The International Space Station

A Truly Multinational Endeavor

The high cost of space exploration led many nations to realize that it was better to collaborate than compete.

Museum Exhibit: Expedition 19/20 Flown Mail Card

The International Space Station truly lives up to its multinational name. Just look at the crew of Expedition 19/20 who signed the flown mail card displayed here. They come from the United States, Russia, Canada, Germany, and Japan. Representatives from a host of additional nations have sent emissaries flying with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian space agency, since the station was fit for habitation in 2000.

Expedition 19/20 and Overlapping Crews

Expeditions to the International Space Station typically overlap or are grouped together, like Expedition 19/20. The change in expedition number comes when crews combine on the ISS and crews can change in orbit; a crew that launches together doesn’t necessarily return to Earth together. The Expedition 19 crew launched from Russia on March 26, 2009 aboard Soyuz TMA-14. They docked with the ISS two days later and, on April 2, control of the station was formally handed over to the expedition’s commander, Gennady Padalka. The crew of Expedition 20/21 launched on May 27, again from Russia aboard Soyuz TMA-15, and once the two crews were on board the ISS, the six man mission changed from Expedition 19 to Expedition 20.


Fun Fact 1: The Soviet Core of the ISS

Few people know that the core module of the International Space Station is a repurposed piece of the Soviet military space station Almaz. Almaz, which was itself cannibalized to become the basis of the Soviet Salyut station, lent its core to the ISS. The module was renamed Zvezda.

Soviet Core ISS

The Beginnings of the ISS

The International Space Station is a joint project between NASA, the Russian space program, and the European Space Agency, with support from Canadian robotics through the Canadian Space Agency. But it didn’t start as a cooperative effort. After losing the race to the Moon in 1969, the Soviet Union turned its attention to developing an orbital space station as the next major goal. It found success first with Salyut and then with Mir. The United States, meanwhile, had great success with NASA’s short-lived Skylab program. In the 1980s, both countries were planning followup space stations: for the Soviets it was Mir-2 and for the Americans it was a station called Freedom; the space shuttle was approved in 1972 as the service vehicle for Freedom. Not until 1993 did both stations come close to flying. US President Bill Clinton, unable to find a design for Freedom that fit within the program’s budget, accepted the Russian Space Agency’s proposal to merge the two nations’ space station programs. The cooperative effort was signed off on September 2, 1993.

ISS team

A Popular Orbital Destination

The International Space Station has seen continuous human presence since the first crew arrived on October 31, 2000. It’s hosted more than 200 individual astronauts on a variety of missions and has accepted spacecraft from the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe (the European Space Agency) and the first commercial spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon. Nearly 170 spacewalks have been done in support of the station totaling more than 44 days. The station’s operational lifetime was recently extended to 2020, but after the decade’s end, it’s unclear what will happen to the orbiting icon of a generation.

ISS Spacewalk

Fun Fact 2: See the ISS Yourself

The total habitable volume of the International Space Station is 13,696 cubic feet, but it’s a lot bigger thanks to its impressive span of eight solar arrays. The ISS is about the length and width of a football field, making it big enough to see from your back yard on a clear night. Apps will help you track the ISS, and tell you when to look up.

Inside of ISS