International Space Station set to turn 15
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Everyone wanted to know: Who would be the first person to enter the new International Space Station?
Bob Cabana, commander of the shuttle mission responsible for linking the station's first pieces together, wouldn't tell the press or even his own crew.
The answer came on Dec. 10, 1998 — 15 years ago Tuesday — when hatches to the U.S. Unity node and Russian-built Zarya module swung open for the first time in space.
Side by side, Cabana and cosmonaut crewmate Sergei Krikalev floated through.
"It was an International Space Station, and I felt it very important that we enter as an international crew," Cabana, a four-time shuttle flyer who has led Kennedy Space Center since 2008, told Florida Today in a recent interview.
NASA and its 15 international partners are celebrating the station's birth 15 years ago this month, and its growth into a research complex weighing more than a million pounds and stretching longer than an American football field.
Crews have lived there continuously for more than 13 years, with six-person expeditions now the norm.
Orbiting 260 miles above Earth, the station is now the centerpiece of the U.S. human spaceflight program, though it is just starting to tap its potential as a national laboratory and faces questions about its long-term future.
It all started on Nov. 20, 1998, when Cabana's five crewmates gathered at his Houston home for dinner and NASA TV coverage of the launch of the Functional Cargo Block, known as Zarya ("star"), atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
"It was bated breath, for sure," Cabana remembered. "We knew that once Zarya got safely on orbit, we had a mission two weeks later. So we were all elated when everything went well."
Endeavour blasted off Dec. 4 with the Node 1, or Unity, in its payload bay.
The shuttle crew attached Unity to the orbiter's docking port with a robotic arm, then got ready to grab Zarya.
Cabana remembers seeing the 41-foot long, 50,000-pound Russian module get bigger and bigger as Endeavour approached.
Once everything was lined up properly, the modules were connected slowly but smoothly on Dec. 6, and the International Space Station was born.
"Those two modules came together, and have been joined ever since, Russians and Americans in space," Cabana said.
Two spacewalks to connect cables and install antennas set the stage for the shuttle crew of five Americans and Krikalev to enter for the first time.
"It was everything that we hoped for, to be inside the space station, to get to work inside there, to prepare it for the first crew," Cabana said. "That was a special day."
Assembly continued through the final shuttle missions in 2011, adding girders, solar arrays and modules from the U.S., Russia, Europe and Japan, and robotic systems from Canada, at an estimated cost of $100 billion.
The job required scores of spacewalks and hit few major snags for such a complex project.
Cabana now sees the station as a critical proving ground for technologies and research about living in microgravity that will be needed for longer missions to a destination such as Mars. He believes the international collaboration will serve as a model for exploration missions farther out into space.
The station is scheduled to operate through 2020, but NASA hopes it can be extended as long as 2028, which studies have shown is technically feasible.
But there are already doubts about whether a tightening budget will force NASA to choose between continued space station operations into the next decade or development of systems for human exploration beyond Earth.
"I don't think that we need to choose," Cabana said. "I think they work together."
As long as it is flying, Cabana can see the station in the sky and remembers — like it was yesterday — putting the first pieces together and what it was like being among the first to set foot inside the space station.
"It's really neat to know that I had a role to play in that," he said. "It's very special to see that bright star in the sky in the early evening or late morning as it goes overhead."