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The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station (habitable artificial satellite) in low Earth orbit. The ISS programme is a joint project between five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).[6][7] The ownership and use of the space station is established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements.[8]

International Space Station
A foreward view of the International Space Station backdropped by the limb of the Earth. In view are the station's four large, maroon-coloured solar array wings, two on either side of the station, mounted to a central truss structure. Further along the truss are six large, white radiators, three next to each pair of arrays. In between the solar arrays and radiators is a cluster of pressurised modules arranged in an elongated T shape, also attached to the truss. A set of blue solar arrays are mounted to the module at the aft end of the cluster.
The International Space Station on May 23 2010, as seen from STS-132
The flags of the participating countries: United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Norway, and Russia.
The nations initially participating in the ISS programme.
ISS insignia.svg
ISS Logo
Station statistics
COSPAR ID1998-067A
SATCAT no.25544
Call signAlpha, Station
CrewFully crewed: 6
Currently aboard: 6 (Expedition 61)
Launch20 November 1998; 20 years ago (1998-11-20)
Launch pad
Mass419,725 kg (925,335 lb)[1]
Length51.0 m (167.3 ft)[1]
Width109.0 m (357.5 ft)[1]
Pressurised volume915.6 m3 (32,333 cu ft)[1]
Atmospheric pressure101.3 kPa (14.7 psi; 1.0 atm) oxygen 21%, nitrogen 79%
Perigee altitude408 km (253.5 mi) AMSL[2]
Apogee altitude410 km (254.8 mi) AMSL[2]
Orbital inclination51.64°[2]
Orbital speed7.66 km/s[2]
(27,600 km/h; 17,100 mph)
Orbital period92.68 minutes[2]
Orbits per day15.54[2]
Orbit epoch14 May 2019 13:09:29  UTC[2]
Days in orbit20 years, 11 months, 1 day
(21 October 2019)
Days occupied18 years, 11 months, 18 days
(21 October 2019)
No. of orbits116,178 as of May 2019[2]
Orbital decay2 km/month
Statistics as of 9 March 2011
(unless noted otherwise)
References: [1][2][3][4][5]
The components of the ISS in an exploded diagram, with modules on-orbit highlighted in orange, and those still awaiting launch in blue or pink
Station elements as of August 2019
(exploded view)

The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and other fields.[9][10][11] The station is suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars.[12] The ISS maintains an orbit with an average altitude of 400 kilometres (250 mi) by means of reboost manoeuvres using the engines of the Zvezda module or visiting spacecraft.[13] It circles the Earth in roughly 92 minutes and completes 15.5 orbits per day.[14]

The station is divided into two sections, the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), which is operated by Russia, and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS), which is shared by many nations. Roscosmos has endorsed the continued operation of ISS through 2024,[15] but had previously proposed using elements of the Russian segment to construct a new Russian space station called OPSEK.[16]As of December 2018, the station is expected to operate until 2030.[17]

The first ISS component was launched in 1998, with the first long-term residents arriving on 2 November 2000.[18] Since then, the station has been continuously occupied for 18 years and 353 days.[19] This is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed the previous record of 9 years and 357 days held by Mir. The latest major pressurised module was fitted in 2011, with an experimental inflatable space habitat added in 2016. Development and assembly of the station continues, with several major new Russian elements scheduled for launch starting in 2020. The ISS is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth.[20][21] The ISS consists of pressurised habitation modules, structural trusses, solar arrays, radiators, docking ports, experiment bays and robotic arms. Major ISS modules have been launched by Russian Proton and Soyuz rockets and US Space Shuttles.[22]

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, following the Soviet and later Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations as well as Skylab from the US. The station is serviced by a variety of visiting spacecraft: the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the US Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle,[6] and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. The Dragon spacecraft allows the return of pressurised cargo to Earth (downmass), which is used for example to repatriate scientific experiments for further analysis. The Soyuz return capsule has minimal downmass capability next to the astronauts.

The ISS has been visited by astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 18 different nations. As of 14 March 2019, 236 people from 18 countries had visited the space station, many of them multiple times. The United States sent 149 people, Russia sent 47, nine were Japanese, eight were Canadian, five were Italian, four were French, three were German, and there were one each from Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.[23]



The ISS was originally intended to be a laboratory, observatory, and factory while providing transportation, maintenance, and a low Earth orbit staging base for possible future missions to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. However, not all of the uses envisioned in the initial Memorandum of Understanding between NASA and Roskosmos have come to fruition.[24] In the 2010 United States National Space Policy, the ISS was given additional roles of serving commercial, diplomatic[25] and educational purposes.[26]

Scientific research

Comet Lovejoy photographed by Expedition 30 commander Dan Burbank
Expedition 8 Commander and Science Officer Michael Foale conducts an inspection of the Microgravity Science Glovebox
Fisheye view of several labs

The ISS provides a platform to conduct scientific research, with power, data, cooling, and crew available to support experiments. Small uncrewed spacecraft can also provide platforms for experiments, especially those involving zero gravity and exposure to space, but space stations offer a long-term environment where studies can be performed potentially for decades, combined with ready access by human researchers.[27][28]

The ISS simplifies individual experiments by allowing groups of experiments to share the same launches and crew time. Research is conducted in a wide variety of fields, including astrobiology, astronomy, physical sciences, materials science, space weather, meteorology, and human research including space medicine and the life sciences.[9][10][11][29][30] Scientists on Earth have timely access to the data and can suggest experimental modifications to the crew. If follow-on experiments are necessary, the routinely scheduled launches of resupply craft allows new hardware to be launched with relative ease.[28] Crews fly expeditions of several months' duration, providing approximately 160 person-hours per week of labour with a crew of 6. However, a considerable amount of crew time is taken up by station maintenance.[9][31]

Perhaps the most notable ISS experiment is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which is intended to detect dark matter and answer other fundamental questions about our universe and is as important as the Hubble Space Telescope according to NASA. Currently docked on station, it could not have been easily accommodated on a free flying satellite platform because of its power and bandwidth needs.[32][33] On 3 April 2013, scientists reported that hints of dark matter may have been detected by the AMS.[34][35][36][37][38][39] According to the scientists, "The first results from the space-borne Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer confirm an unexplained excess of high-energy positrons in Earth-bound cosmic rays."

The space environment is hostile to life. Unprotected presence in space is characterised by an intense radiation field (consisting primarily of protons and other subatomic charged particles from the solar wind, in addition to cosmic rays), high vacuum, extreme temperatures, and microgravity.[40] Some simple forms of life called extremophiles,[41] as well as small invertebrates called tardigrades[42] can survive in this environment in an extremely dry state through desiccation.

Medical research improves knowledge about the effects of long-term space exposure on the human body, including muscle atrophy, bone loss, and fluid shift. This data will be used to determine whether high duration human spaceflight and space colonisation are feasible. As of 2006, data on bone loss and muscular atrophy suggest that there would be a significant risk of fractures and movement problems if astronauts landed on a planet after a lengthy interplanetary cruise, such as the six-month interval required to travel to Mars.[43][44]

Medical studies are conducted aboard the ISS on behalf of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). Prominent among these is the Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity study in which astronauts perform ultrasound scans under the guidance of remote experts. The study considers the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions in space. Usually, there is no physician on board the ISS and diagnosis of medical conditions is a challenge. It is anticipated that remotely guided ultrasound scans will have application on Earth in emergency and rural care situations where access to a trained physician is difficult.[45][46][47]

Free fall

ISS crew member storing samples
A comparison between the combustion of a candle on Earth (left) and in a free fall environment, such as that found on the ISS (right)

Gravity at the altitude of the ISS is approximately 90% as strong as at Earth's surface, but objects in orbit are in a continuous state of freefall, resulting in an apparent state of weightlessness.[48] This perceived weightlessness is disturbed by five separate effects:[49]

  • Drag from the residual atmosphere.
  • Vibration from the movements of mechanical systems and the crew.
  • Actuation of the on-board attitude control moment gyroscopes.
  • Thruster firings for attitude or orbital changes.
  • Gravity-gradient effects, also known as tidal effects. Items at different locations within the ISS would, if not attached to the station, follow slightly different orbits. Being mechanically interconnected these items experience small forces that keep the station moving as a rigid body.

