25,000 meals in the process and working their way through about seven tons of supplies every six months.

Including the station's current six-member crew, 88 astronauts and cosmonauts have logged long-duration stays aboard the ISS, with more than 120 other visitors, mostly shuttle crew members, during the course of assembly.

Orbiting at an altitude of around 250 miles, the station tips the scales at nearly a million pounds, all of it streaking through the vacuum of space at more than 17,000 mph, or an unimaginable 85 or so football fields per second.

Flying into and out of Earth's shadow every 45 minutes, the station's four sets of 240-foot-long solar arrays rotate like giant paddle wheels to track the sun, generating 84 kilowatts of power. The lab's complex electrical grid routes that direct current power to and from massive nickel-hydrogen batteries, delivering it to converters that step it down to around 123 volts for use inside the lab modules.

With all that power flowing through 8 miles of wiring, the station's electrical components generate an enormous amount of heat, which must be dissipated by ammonia coolant that is pumped through huge radiators in a complex network of pipes, valves and control systems.

More than 50 computers running more than two million lines of code orchestrate station operations and help the crew keep tabs on everything from experiment operation to internet calls to friends and family on Earth. The station's life support system, another marvel of complexity, provides oxygen, carbon dioxide removal and a state-of-the-art waste water treatment system that turns urine into ultra-pure potable water.

Managing a project as complex as the station is a herculean task, requiring flight control centers operated by NASA, the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, that operate around the clock, working across multiple time zones and languages.

Not counting the cost of components provided by Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan, the United States spent between $60 billion and $70 billion building the space station, Suffredini said, with about $3 billion a year needed for normal operations. All told, more than 100,000 people working for five space agencies and scores of contractors across more than 16 nations have contributed to the station project.

The space station originally was funded through 2015, but the Obama administration extended its support through 2020 as part of a re-purposed post-shuttle space program focused on eventual flights to deep space and development of private sector manned spacecraft to ferry crews to and from low-Earth orbit.

The structural analysis approved Wednesday showed the station can, in fact, safely operate through the end of the decade and probably all the way to 2028 if Congress and the White House provide continued funding and if NASA's international partners go along -- all open questions in an era of tight budgets and efforts to reduce the federal deficit.

In an earlier interview, Suffredini said extended operations would benefit national security through continued international cooperation; help researchers find out what might be needed to keep astronauts healthy on long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit; and give private industry a toe-hold in space.

"As a country, the only clear direction we have from Congress and the administration (of a long-term goal in space) is we want to go to Mars," he said.

"And what we're finding with the human research we're doing on board ISS, that it will take us beyond 2020 to get all the information we think is necessary to make sure we understand how to mitigate the deleterious effects of microgravity and radiation on the human body."

Likewise, extended operations will help open the door to private-sector development of low-Earth orbit.

"We are reducing costs, we're going to allow industry to come to low-Earth orbit and figure out what's beneficial and what is not necessarily beneficial," Suffredini said. "We're just in the infancy of sorting that out, and it's going to take to well beyond 2020 for us to figure out what's really going to be useful."

And so, 50 years after John F. Kennedy committed the nation to sending men to the moon in a bid to win a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, NASA and its former rival now work hand in hand on the high frontier, each one dependent on the other as they gain the operational experience that will be needed for eventual flights beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Station is truly an engineering marvel and a testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together," Cabana said in a NASA interview. "I think one of the most enduring legacies will be the international cooperation we have achieved in building and operating it. It has provided us the framework for how we will move forward as we explore beyond our home planet, not as explorers from any one country, but as explorers from planet Earth."