The International Space Station, also known as the ISS, was a collaborative project between 15 different countries. Approximately 18 years after preliminary design work began, the first crew was able to stay onboard for a several-month period. However, the ISS wasn’t finished yet. The entire process, from design to the completion of construction took nearly 30 years and over 100 billion dollars to complete.

Preliminary Design

NASA began preliminary design for the ISS began in 1982. Several years later, NASA began enlisting the aid of other countries including Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and several other countries in the European Space Agency, or ESA. These countries began working together to design the components of the ISS.

In 1993, due to budgetary constraints and a changing political landscape, Russia was asked to join the ISS effort. They influenced the exterior design and shape of the ISS. Once Russia had joined the ISS team, construction scheduling and sequencing began.

Construction Sequencing

After construction was completed, the ISS’s total weight was nearly 460 tons, and it spanned the length of a football field. Due to its enormous size and weight, it was impossible to build the ISS on earth and launch the finished product into space.

Multiple finite element analyses, or FEAs, were needed to test durability and feasibility of components prior to launch. Over 40 separate missions were required to transport all of the different pieces.

Design Breakdown

The ISS parts can be broken down into several separate categories including:

  • The functional cargo block
  • The service module
  • Nodes
  • Pressurized mating adapters
  • The US laboratory module
  • The Columbus research laboratory
  • The Japanese experiment module
  • The cupula
  • The mobile servicing station

This doesn’t include the trusses, connections and other detailed pieces needed during construction.

Construction Schedule

Zarya, or the functional control block, was the first portion of the ISS launched in 1998. Initially, it acted as a self-contained apparatus. Once final construction was completed, it was transitioned to a storage and propulsion device.

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Nodes are used on the ISS to connect major pieces. The first node, the Unity, launched in 1998 following Zarya. Node 2, arrived later in 2007 to join the Columbus research module, Japanese experiment module, and the U.S. laboratory model. Node 3, added in 2010, offered extra hygiene and sleeping areas.

Pressurized mating adapters offer incoming vessels a place to dock and provide an interface between incoming vessels and the ISS. Two pressurized mating adapters arrived at the ISS with the Unity in 1998. The third arrived in 2000.

Zvezda, the service module, launched in 2000. It included vital components such as the flight-control systems, life support and living quarters. This was the first fully Russian contribution to the ISS.

U.S. laboratory module Destiny launched in 2001, and it comprised both research facilities and equipment for ISS control. It was the first research facility to be included in the ISS.

Europe contributed the Columbus research laboratory to the ISS in 2008. It’s used for materials science and bioscience experiments in an environment with little gravity.

The Japanese experiment module was launched shortly after the Columbus research laboratory in 2008. It’s equipped to handle indoor and outdoor experiments. This was the first manned space facility developed by Japan.

Astronauts use the cupula to watch activities taking place outside the ISS such as robotic repairs and spacecraft approaches. The cupola arrived at the ISS in 2010 with Node 3.

Much of the ISS construction took place using the mobile servicing station. It allowed astronauts to work safely from inside the ISS on maintenance and construction activities. The mobile servicing station arrived in 2002.

Crew changes and supply deliveries were also an essential part of the 13-year construction process of the ISS. Without global collaboration, it’s likely the ISS wouldn’t be orbiting 250 miles away from the earth’s surface.