Researchers are investigating the effect of the station's near-weightless environment on the evolution, development, growth and internal processes of plants and animals. In response to some of this data, NASA wants to investigate microgravity's effects on the growth of three-dimensional, human-like tissues, and the unusual protein crystals that can be formed in space.[10]

Investigating the physics of fluids in microgravity will provide better models of the behaviour of fluids. Because fluids can be almost completely combined in microgravity, physicists investigate fluids that do not mix well on Earth. In addition, examining reactions that are slowed by low gravity and low temperatures will improve our understanding of superconductivity.[10]

The study of materials science is an important ISS research activity, with the objective of reaping economic benefits through the improvement of techniques used on the ground.[50] Other areas of interest include the effect of the low gravity environment on combustion, through the study of the efficiency of burning and control of emissions and pollutants. These findings may improve current knowledge about energy production, and lead to economic and environmental benefits. Future plans are for the researchers aboard the ISS to examine aerosols, ozone, water vapour, and oxides in Earth's atmosphere, as well as cosmic rays, cosmic dust, antimatter, and dark matter in the universe.[10]


A 3D plan of the Russia-based MARS-500 complex, used for ground-based experiments which complement ISS-based preparations for a human mission to Mars

The ISS provides a location in the relative safety of Low Earth Orbit to test spacecraft systems that will be required for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars. This provides experience in operations, maintenance as well as repair and replacement activities on-orbit, which will be essential skills in operating spacecraft farther from Earth, mission risks can be reduced and the capabilities of interplanetary spacecraft advanced.[12] Referring to the MARS-500 experiment, ESA states that "Whereas the ISS is essential for answering questions concerning the possible impact of weightlessness, radiation and other space-specific factors, aspects such as the effect of long-term isolation and confinement can be more appropriately addressed via ground-based simulations".[51] Sergey Krasnov, the head of human space flight programmes for Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, in 2011 suggested a "shorter version" of MARS-500 may be carried out on the ISS.[52]

In 2009, noting the value of the partnership framework itself, Sergey Krasnov wrote, "When compared with partners acting separately, partners developing complementary abilities and resources could give us much more assurance of the success and safety of space exploration. The ISS is helping further advance near-Earth space exploration and realisation of prospective programmes of research and exploration of the Solar system, including the Moon and Mars."[53] A crewed mission to Mars may be a multinational effort involving space agencies and countries outside the current ISS partnership. In 2010, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain stated his agency was ready to propose to the other four partners that China, India and South Korea be invited to join the ISS partnership.[54] NASA chief Charlie Bolden stated in February 2011, "Any mission to Mars is likely to be a global effort".[55] Currently, US federal legislation prevents NASA co-operation with China on space projects.[56]

Education and cultural outreach

Original Jules Verne manuscripts displayed by crew inside Jules Verne ATV

The ISS crew provides opportunities for students on Earth by running student-developed experiments, making educational demonstrations, allowing for student participation in classroom versions of ISS experiments, and directly engaging students using radio, videolink and email.[6][57] ESA offers a wide range of free teaching materials that can be downloaded for use in classrooms.[58] In one lesson, students can navigate a 3-D model of the interior and exterior of the ISS, and face spontaneous challenges to solve in real time.[59]

JAXA aims to inspire children to "pursue craftsmanship" and to heighten their "awareness of the importance of life and their responsibilities in society."[60] Through a series of education guides, a deeper understanding of the past and near-term future of crewed space flight, as well as that of Earth and life, will be learned.[61][62] In the JAXA Seeds in Space experiments, the mutation effects of spaceflight on plant seeds aboard the ISS is explored. Students grow sunflower seeds which flew on the ISS for about nine months. In the first phase of Kibō utilisation from 2008 to mid-2010, researchers from more than a dozen Japanese universities conducted experiments in diverse fields.[63]

ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli's spoken voice, recorded about the ISS in November 2017, for Wikipedia

Cultural activities are another major objective. Tetsuo Tanaka, director of JAXA's Space Environment and Utilization Center, says "There is something about space that touches even people who are not interested in science."[64]

Amateur Radio on the ISS (ARISS) is a volunteer programme which encourages students worldwide to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through amateur radio communications opportunities with the ISS crew. ARISS is an international working group, consisting of delegations from nine countries including several countries in Europe as well as Japan, Russia, Canada, and the United States. In areas where radio equipment cannot be used, speakerphones connect students to ground stations which then connect the calls to the station.[65]

First Orbit is a feature-length documentary film about Vostok 1, the first crewed space flight around the Earth. By matching the orbit of the International Space Station to that of Vostok 1 as closely as possible, in terms of ground path and time of day, documentary filmmaker Christopher Riley and ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli were able to film the view that Yuri Gagarin saw on his pioneering orbital space flight. This new footage was cut together with the original Vostok 1 mission audio recordings sourced from the Russian State Archive. Nespoli, during Expedition 26/27, filmed the majority of the footage for this documentary film, and as a result is credited as its director of photography.[66] The film was streamed through the website in a global YouTube premiere in 2011, under a free licence.[67]

In May 2013, commander Chris Hadfield shot a music video of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on board the station; the film was released on YouTube.[68] It was the first music video ever to be filmed in space.[69]

In November 2017, while participating in Expedition 52/53 on the ISS, Paolo Nespoli made two recordings (one in English the other in his native Italian) of his spoken voice, for use on Wikipedia articles. These were the first content made specifically for Wikipedia, in space.[70][71]


ISS module Node 2 manufacturing and processing in the SSPF

Since the International Space Station is a multi-national collaborative project, the components for in-orbit assembly were manufactured in various countries around the world. Beginning in the mid 1990s, the U.S. components Destiny, Unity, the Integrated Truss Structure, and the solar arrays were fabricated at the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility. These modules were delivered to the Operations and Checkout Building and the Space Station Processing Facility for final assembly and processing for launch.[72]

The Russian modules, including Zarya and Zvezda, were manufactured at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow. Zvezda was initially manufactured in 1985 as a component for Mir-2, but was never launched and instead became the ISS Service Module.[73]

The European Space Agency Columbus module was manufactured at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, along with many other contractors throughout Europe.[74] The other ESA-built modules - Harmony, Tranquility, the Leonardo MPLM, and the Cupola - were initially manufactured at the Thales Alenia Space factory located at the Cannes Mandelieu Space Center. The structural steel hulls of the modules were transported by aircraft to the Kennedy Space Center SSPF for launch processing.[75]

The Japanese Experiment Module Kibō, was fabricated in various technology manufacturing facilities in Japan, at the NASDA (now JAXA) Tanegashima Space Center, and the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. The Kibo module was transported by ship and flown by aircraft to the KSC Space Station Processing Facility.[76]

The Mobile Servicing System, consisting of the Canadarm2 and the Dextre grapple fixture, was manufactured at various factories in Canada and the United States under contract by the Canadian Space Agency. The mobile base system, a connecting framework for Canadarm2 mounted on rails, was built by Northrop Grumman.


The assembly of the International Space Station, a major endeavour in space architecture, began in November 1998.[3] Russian modules launched and docked robotically, with the exception of Rassvet. All other modules were delivered by the Space Shuttle, which required installation by ISS and shuttle crewmembers using the Canadarm2 (SSRMS) and extra-vehicular activities (EVAs); as of 5 June 2011, they had added 159 components during more than 1,000 hours of EVA (see List of ISS spacewalks). 127 of these spacewalks originated from the station, and the remaining 32 were launched from the airlocks of docked Space Shuttles.[77] The beta angle of the station had to be considered at all times during construction.[78]

The first module of the ISS, Zarya, was launched on 20 November 1998 on an autonomous Russian Proton rocket. It provided propulsion, attitude control, communications, electrical power, but lacked long-term life support functions. Two weeks later, a passive NASA module Unity was launched aboard Space Shuttle flight STS-88 and attached to Zarya by astronauts during EVAs. This module has two Pressurised Mating Adapter (PMAs), one connects permanently to Zarya, the other allowed the Space Shuttle to dock to the space station. At that time, the Russian station Mir was still inhabited, and the ISS remained uncrewed for two years. On 12 July 2000, Zvezda was launched into orbit. Preprogrammed commands on board deployed its solar arrays and communications antenna. It then became the passive target for a rendezvous with Zarya and Unity: it maintained a station-keeping orbit while the Zarya-Unity vehicle performed the rendezvous and docking via ground control and the Russian automated rendezvous and docking system. Zarya's computer transferred control of the station to Zvezda's computer soon after docking. Zvezda added sleeping quarters, a toilet, kitchen, CO2 scrubbers, dehumidifier, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, plus data, voice and television communications with mission control. This enabled permanent habitation of the station.[79][80]

The first resident crew, Expedition 1, arrived in November 2000 on Soyuz TM-31. At the end of the first day on the station, astronaut Bill Shepherd requested the use of the radio call sign "Alpha", which he and cosmonaut Krikalev preferred to the more cumbersome "International Space Station".[81] The name "Alpha" had previously been used for the station in the early 1990s,[82] and its use was authorised for the whole of Expedition 1.[83] Shepherd had been advocating the use of a new name to project managers for some time. Referencing a naval tradition in a pre-launch news conference he had said: "For thousands of years, humans have been going to sea in ships. People have designed and built these vessels, launched them with a good feeling that a name will bring good fortune to the crew and success to their voyage."[84] Yuri Semenov, the President of Russian Space Corporation Energia at the time, disapproved of the name "Alpha" as he felt that Mir was the first modular space station, so the names "Beta" or "Mir 2" for the ISS would have been more fitting.[83][85][86]

Expedition 1 arrived midway between the flights of STS-92 and STS-97. These two Space Shuttle flights each added segments of the station's Integrated Truss Structure, which provided the station with Ku-band communication for US television, additional attitude support needed for the additional mass of the USOS, and substantial solar arrays supplementing the station's existing 4 solar arrays.[87]

Over the next two year, the station continued to expand. A Soyuz-U rocket delivered the Pirs docking compartment. The Space Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour delivered the Destiny laboratory and Quest airlock, in addition to the station's main robot arm, the Canadarm2, and several more segments of the Integrated Truss Structure.

