How the Space Station Became a Base to Launch Humanity’s Future

How the Space Station Became a Base to Launch Humanity’s Future

How the Space Station Became a Base to Launch Humanity’s Future

How the Space Station Became a Base to Launch Humanity’s Future

It was another decade before construction on the International Space Station was considered complete, with a lull of more than two years when the space shuttles were grounded after the loss of Columbia in 2003.

“All the terrible catastrophes for the shuttle meant that all of us, Americans and Russians, we had a long period of just maintaining the station,” said Pavel Vinogradov, a Russian astronaut who reached the station in 2006 when it was operating with a skeleton crew of two in what he called “survival mode.”

But when the shuttles were cleared to fly again, progress on construction resumed.

“I would tell you, looking back on it, it went way, way better than we could have ever hoped,” said Michael T. Suffredini, who served as NASA’s space station program manager for a decade, from 2005 to 2015.

Imagine building large pieces of machinery that have to interlock precisely but not having any chance to check that they do indeed fit before they are launched to orbit.

The modules of the space station, each about the size of a school bus and built in factories thousands of miles apart, came together seamlessly. “That’s an amazing feat,” Mr. Suffredini said. “This is by far the largest, most complicated spacecraft ever flown.”

That does not mean everything always went smoothly. Computers crashed, cooling systems failed, leaks popped up and the toilet broke.

In 2007, a particularly dire mishap almost crippled the station.

As astronauts were trying to unfurl a 112-foot solar array, it ripped. “That was pretty exciting because we didn’t have a replacement for it,” Mr. Suffredini said.


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