On Dec. 4, 1998, Node 1 — known as “Unity” — was launched into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour and two days later connected with the Russian-built Zarya (“Sunrise”). And on Dec. 10, the hatches of both nodes swung open for the first time.
The Unity node, a passageway connecting living and work areas of the ISS, was designed and assembled at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, home to many other historic projects. The Saturn V rocket was designed here and work on the future Space Launch System, a massive rocket to carry explorers to deep space, is under way.
Brian Mitchell, the NASA engineer who was the Marshall Space Flight Center lead for the Unity Node, said one of the most interesting things to him about the space station is that its size – about the length of an American football field, with the internal volume of a Boeing 747 — allows people all around the world to see it with their naked eye.
“I just think that it’s neat that everyone who has worked on the space station can see it as a reminder that everyone internationally has contributed to the space station,” he said. “They can see it in Italy, we can see it in the United States, they can see it in Russia.”
NASA chose Boeing Co. as the prime contractor for three station pieces, built at the space agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Boeing’s ISS program manager John Shannon, who retired in January after 25 years working for NASA – including as shuttle program manager — said plans for the station had an early rough start. The original station, Space Station Freedom, was proposed in the early 1990s but was cancelled and later resurrected as the International Space Station. Even then, there were nearly enough congressional votes to cancel it.
After approval, there was the complex engineering feat of working with international partners on one unified station.
“It was the beginning to an enormous challenge but an enormous challenge we had anticipated and hoped for this for decades,” he said.
Because of the extremes in temperature and environment, the requirements that are levied on space hardware are unlike any other manufacturing field, Shannon said.
“To have a team that is able to develop and manufacture hardware to such exacting standards is an enormous benefit to the nation.”
The unique manufacturing facilities and systems engineering expertise residing at Marshall Space Flight Center and in Alabama’s aerospace community proved essential for helping the international community successfully complete the largest space construction ever attempted.
EXTENDING THE MISSION
A recent study that showed all structural and mechanical components on the ISS could last until 2020. The study, which continues through next spring, is also looking at whether the parts could last until 2028, to give the station a full 30-year life. Shannon said the early outlook is that ISS can be recommended for extension to 2028.
That extension would allow countries to set up funding to do correct research and utilization, knowing that they have enough time to gather that research.
Shannon said key research areas that have benefited from experiments aboard the ISS and that will continue to benefit in the coming years include advances in life and health sciences, as well as new ways to image Earth to better understand climate-related occurrences. Marshall also is the home of the Payload Operations Integration Center, where people work around the clock, 365 days a year to operate all the U.S experiments on the station. So far, almost 2,000 experiments have been completed on the station.
Another area that could benefit from extended research involves developing life-support systems, including water systems. As the U.S. pursues long-term space exploration, such as traveling to Mars, it will need systems that are capable and reliable. Engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center designed, tested and built the station’s environmental control and life support systems and continue to make sure they provide clean air and water for the station crew. They also are working on new life support systems that will help explorers on longer missions to Mars, asteroids, and other locations.
“If you embark on that trip, you are going to want to make sure that the systems in place to get you there are extremely effective,” Shannon said.