The expansion schedule was interrupted by the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 and a resulting hiatus in flights. The Space Shuttle was grounded until 2005 with STS-114 flown by Discovery.[88]

Assembly resumed in 2006 with the arrival of STS-115 with Atlantis, which delivered the station's second set of solar arrays. Several more truss segments and a third set of arrays were delivered on STS-116, STS-117, and STS-118. As a result of the major expansion of the station's power-generating capabilities, more pressurised modules could be accommodated, and the Harmony node and Columbus European laboratory were added. These were soon followed by the first two components of Kibō. In March 2009, STS-119 completed the Integrated Truss Structure with the installation of the fourth and final set of solar arrays. The final section of Kibō was delivered in July 2009 on STS-127, followed by the Russian Poisk module. The third node, Tranquility, was delivered in February 2010 during STS-130 by the Space Shuttle Endeavour, alongside the Cupola, followed in May 2010 by the penultimate Russian module, Rassvet. Rassvet was delivered by Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-132 in exchange for the Russian Proton delivery of the US-funded Zarya module in 1998.[89] The last pressurised module of the USOS, Leonardo, was brought to the station in February 2011 on the final flight of Discovery, STS-133.[90] The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer was delivered by Endeavour on STS-134 the same year.[91]

As of June 2011, the station consisted of 15 pressurised modules and the Integrated Truss Structure. Five modules are still to be launched, including the Nauka with the European Robotic Arm, the Prichal module, and two power modules called NEM-1 and NEM-2.[92] As of March 2019, Russia's future primary research module Nauka is set to launch in the summer of 2020, along with the European Robotic Arm which will be able to relocate itself to different parts of the Russian modules of the station.[93]

The gross mass of the station changes over time. The total launch mass of the modules on orbit is about 417,289 kg (919,965 lb) (as of 3 September 2011).[94] The mass of experiments, spare parts, personal effects, crew, foodstuff, clothing, propellants, water supplies, gas supplies, docked spacecraft, and other items add to the total mass of the station. Hydrogen gas is constantly vented overboard by the oxygen generators.


Technical blueprint of components
ROS window locations
USOS window locations

The ISS is a third generation[95] modular space station.[96] Modular stations can allow modules to be added to or removed from the existing structure, allowing greater flexibility.

Below is a diagram of major station components. The blue areas are pressurised sections accessible by the crew without using spacesuits. The station's unpressurised superstructure is indicated in red. Other unpressurised components are yellow. The Unity node joins directly to the Destiny laboratory. For clarity, they are shown apart.

docking port
Solar arrayZvezda DOS-8
(service module)
Solar array
docking port
Poisk (MRM-2)
docking port
Nauka lab
to replace Pirs
robotic arm
Solar array (retracted)Zarya FGB
(first module)
Solar array (retracted)
docking port
Cargo spacecraft
berthing port
cargo bay
Node 1
Node 3
Solar arraySolar arrayHeat radiatorHeat radiatorSolar arraySolar array
ELC 2, AMSZ1 trussELC 3
S5/6 TrussS3/S4 TrussS1 TrussS0 TrussP1 TrussP3/P4 TrussP5/6 Truss
robotic arm
robotic arm
Solar arraySolar arraySolar arraySolar array
Kibō logistics
cargo bay
docking adapter
Cargo spacecraft
berthing port
docking port
robotic arm
External payloadsColumbus
Node 2
external platform
docking port
docking adapter

Pressurised modules


Zarya as seen by Space Shuttle Endeavour during STS-88

Zarya (Russian: Заря́, lit. 'Dawn'), also known as the Functional Cargo Block or FGB (from the Russian: "Функционально-грузовой блок", lit. 'Funktsionalno-gruzovoy blok' or ФГБ), is the first module of the ISS to be launched.[97] The FGB provided electrical power, storage, propulsion, and guidance to the ISS during the initial stage of assembly. With the launch and assembly in orbit of other modules with more specialized functionality, Zarya is now[when?] primarily used for storage, both inside the pressurized section and in the externally mounted fuel tanks. The Zarya is a descendant of the TKS spacecraft designed for the Russian Salyut program. The name Zarya, which means sunrise,[97] was given to the FGB because it signified the dawn of a new era of international cooperation in space. Although it was built by a Russian company, it is owned by the United States.[98]

Zarya was built from December 1994 to January 1998 at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center (KhSC) in Moscow.[97]

Zarya was launched on 20 November 1998 on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81 in Kazakhstan to a 400 km (250 mi) high orbit with a designed lifetime of at least 15 years. After Zarya reached orbit, STS-88 launched on 4 December 1998 to attach the Unity module.


Unity as seen by Space Shuttle Endeavour during STS-88

The Unity connecting module, also known as Node 1, is the first U.S.-built component of the ISS. It connects the Russian and United States segments of the station, and is where crew eat meals together.

The module is cylindrical in shape, with six berthing locations (forward, aft, port, starboard, zenith, and nadir) facilitating connections to other modules. Unity measures 4.57 metres (15.0 ft) in diameter, is 5.47 metres (17.9 ft) long, made of steel, and was built for NASA by Boeing in a manufacturing facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Unity is the first of the three connecting modules; the other two are Harmony and Tranquility.

Unity was carried into orbit as the primary cargo of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-88, the first Space Shuttle mission dedicated to assembly of the station. On 6 December 1998, the STS-88 crew mated the aft berthing port of Unity with the forward hatch of the already orbiting Zarya module. This was the first connection made between two station modules.


Zvezda as seen by Space Shuttle Endeavour during STS-97

Zvezda (Russian: Звезда́, meaning "star"), Salyut DOS-8, also known as the Zvezda Service Module, is a module of the ISS. It was the third module launched to the station, and provides all of the station's life support systems, some of which are supplemented in the USOS, as well as living quarters for two crew members. It is the structural and functional center of the Russian Orbital Segment, which is the Russian part of the ISS. Crew assemble here to deal with emergencies on the station.[99][100][101]

The basic structural frame of Zvezda, known as "DOS-8", was initially built in the mid-1980s to be the core of the Mir-2 space station. This means that Zvezda is similar in layout to the core module (DOS-7) of the Mir space station. It was in fact labeled as Mir-2 for quite some time in the factory. Its design lineage thus extends back to the original Salyut stations. The space frame was completed in February 1985 and major internal equipment was installed by October 1986.

The rocket used for launch to the ISS carried advertising; it was emblazoned with the logo of Pizza Hut restaurants,[102][103][104] for which they are reported to have paid more than US$1 million.[105] The money helped support Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center and the Russian advertising agencies that orchestrated the event.[106]

On 26 July 2000, Zvezda became the third component of the ISS when it docked at the aft port of Zarya. (U.S. Unity module had already been attached to the Zarya.) Later in July, the computers aboard Zarya handed over ISS commanding functions to computers on Zvezda.[107]


The Destiny module being installed on the ISS

The Destiny module, also known as the U.S. Lab, is the primary operating facility for U.S. research payloads aboard the International Space Station (ISS).[108][109] It was berthed to the Unity module and activated over a period of five days in February, 2001.[110] Destiny is NASA's first permanent operating orbital research station since Skylab was vacated in February 1974.

The Boeing Company began construction of the 14.5-tonne (32,000 lb) research laboratory in 1995 at the Michoud Assembly Facility and then the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.[108] Destiny was shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1998, and was turned over to NASA for pre-launch preparations in August 2000. It launched on 7 February 2001 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-98.[110]


Quest Joint Airlock Module

The Quest Joint Airlock, previously known as the Joint Airlock Module, is the primary airlock for the ISS. Quest was designed to host spacewalks with both Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits and Orlan space suits. The airlock was launched on STS-104 on 14 July 2001. Before Quest was attached, Russian spacewalks using Orlan suits could only be done from the Zvezda service module, and American spacewalks using EMUs were only possible when a Space Shuttle was docked. The arrival of Pirs docking compartment on September 16, 2001 provided another airlock from which Orlan spacewalks can be conducted.[citation needed]

Pirs and Poisk

The Pirs module attached to the ISS.
Poisk after arriving at the ISS on 12 November 2009.

