Image: NASA

On Nov. 2, the International Space Station (ISS) will celebrate 20 years of continuously hosting humans in space. During this time, the orbiting science laboratory has expanded our knowledge of the rigors of life in the final frontier, from the effects of microgravity on the human body to studying the growth of plants in the final frontier. These insights are imperative when planning for future long-term crewed space missions on Mars and beyond. In this post, we highlight the early ISS construction process, spacefaring milestones, future operational plans, and more.

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Assembling the ISS: Initial launches and construction

On Nov. 20, 1998, the first portion of what would become the international space station launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Republic of Kazakhstan. This initial piece of cargo, the Zarya Functional Cargo Block (FGB), functioned as a short-term control module during the early stages of the construction process. The following month, Space Shuttle Endeavour blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center with the Unity Node component in tow.

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Days later, Endeavour would rendezvous with Zarya. With the help of Endeavour’s robotic arm, the onboard crew next captured Zarya and joined the module with Unity, creating the first two components of the early ISS. In the ensuing days after, the crew then completed the connection between the two modules. Piece by piece, such installations would continue over the course of the next 13 years.

While the station wasn’t completed until 2011, by the fall of 2000, the early ISS was prepared to receive its first “long-duration residents.” On Halloween of 2000, what would be the first trio of such occupants launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. On Nov. 2, Sergey Krikalev, William Shepard, and Yuri Gidzenko arrived at the station; becoming the first three humans to officially call the ISS home.

In the decades since this pioneering first, humans have continuously occupied the ISS for nearly 20 years. Over this time, more than 230 human spacefarers from 18 countries have visited the station, according to NASA. Additionally, the station has also hosted nearly 3,000 research investigations from more than 100 countries, per the space agency.

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Space station records and future plans

Today, the largest spacefaring vehicle ever assembled is a sprawling complex orbiting about 250 miles above the Earth. From one end to the other, the ISS measures 357 feet, as NASA points out, this is just “one yard shy of the full length of an American football field including the end zones.” The solar array alone has a wingspan on par with an Airbus A380. Traveling at approximately 17,500 miles per hour, or five miles per second, the ISS orbits our planet 16 times each day; completing one revolution around Earth in 90 minutes.

In March of 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly concluded the single-mission occupancy record with 340 consecutive days aboard the ISS. In Sept. 2017, Peggy Whitson set the current record for “most total time living and working in space” with 665 cumulative days.

Previously, NASA anticipated the ISS would reach the end of its service life in 2015, although the ISS is authorized to continue operations through the end of 2024. However, a NASA Office of Inspector General report released in 2018 said the agency is “currently evaluating the feasibility of extending the Station’s service life through at least 2028.”