Pirs (Russian: Пирс, lit. 'pier') and Poisk (Russian: По́иск, lit. 'search') are Russian airlock modules, each having 2 identical hatches. An outward-opening hatch on the Mir space station failed after it swung open too fast after unlatching, because of a small amount of air pressure remaining in the airlock.[111] All EVA hatches on the ISS open inwards and are pressure-sealing. Pirs was used to store, service, and refurbish Russian Orlan suits and provided contingency entry for crew using the slightly bulkier American suits. The outermost docking ports on both airlocks allow docking of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, and the automatic transfer of propellants to and from storage on the ROS.[112]

Pirs was launched on 14 September 2001, as ISS Assembly Mission 4R, on a Russian Soyuz-U rocket, using a modified Progress spacecraft, Progress M-SO1, as an upper stage. Poisk was launched on 10 November 2009[113][114] attached to a modified Progress spacecraft, called Progress M-MIM2, on a Soyuz-U rocket from Launch Pad 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.


Harmony shown connected to Columbus, Kibo, and Destiny. PMA-2 faces. The nadir and zenith locations are open.

Harmony, also known as Node 2, is the "utility hub" of the ISS. It connects the laboratory modules of the United States, Europe and Japan, as well as providing electrical power and electronic data. Sleeping cabins for four of the six crew are housed here.[115]

Harmony was successfully launched into space aboard Space Shuttle flight STS-120 on October 23, 2007.[116][117] After temporarily being attached to the port side of the Unity node,[118][119] it was moved to its permanent location on the forward end of the Destiny laboratory on November 14, 2007.[120] Harmony added 2,666 cubic feet (75.5 m3) to the station's living volume, an increase of almost 20 percent, from 15,000 cu ft (420 m3) to 17,666 cu ft (500.2 m3). Its successful installation meant that from NASA's perspective, the station was "U.S. Core Complete".


Tranquility in 2011

Tranquility, also known as Node 3, is a module of the ISS. It contains environmental control systems, life support systems, a toilet, exercise equipment, and an observation cupola.

ESA and the Italian Space Agency had Tranquility built by Thales Alenia Space. A ceremony on November 20, 2009 transferred ownership of the module to NASA.[121] On February 8, 2010, NASA launched the module on the Space Shuttle's STS-130 mission.


The Columbus module on the ISS

Columbus is a science laboratory that is part of the ISS and is the largest single contribution to the ISS made by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Like the Harmony and Tranquility modules, the Columbus laboratory was constructed in Turin, Italy by Thales Alenia Space. The functional equipment and software of the lab was designed by EADS in Bremen, Germany. It was also integrated in Bremen before being flown to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in an Airbus Beluga. It was launched aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on 7 February 2008 on flight STS-122. It is designed for ten years of operation. The module is controlled by the Columbus Control Centre, located at the German Space Operations Centre, part of the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich, Germany.

The European Space Agency has spent 1.4 billion (about US$2 billion) on building Columbus, including the experiments that will fly in it and the ground control infrastructure necessary to operate them.[122]


Kibō Exposed Facility on the right

The Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), nicknamed Kibo (きぼう, Kibō, Hope), is a Japanese science module for the ISS developed by JAXA. It is the largest single ISS module, and is attached to the Harmony module. The first two pieces of the module were launched on Space Shuttle missions STS-123 and STS-124. The third and final components were launched on STS-127.[123]


The Cupola's windows with shutters open.

The Cupola is an ESA-built observatory module of the ISS. Its name derives from the Italian word cupola, which means "dome". Its seven windows are used to conduct experiments, dockings and observations of Earth. It was launched aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-130 on 8 February 2010 and attached to the Tranquility (Node 3) module. With the Cupola attached, ISS assembly reached 85 percent completion. The Cupola's central window has a diameter of 80 cm (31 in).[124]


Rassvet as seen from the Cupola module during STS-132 with a Progress in the lower right

Rassvet (Russian: Рассве́т; lit. "dawn"), also known as the Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM-1) (Russian: Малый исследовательский модуль, МИМ 1) and formerly known as the Docking Cargo Module (DCM), is a component of the ISS. The module's design is similar to the Mir Docking Module launched on STS-74 in 1995. Rassvet is primarily used for cargo storage and as a docking port for visiting spacecraft. It was flown to the ISS aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-132 mission on May 14, 2010,[125] and was connected to the ISS on May 18.[126] The hatch connecting Rassvet with the ISS was first opened on May 20.[127] On 28 June 2010, the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft performed the first docking with the module.[128]


Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module

The Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) is a module of the ISS. It was flown into space aboard the Space Shuttle on STS-133 on 24 February 2011 and installed on 1 March. Leonardo is primarily used for storage of spares, supplies and waste on the ISS, which was until then stored in many different places within the space station. The Leonardo PMM was a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) before 2011, but was modified into its current configuration. It was formerly one of three MPLM used for bringing cargo to and from the ISS with the Space Shuttle. The module was named for Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module

Progression of expansion of BEAM

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable space station module developed by Bigelow Aerospace, under contract to NASA, for testing as a temporary module on the ISS from 2016 to at least 2020. It arrived at the ISS on 10 April 2016,[129] was berthed to the station on 16 April, and was expanded and pressurized on 28 May 2016.

International Docking Adapter

IDA-1 upright

The International Docking Adapter (IDA) is a spacecraft docking system adapter developed to convert APAS-95 to the NASA Docking System (NDS)/International Docking System Standard (IDSS). An IDA is placed on each of the ISS' two open Pressurized Mating Adapters (PMAs), both of which are connected to the Harmony module.

IDA-1 was lost during the launch failure of SpaceX CRS-7 on 28 June 2015.[130][131][132]

IDA-2 was launched on SpaceX CRS-9 on 18 July 2016.[133] It was attached and connected to PMA-2 during a spacewalk on 19 August 2016.[134] First docking was achieved with the arrival of Crew Dragon Demo-1 on 3 March 2019. [135]

IDA-3 was launched on the SpaceX CRS-18 mission in July 2019.[136] IDA-3 is constructed mostly from spare parts to speed construction.[137] It was attached and connected to PMA-3 during a spacewalk on 21 August 2019. [138]

Unpressurised elements

ISS Truss Components breakdown showing Trusses and all ORUs in situ

The ISS has a large number of external components that do not require pressurisation. The largest of these is the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS), to which the station's main solar arrays and thermal radiators are mounted.[139] The ITS consists of ten separate segments forming a structure 108.5 m (356 ft) long.[3]

The station was intended to have several smaller external components, such as six robotic arms, three External Stowage Platforms (ESPs) and four ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (ELCs).[140][141] While these platforms allow experiments (including MISSE, the STP-H3 and the Robotic Refueling Mission) to be deployed and conducted in the vacuum of space by providing electricity and processing experimental data locally, their primary function is to store spare Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs). ORUs are parts that can be replaced when they fail or pass their design life, including pumps, storage tanks, antennas, and battery units. Such units are replaced either by astronauts during EVA or by robotic arms.[142] Several shuttle missions were dedicated to the delivery of ORUs, including STS-129,[143] STS-133[144] and STS-134.[145] As of January 2011, only one other mode of transportation of ORUs had been utilised – the Japanese cargo vessel HTV-2 – which delivered an FHRC and CTC-2 via its Exposed Pallet (EP).[146][needs update]

Construction of the Integrated Truss Structure over New Zealand.

There are also smaller exposure facilities mounted directly to laboratory modules; the Kibō Exposed Facility serves as an external 'porch' for the Kibō complex,[147] and a facility on the European Columbus laboratory provides power and data connections for experiments such as the European Technology Exposure Facility[148][149] and the Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space.[150] A remote sensing instrument, SAGE III-ISS, was delivered to the station in February 2017 aboard CRS-10,[151] and the NICER experiment was delivered aboard CRS-11 in June 2017.[152] The largest scientific payload externally mounted to the ISS is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a particle physics experiment launched on STS-134 in May 2011, and mounted externally on the ITS. The AMS measures cosmic rays to look for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.[153][154]

The commercial Bartolomeo External Payload Hosting Platform, manufactured by Airbus, is due to launch in May 2019 aboard a commercial ISS resupply vehicle and be attached to the European Columbus module. It will provide a further 12 external payload slots, supplementing the eight on the ExPRESS Logistics Carriers, ten on Kibō, and four on Columbus. The system is designed to be robotically serviced and will require no astronaut intervention. It is named after Christopher Columbus's younger brother.[155][156][157]

Robotic arms and cargo cranes

Commander Volkov stands on Pirs with his back to the Soyuz whilst operating the manual Strela crane holding photographer Kononenko.
Dextre, like many of the station's experiments and robotic arms, can be operated from Earth and perform tasks while the crew sleeps.

The Integrated Truss Structure serves as a base for the station's primary remote manipulator system, called the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), which is composed of three main components. Canadarm2, the largest robotic arm on the ISS, has a mass of 1,800 kilograms (4,000 lb) and is used to dock and manipulate spacecraft and modules on the USOS, hold crew members and equipment in place during EVAs and move Dextre around to perform tasks.[158] Dextre is a 1,560 kg (3,440 lb) robotic manipulator with two arms, a rotating torso and has power tools, lights and video for replacing orbital replacement units (ORUs) and performing other tasks requiring fine control.[159] The Mobile Base System (MBS) is a platform which rides on rails along the length of the station's main truss. It serves as a mobile base for Canadarm2 and Dextre, allowing the robotic arms to reach all parts of the USOS.[160] To gain access to the Russian Segment a grapple fixture was added to Zarya on STS-134, so that Canadarm2 can inchworm itself onto the ROS.[161] Also installed during STS-134 was the 15 m (50 ft) Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS), which had been used to inspect heat shield tiles on Space Shuttle missions and can be used on station to increase the reach of the MSS.[161] Staff on Earth or the station can operate the MSS components via remote control, performing work outside the station without space walks.

Japan's Remote Manipulator System, which services the Kibō Exposed Facility,[162] was launched on STS-124 and is attached to the Kibō Pressurised Module.[163] The arm is similar to the Space Shuttle arm as it is permanently attached at one end and has a latching end effector for standard grapple fixtures at the other.

The European Robotic Arm, which will service the Russian Orbital Segment, will be launched alongside the Multipurpose Laboratory Module in 2017.[164] The ROS does not require spacecraft or modules to be manipulated, as all spacecraft and modules dock automatically and may be discarded the same way. Crew use the two Strela (Russian: Стрела́; lit. Arrow) cargo cranes during EVAs for moving crew and equipment around the ROS. Each Strela crane has a mass of 45 kg (99 lb).

Planned componments


Artist's rendering of the Nauka module docked to Zvezda.

Nauka (Russian: Нау́ка; lit. Science), also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), (Russian: Многофункциональный лабораторный модуль, or МЛМ), is a component of the ISS which has not yet been launched into space. The MLM is funded by the Roscosmos State Corporation. In the original ISS plans, Nauka was to use the location of the Docking and Stowage Module. Later, the DSM was replaced by the Rassvet module and it was moved to Zarya's nadir port. Planners anticipate Nauka will dock at Zvezda's nadir port, replacing Pirs.[165]

The launch of Nauka, initially planned for 2007, has been repeatedly delayed for various reasons. As of September 2019, the launch to the ISS is assigned to no earlier than December 2020.[166] After this date, the warranties of some of Nauka's systems will expire.


Mockup of the Prichal module at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Prichal, also known as Uzlovoy Module or UM (Russian: Узловой Модуль "Причал", Nodal Module Berth),[167] is a 4-tonne (8,800 lb)[168] ball-shaped module that will allow docking of two scientific and power modules during the final stage of the station assembly, and provide the Russian segment additional docking ports to receive Soyuz MS and Progress MS spacecraft. UM is due to be launched in 2022.[169] It will be integrated with a special version of the Progress cargo ship and launched by a standard Soyuz rocket, docking to the nadir port of the Nauka module. One port is equipped with an active hybrid docking port, which enables docking with the MLM module. The remaining five ports are passive hybrids, enabling docking of Soyuz and Progress vehicles, as well as heavier modules and future spacecraft with modified docking systems. The node module was intended to serve as the only permanent element of the cancelled OPSEK.[170][171]

Science Power Modules 1 and 2

Science Power Module 1 (SPM-1, also known as NEM-1) Science Power Module 2 (SPM-2, also known as NEM-2) are modules planned to arrive at the ISS in 2022.[169][172][173] It is going to dock to the Prichal module, which is planned to be attached to the Nauka module.[173] If Nauka is cancelled, then the Prichal, SPM-1, and SPM-2 would dock at the zenith port of Zvezda. SPM-1 and SPM-2 would also be required components for the OPSEK space station.[174]

Bishop Airlock Module

The NanoRacks Bishop Airlock Module is a commercially-funded airlock module intended to be launched to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-21 in August 2020.[175][176] The module is being built by NanoRacks, Thales Alenia Space, and Boeing.[177] It will be used to deploy CubeSats, small satellites, and other external payloads for NASA, CASIS, and other commercial and governmental customers.[178]

Cancelled componments

The cancelled Habitation module under construction at Michoud in 1997

Several modules planned for the station were cancelled over the course of the ISS programme. Reasons include budgetary constraints, the modules becoming unnecessary, and station redesigns after the 2003 Columbia disaster. The US Centrifuge Accommodations Module would have hosted science experiments in varying levels of artificial gravity.[179] The US Habitation Module would have served as the station's living quarters. Instead, the sleep stations are now spread throughout the station.[180] The US Interim Control Module and ISS Propulsion Module would have replaced the functions of Zvezda in case of a launch failure.[181] Two Russian Research Modules were planned for scientific research.[182] They would have docked to a Russian Universal Docking Module.[183] The Russian Science Power Platform would have supplied power to the Russian Orbital Segment independent of the ITS solar arrays.


Life support

The critical systems are the atmosphere control system, the water supply system, the food supply facilities, the sanitation and hygiene equipment, and fire detection and suppression equipment. The Russian Orbital Segment's life support systems are contained in the Zvezda service module. Some of these systems are supplemented by equipment in the USOS. The MLM Nauka laboratory has a complete set of life support systems.

Atmospheric control systems

The interactions between the components of the ISS Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS)

The atmosphere on board the ISS is similar to the Earth's.[184] Normal air pressure on the ISS is 101.3 kPa (14.69 psi);[185] the same as at sea level on Earth. An Earth-like atmosphere offers benefits for crew comfort, and is much safer than a pure oxygen atmosphere, because of the increased risk of a fire such as that responsible for the deaths of the Apollo 1 crew.[186] Earth-like atmospheric conditions have been maintained on all Russian and Soviet spacecraft.[187]

The Elektron system aboard Zvezda and a similar system in Destiny generate oxygen aboard the station.[188] The crew has a backup option in the form of bottled oxygen and Solid Fuel Oxygen Generation (SFOG) canisters, a chemical oxygen generator system.[189] Carbon dioxide is removed from the air by the Vozdukh system in Zvezda. Other by-products of human metabolism, such as methane from the intestines and ammonia from sweat, are removed by activated charcoal filters.[189]

Part of the ROS atmosphere control system is the oxygen supply. Triple-redundancy is provided by the Elektron unit, solid fuel generators, and stored oxygen. The primary supply of oxygen is the Elektron unit which produces O
and H
by electrolysis of water and vents H2 overboard. The 1 kW (1.3 hp) system uses approximately one litre of water per crew member per day. This water is either brought from Earth or recycled from other systems. Mir was the first spacecraft to use recycled water for oxygen production. The secondary oxygen supply is provided by burning O
-producing Vika cartridges (see also ISS ECLSS). Each 'candle' takes 5–20 minutes to decompose at 450–500 °C (842–932 °F), producing 600 litres (130 imp gal; 160 US gal) of O
. This unit is manually operated.[190]

The US Orbital Segment has redundant supplies of oxygen, from a pressurised storage tank on the Quest airlock module delivered in 2001, supplemented ten years later by ESA-built Advanced Closed-Loop System (ACLS) in the Tranquility module (Node 3), which produces O
by electrolysis.[191] Hydrogen produced is combined with carbon dioxide from the cabin atmosphere and converted to water and methane.

Power and thermal control

Russian solar arrays, backlit by sunset
One of the eight truss mounted pairs of USOS solar arrays

Double-sided solar arrays provide electrical power to the ISS. These bifacial cells collect direct sunlight on one side and light reflected off from the Earth on the other, and are more efficient and operate at a lower temperature than single-sided cells commonly used on Earth.[192]

The Russian segment of the station, like most spacecraft, uses 28 volt low voltage DC from four rotating solar arrays mounted on Zarya and Zvezda. The USOS uses 130–180 V DC from the USOS PV array, power is stabilised and distributed at 160 V DC and converted to the user-required 124 V DC. The higher distribution voltage allows smaller, lighter conductors, at the expense of crew safety. The two station segments share power with converters.

The USOS solar arrays are arranged as four wing pairs, for a total production of 75 to 90 kilowatts.[193] These arrays normally track the sun to maximise power generation. Each array is about 375 m2 (4,036 sq ft) in area and 58 m (190 ft) long. In the complete configuration, the solar arrays track the sun by rotating the alpha gimbal once per orbit; the beta gimbal follows slower changes in the angle of the sun to the orbital plane. The Night Glider mode aligns the solar arrays parallel to the ground at night to reduce the significant aerodynamic drag at the station's relatively low orbital altitude.[194]

The station originally used rechargeable nickel–hydrogen batteries (NiH
) for continuous power during the 35 minutes of every 90-minute orbit that it is eclipsed by the Earth. The batteries are recharged on the day side of the orbit. They had a 6.5-year lifetime (over 37,000 charge/discharge cycles) and were regularly replaced over the anticipated 20-year life of the station.[195] Starting in 2016, the nickel–hydrogen batteries were replaced by lithium-ion batteries, which are expected to last until the end of the ISS program.[196]

The station's large solar panels generate a high potential voltage difference between the station and the ionosphere. This could cause arcing through insulating surfaces and sputtering of conductive surfaces as ions are accelerated by the spacecraft plasma sheath. To mitigate this, plasma contactor units (PCU)s create current paths between the station and the ambient plasma field.[197]

ISS External Active Thermal Control System (EATCS) diagram

The station's systems and experiments consume a large amount of electrical power, almost all of which is converted to heat. To keep the internal temperature within workable limits, a passive thermal control system (PTCS) is made of external surface materials, insulation such as MLI, and heat pipes. If the PTCS cannot keep up with the heat load, an External Active Thermal Control System (EATCS) maintains the temperature. The EATCS consists of an internal, non-toxic, water coolant loop used to cool and dehumidify the atmosphere, which transfers collected heat into an external liquid ammonia loop. From the heat exchangers, ammonia is pumped into external radiators that emit heat as infrared radiation, then back to the station.[198] The EATCS provides cooling for all the US pressurised modules, including Kibō and Columbus, as well as the main power distribution electronics of the S0, S1 and P1 trusses. It can reject up to 70 kW. This is much more than the 14 kW of the Early External Active Thermal Control System (EEATCS) via the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS), which was launched on STS-105 and installed onto the P6 Truss.[199]

Communications and computers

The communications systems used by the ISS
* Luch satellite and the Space Shuttle are not currently[when?] in use

Radio communications provide telemetry and scientific data links between the station and Mission Control Centres. Radio links are also used during rendezvous and docking procedures and for audio and video communication between crew members, flight controllers and family members. As a result, the ISS is equipped with internal and external communication systems used for different purposes.[200]

The Russian Orbital Segment communicates directly with the ground via the Lira antenna mounted to Zvezda.[6][201] The Lira antenna also has the capability to use the Luch data relay satellite system.[6] This system fell into disrepair during the 1990s, and so was not used during the early years of the ISS,[6][202][203] although two new Luch satellites—Luch-5A and Luch-5B—were launched in 2011 and 2012 respectively to restore the operational capability of the system.[204] Another Russian communications system is the Voskhod-M, which enables internal telephone communications between Zvezda, Zarya, Pirs, Poisk, and the USOS and provides a VHF radio link to ground control centres via antennas on Zvezda's exterior.[205]

The US Orbital Segment (USOS) makes use of two separate radio links mounted in the Z1 truss structure: the S band (audio) and Ku band (audio, video and data) systems. These transmissions are routed via the United States Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) in geostationary orbit, allowing for almost continuous real-time communications with NASA's Mission Control Center (MCC-H) in Houston.[22][6][200] Data channels for the Canadarm2, European Columbus laboratory and Japanese Kibō modules were originally also routed via the S band and Ku band systems, with the European Data Relay System and a similar Japanese system intended to eventually complement the TDRSS in this role.[22][206] Communications between modules are carried on an internal wireless network.[207]

An array of laptops in the US lab
Laptop computers surround the Canadarm2 console

UHF radio is used by astronauts and cosmonauts conducting EVAs and other spacecraft that dock to or undock from the station.[6] Automated spacecraft are fitted with their own communications equipment; the ATV uses a laser attached to the spacecraft and the Proximity Communications Equipment attached to Zvezda to accurately dock with the station.[208][209]

The ISS is equipped with about 100 IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad and HP ZBook 15 laptop computers. The laptops have run Windows 95, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 10 and Linux operating systems.[210] Each computer is a commercial off-the-shelf purchase which is then modified for safety and operation including updates to connectors, cooling and power to accommodate the station's 28V DC power system and weightless environment. Heat generated by the laptops does not rise but stagnates around the laptop, so additional forced ventilation is required. Laptops aboard the ISS are connected to the station's wireless LAN via Wi-Fi, which connects to the ground via Ku band. This provides speeds of 10 Mbit/s download and 3 Mbit/s upload from the station, comparable to home DSL connection speeds.[211][212] Laptop hard drives occasionally fail and must be replaced.[213] Other computer hardware failures include instances in 2001, 2007 and 2017; some of these failures have required EVAs to replace computer modules in externally mounted devices.[214][215][216][217]

The operating system used for key station functions is the Debian Linux distribution.[218] The migration from Microsoft Windows was made in May 2013 for reasons of reliability, stability and flexibility.[219]

In 2017, an SG100 Cloud Computer was launched to the ISS as part of OA-7 mission.[220] It was manufactured by NCSIST and designed in collaboration with Academia Sinica, and National Central University under contract for NASA.[221]


Expeditions and private flights

See also the list of International Space Station expeditions (professional crew), space tourism (private travellers), and the list of human spaceflights to the ISS (both).
Zarya and Unity were entered for the first time on 10 December 1998.
Soyuz TM-31 being prepared to bring the first resident crew to the station in October 2000
ISS was slowly assembled over a decade of spaceflights and crews

Each permanent crew is given an expedition number. Expeditions run up to six months, from launch until undocking, an 'increment' covers the same time period, but includes cargo ships and all activities. Expeditions 1 to 6 consisted of 3 person crews, Expeditions 7 to 12 were reduced to the safe minimum of two following the destruction of the NASA Shuttle Columbia. From Expedition 13 the crew gradually increased to 6 around 2010.[222][223] With the arrival of the US Commercial Crew vehicles in the late 2010s, expedition size may be increased to seven crew members, the number ISS is designed for.[224][225]

Gennady Padalka, member of Expeditions 9, 19/20, 31/32, and 43/44, and Commander of Expedition 11, has spent more time in space than anyone else, a total of 878 days, 11 hours, and 29 minutes.[226] Peggy Whitson has spent the most time in space of any American, totalling 665 days, 22 hours, and 22 minutes during her time on Expeditions 5, 16, and 50/51/52.[227]

Travellers who pay for their own passage into space are termed spaceflight participants by Roscosmos and NASA, and are sometimes referred to as space tourists, a term they generally dislike.[note 1] All seven were transported to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. When professional crews change over in numbers not divisible by the three seats in a Soyuz, and a short-stay crewmember is not sent, the spare seat is sold by MirCorp through Space Adventures. When the space shuttle retired in 2011, and the station's crew size was reduced to 6, space tourism was halted, as the partners relied on Russian transport seats for access to the station. Soyuz flight schedules increase after 2013, allowing 5 Soyuz flights (15 seats) with only two expeditions (12 seats) required.[233] The remaining seats are sold for around US$40 million to members of the public who can pass a medical exam. ESA and NASA criticised private spaceflight at the beginning of the ISS, and NASA initially resisted training Dennis Tito, the first person to pay for his own passage to the ISS.[note 2]

Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian in space and the first self-funded woman to fly to the station. Officials reported that her education and experience make her much more than a tourist, and her performance in training had been "excellent."[234] Ansari herself dismisses the idea that she is a tourist. She did Russian and European studies involving medicine and microbiology during her 10-day stay. The documentary Space Tourists follows her journey to the station, where she fulfilled "an age-old dream of man: to leave our planet as a "normal person" and travel into outer space."[235]

In 2008, spaceflight participant Richard Garriott placed a geocache aboard the ISS during his flight.[236] This is currently the only non-terrestrial geocache in existence.[237] At the same time, the Immortality Drive, an electronic record of eight digitised human DNA sequences, was placed aboard the ISS.[238]


Graph showing the changing altitude of the ISS from November 1998 until November 2018
Animation of ISS orbit from 14 September 2018 to 14 November 2018. Earth is not shown.

The ISS is maintained in a nearly circular orbit with a minimum mean altitude of 330 km (205 mi) and a maximum of 410 km (255 mi), in the centre of the thermosphere, at an inclination of 51.6 degrees to Earth's equator. This orbit was selected because it is the lowest inclination that can be directly reached by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 46° N latitude without overflying China or dropping spent rocket stages in inhabited areas.[239][240] It travels at an average speed of 27,724 kilometres per hour (17,227 mph), and completes 15.54 orbits per day (93 minutes per orbit).[2][14] The station's altitude was allowed to fall around the time of each NASA shuttle flight to permit heavier loads to be transferred to the station. After the retirement of the shuttle, the nominal orbit of the space station was raised in altitude.[241][242] Other, more frequent supply ships do not require this adjustment as they are substantially higher performance vehicles.[28][243]

Orbital boosting can be performed by the station's two main engines on the Zvezda service module, or Russian or European spacecraft docked to Zvezda's aft port. The ATV is constructed with the possibility of adding a second docking port to its aft end, allowing other craft to dock and boost the station. It takes approximately two orbits (three hours) for the boost to a higher altitude to be completed.[243] Maintaining ISS altitude uses about 7.5 tonnes of chemical fuel per annum[244] at an annual cost of about $210 million.[245]

Orbits of the ISS, shown in April 2013

The Russian Orbital Segment contains the Data Management System, which handles Guidance, Navigation and Control (ROS GNC) for the entire station.[246] Initially, Zarya, the first module of the station, controlled the station until a short time after the Russian service module Zvezda docked and was transferred control. Zvezda contains the ESA built DMS-R Data Management System.[247] Using two fault-tolerant computers (FTC), Zvezda computes the station's position and orbital trajectory using redundant Earth horizon sensors, Solar horizon sensors as well as Sun and star trackers. The FTCs each contain three identical processing units working in parallel and provide advanced fault-masking by majority voting.


Zvezda uses gyroscopes (reaction wheels) and thrusters to turn itself around. Gyroscopes do not require propellant, rather they use electricity to 'store' momentum in flywheels by turning in the opposite direction to the station's movement. The USOS has its own computer controlled gyroscopes to handle the extra mass of that section. When gyroscopes 'saturate', thrusters are used to cancel out the stored momentum. During Expedition 10, an incorrect command was sent to the station's computer, using about 14 kilograms of propellant before the fault was noticed and fixed. When attitude control computers in the ROS and USOS fail to communicate properly, it can result in a rare 'force fight' where the ROS GNC computer must ignore the USOS counterpart, which has no thrusters.[248][249][250]

Docked spacecraft can also be used to maintain station attitude, such as for troubleshooting or during the installation of the S3/S4 truss, which provides electrical power and data interfaces for the station's electronics.[251]

Mission controls

The components of the ISS are operated and monitored by their respective space agencies at mission control centres across the globe, including:

Space centres involved with the ISS programme


Spare parts are called ORUs; some are externally stored on pallets called ELCs and ESPs.
While anchored on the end of the OBSS during STS-120, astronaut Scott Parazynski performs makeshift repairs to a US solar array which damaged itself when unfolding.
Mike Hopkins during a spacewalk

Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) are spare parts that can be readily replaced when a unit either passes its design life or fails. Examples of ORUs are pumps, storage tanks, controller boxes, antennas, and battery units. Some units can be replaced using robotic arms. Most are stored outside the station, either on small pallets called ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (ELCs) or share larger platforms called External Stowage Platforms which also hold science experiments. Both kinds of pallets provide electricity for many parts that could be damaged by the cold of space and require heating. The larger logistics carriers also have local area network (LAN) connections for telemetry to connect experiments. A heavy emphasis on stocking the USOS with ORU's occurred around 2011, before the end of the NASA shuttle programme, as its commercial replacements, Cygnus and Dragon, carry one tenth to one quarter the payload.

Unexpected problems and failures have impacted the station's assembly time-line and work schedules leading to periods of reduced capabilities and, in some cases, could have forced abandonment of the station for safety reasons. Serious problems include an air leak from the USOS in 2004,[252] the venting of fumes from an Elektron oxygen generator in 2006,[253] and the failure of the computers in the ROS in 2007 during STS-117 that left the station without thruster, Elektron, Vozdukh and other environmental control system operations. In the latter case, the root cause was found to be condensation inside electrical connectors leading to a short-circuit.[254]

During STS-120 in 2007 and following the relocation of the P6 truss and solar arrays, it was noted during the solar array had torn and was not deploying properly.[255] An EVA was carried out by Scott Parazynski, assisted by Douglas Wheelock. Extra precautions were taken to reduce the risk of electric shock, as the repairs were carried out with the solar array exposed to sunlight.[256] The issues with the array were followed in the same year by problems with the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ), which rotates the arrays on the starboard side of the station. Excessive vibration and high-current spikes in the array drive motor were noted, resulting in a decision to substantially curtail motion of the starboard SARJ until the cause was understood. Inspections during EVAs on STS-120 and STS-123 showed extensive contamination from metallic shavings and debris in the large drive gear and confirmed damage to the large metallic bearing surfaces, so the joint was locked to prevent further damage.[257][258] Repairs to the joints were carried out during STS-126 with lubrication and the replacement of 11 out of 12 trundle bearings on the joint.[259][260]

In September 2008, damage to the S1 radiator was first noticed in Soyuz imagery. The problem was initially not thought to be serious.[261] The imagery showed that the surface of one sub-panel has peeled back from the underlying central structure, possibly because of micro-meteoroid or debris impact. On 15 May 2009 the damaged radiator panel's ammonia tubing was mechanically shut off from the rest of the cooling system by the computer-controlled closure of a valve. The same valve was then used to vent the ammonia from the damaged panel, eliminating the possibility of an ammonia leak.[261] It is also known that a Service Module thruster cover struck the S1 radiator after being jettisoned during an EVA in 2008, but its effect, if any, has not been determined.

Early on 1 August 2010, a failure in cooling Loop A (starboard side), one of two external cooling loops, left the station with only half of its normal cooling capacity and zero redundancy in some systems.[262][263][264] The problem appeared to be in the ammonia pump module that circulates the ammonia cooling fluid. Several subsystems, including two of the four CMGs, were shut down.

Planned operations on the ISS were interrupted through a series of EVAs to address the cooling system issue. A first EVA on 7 August 2010, to replace the failed pump module, was not fully completed because of an ammonia leak in one of four quick-disconnects. A second EVA on 11 August successfully removed the failed pump module.[265][266] A third EVA was required to restore Loop A to normal functionality.[267][268]

The USOS's cooling system is largely built by the US company Boeing,[269] which is also the manufacturer of the failed pump.[270]

The four Main Bus Switching Units (MBSUs, located in the S0 truss), control the routing of power from the four solar array wings to the rest of the ISS. Each MBSU has two power channels that feed 160V DC from the arrays to two DC-to-DC power converters (DDCUs) that supply the 124V power used in the station. In late 2011 MBSU-1 ceased responding to commands or sending data confirming its health. While still routing power correctly, it was scheduled to be swapped out at the next available EVA. A spare MBSU was already on board, but a 30 August 2012 EVA failed to be completed when a bolt being tightened to finish installation of the spare unit jammed before the electrical connection was secured.[271] The loss of MBSU-1 limited the station to 75% of its normal power capacity, requiring minor limitations in normal operations until the problem could be addressed.

On 5 September 2012, in a second 6 hr EVA, astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide successfully replaced MBSU-1 and restored the ISS to 100% power.[272]

On 24 December 2013, astronauts installed a new ammonia pump for the station's cooling system. The faulty cooling system had failed earlier in the month, halting many of the station's science experiments. Astronauts had to brave a "mini blizzard" of ammonia while installing the new pump. It was only the second Christmas Eve spacewalk in NASA history.[273]

Fleet operations

A wide variety of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft have supported the station's activities. Thirty-seven Space Shuttle ISS flights were conducted before retirement. More than 70 Progress resupply spacecraft (including the modified M-MIM2 and M-SO1 module transports), more than 50 crewed Soyuz spacecraft, 5 European ATV, 8 Japanese HTV 'Kounotori', 15 SpaceX Dragon, and 10 Orbital ATK Cygnus have flown to the ISS.

Currently docked/berthed

See also the list of professional crew, private travellers, both or just uncrewed spaceflights.

Dragon and Cygnus cargo vessels were docked at the ISS together for the first time in April 2016.
Japan's Kounotori 4 berthing
  Uncrewed cargoships are in light blue
  Crewed spacecraft are in light green
Spacecraft and mission Location Arrival (UTC) Departure (planned)

  Soyuz MS-13 Expedition 60/61 Poisk zenith[274] 20 July 2019[275] 6 February 2020 TBC[276]
  Progress MS-12 Progress 73 cargo Pirs nadir 31 July 2019[277] December 2019 TBC
  Soyuz MS-15 Expedition 60/61 Zvezda aft 25 September 2019
  HTV-8 ISS resupply Harmony nadir 28 September 2019[278]

Soyuz MS-10 failure

Soyuz MS-10 (56S) aborted shortly after launch on 11 October 2018, resulting in the safe landing of two crew members slated to join Expedition 57 and a disruption of the schedule.[279] The on-orbit Expedition 57 crew optimally needed to depart by mid-December due to the limited on-orbit lifespan of Soyuz MS-09, with a small margin allowing a no later than early January departure. De-crewing the ISS is to be avoided if possible, although commanding the station from the ground is feasible if necessary.[280]

Soyuz flights to the ISS were resumed in December 2018. The Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft, carrying commander Oleg Kononenko and flight engineers Anne McClain and David Saint-Jacques, successfully launched and docked to the ISS on 3 December.[281] The Expedition 57 crew was able to depart on 20 December, with Expedition 58 beginning as a three-person increment.[282]

Scheduled missions

  • All dates are UTC. Dates are the earliest possible dates and may change.
  • Forward ports are at the front of the station according to its normal direction of travel and orientation (attitude). Aft is at the rear of the station, used by spacecraft boosting the station's orbit. Nadir is closest the Earth, Zenith is on top.
  Uncrewed cargo ships are in light blue colour
  Crewed spacecraft are in light green colour
  Modules are in wheat colour
Launch date (NET) Launch vehicle Launch site Launch service provider Payload Spacecraft Mission Docking / berthing port
21 October 2019[283] Antares 230   MARS Pad 0A   Northrop NG-12 Cygnus Cygnus 12 cargo Unity nadir
28 October 2019[284] Atlas V N22   Canaveral SLC-41   Boeing Boe-OFT Starliner Uncrewed test flight Harmony
4 December 2019[285][283] Falcon 9   LC-39A or SLC-40   SpaceX CRS-19 Dragon Dragon 19 cargo Harmony nadir
6 December 2019[166] Soyuz 2.1a   Baikonur Site 31/6   Roscosmos Progress MS-13 Progress Progress 74 cargo
Nauka equipment[286]
Pirs nadir
17 December 2019[287] Falcon 9   Kennedy LC-39A   SpaceX SpX-DM2 Dragon 2 Crewed test flight Harmony
30 December 2019[284] Atlas V N22   Canaveral SLC-41   Boeing Boe-CFT Starliner Crewed test flight
Expedition 62/63
March 2020[285][283] Falcon 9   LC-39A or SLC-40   SpaceX CRS-20 Dragon Dragon 20 cargo Harmony nadir
20 March 2020[166] Soyuz-2.1a   Baikonur Pad 1/5   Roscosmos Soyuz MS-16 (62S) Soyuz Expedition 63/64 Rassvet nadir
16 April 2020[166] Soyuz 2.1a   Baikonur Site 31/6   Roscosmos Progress MS-14 Progress Progress 75 cargo Zvezda aft
April 2020[283] Antares 230   MARS Pad 0A   Northrop NG-13 Cygnus Cygnus 13 cargo Unity nadir
May 2020[285] Falcon 9   Kennedy LC-39A   SpaceX USCV-1 Dragon 2 Expedition 64/65 Harmony
May 2020[288] H-IIB   Tanegashima Y2   JAXA Kounotori 9 HTV HTV 9 cargo Harmony nadir
15 July 2020[166] Soyuz 2.1a   Baikonur Site 31/6   Roscosmos Progress MS-15 Progress Progress 76 cargo Pirs nadir
August 2020[285][283] Falcon 9   LC-39A or SLC-40   SpaceX CRS-21 Dragon 2 Dragon 21 cargo Harmony nadir
September 2020[166] Soyuz 2.1a   Baikonur Site 31/6   Roscosmos Progress MS-16 Progress Progress 77 cargo Zvezda aft
21 October 2020[166] Soyuz-2.1a   Baikonur Pad 1/5   Roscosmos Soyuz MS-17 (63S) Soyuz Expedition 65/66 Poisk zenith
December 2020[166] Proton-M   Baikonur   Roscosmos Nauka[289] N/A Module assembly Zvezda nadir
December 2020[166] Soyuz 2.1a   Baikonur Site 31/6   Roscosmos Progress MS-17 Progress Progress 78 cargo Pirs nadir
2021 (TBD)[290] Vulcan 542   Canaveral SLC-41   ULA SNC-1 Dream Chaser Cargo test flight ?
2022 (TBD)[169] Soyuz 2.1b   Baikonur   Roscosmos Prichal Progress M-UM Module assembly Nauka nadir
2022 (TBD)[169] Proton-M   Baikonur   Roscosmos NEM-1 (SPM-1) N/A Module assembly Prichal


The Progress M-14M resupply vehicle as it approaches the ISS in 2012. Over 50 unpiloted Progress spacecraft have been sent with supplies during the lifetime of the station.
Space Shuttle Endeavour, ATV-2, Soyuz TMA-21 and Progress M-10M docked to the ISS, as seen from the departing Soyuz TMA-20.

All Russian spacecraft and self-propelled modules are able to rendezvous and dock to the space station without human intervention using the Kurs radar docking system from over 200 kilometres away. The European ATV uses star sensors and GPS to determine its intercept course. When it catches up it uses laser equipment to optically recognize Zvezda, along with the Kurs system for redundancy. Crew supervise these craft, but do not intervene except to send abort commands in emergencies. Progress and ATV supply craft can remain at the ISS for six months,[291][292] allowing great flexibility in crew time for loading and unloading of supplies and trash.

From the initial station programs, the Russians pursued an automated docking methodology that used the crew in override or monitoring roles. Although the initial development costs were high, the system has become very reliable with standardisations that provide significant cost benefits in repetitive operations.[293] An automated approach could also allow assembly of modules orbiting other worlds prior to crew arrival.

Soyuz spacecraft used for crew rotation also serve as lifeboats for emergency evacuation; they are replaced every six months and were used after the Columbia disaster to return stranded crew from the ISS.[294] Expeditions require, on average, 2,722 kg of supplies, and as of 9 March 2011, crews had consumed a total of around 22,000 meals.[77] Soyuz crew rotation flights and Progress resupply flights visit the station on average two and three times respectively each year,[295] with the ATV and HTV planned to visit annually from 2010 onwards.[citation needed]

Other vehicles berth instead of docking. The Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle parks itself in progressively closer orbits to the station, and then awaits 'approach' commands from the crew, until it is close enough for a robotic arm to grapple and berth the vehicle to the USOS. Berthed craft can transfer International Standard Payload Racks. Japanese spacecraft berth for one to two months.[296] The berthing Cygnus and Dragon are contracted to fly cargo to the station under the Commercial Resupply Services program.[297][298]

From 26 February 2011 to 7 March 2011 four of the governmental partners (United States, ESA, Japan and Russia) had their spacecraft (NASA Shuttle, ATV, HTV, Progress and Soyuz) docked at the ISS, the only time this has happened to date.[299] On 25 May 2012, SpaceX delivered the first commercial cargo with a Dragon spacecraft.[300]

Launch and docking windows

Prior to a ship's docking to the ISS, navigation and attitude control (GNC) is handed over to the ground control of the ships' country of origin. GNC is set to allow the station to drift in space, rather than fire its thrusters or turn using gyroscopes. The solar panels of the station are turned edge-on to the incoming ships, so residue from its thrusters does not damage the cells. Before its retirement, Shuttle launches were often given priority over Soyuz, with occasional priority given to Soyuz arrivals carrying crew and time-critical cargoes, such as biological experiment materials.[301]

The Soyuz is capable of landing anywhere, anytime, but planned landing times and places are chosen to give consideration to helicopter pilots and ground recovery crew to allow the crew to be recovered once landed. Soyuz launches occur in adverse weather conditions, but the cosmodrome has been shut down on occasions when buried by snow drifts up to 6 metres in depth, hampering ground operations.[citation needed]

Life aboard

Crew activities

Gregory Chamitoff peers out of a window
STS-122 mission specialists working on robotic equipment in the US lab

A typical day for the crew begins with a wake-up at 06:00, followed by post-sleep activities and a morning inspection of the station. The crew then eats breakfast and takes part in a daily planning conference with Mission Control before starting work at around 08:10. The first scheduled exercise of the day follows, after which the crew continues work until 13:05. Following a one-hour lunch break, the afternoon consists of more exercise and work before the crew carries out its pre-sleep activities beginning at 19:30, including dinner and a crew conference. The scheduled sleep period begins at 21:30. In general, the crew works ten hours per day on a weekday, and five hours on Saturdays, with the rest of the time their own for relaxation or work catch-up.[302]

The time zone used aboard the ISS is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The windows are covered at night hours to give the impression of darkness because the station experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. During visiting Space Shuttle missions, the ISS crew mostly follows the shuttle's Mission Elapsed Time (MET), which is a flexible time zone based on the launch time of the Space Shuttle mission.[303][304][305]

The station provides crew quarters for each member of the expedition's crew, with two 'sleep stations' in the Zvezda and four more installed in Harmony.[306][307] The USOS quarters are private, approximately person-sized soundproof booths. The ROS crew quarters include a small window, but provide less ventilation and sound proofing. A crew member can sleep in a crew quarter in a tethered sleeping bag, listen to music, use a laptop, and store personal items in a large drawer or in nets attached to the module's walls. The module also provides a reading lamp, a shelf and a desktop.[308][309][310] Visiting crews have no allocated sleep module, and attach a sleeping bag to an available space on a wall. It is possible to sleep floating freely through the station, but this is generally avoided because of the possibility of bumping into sensitive equipment.[311] It is important that crew accommodations be well ventilated; otherwise, astronauts can wake up oxygen-deprived and gasping for air, because a bubble of their own exhaled carbon dioxide has formed around their heads.[308] During various station activities and crew rest times, the lights in the ISS can be dimmed, switched off, and color temperatures adjusted.[312]


The crews of STS-127 and Expedition 20 enjoy a meal inside Unity.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also grown in the International Space Station

On the USOS, most of the food aboard is vacuum sealed in plastic bags; cans are rare because they are heavy and expensive to transport. Preserved food is not highly regarded by the crew and taste is reduced in microgravity,[308] so efforts are taken to make the food more palatable, including using more spices than in regular cooking. The crew looks forward to the arrival of any ships from Earth as they bring fresh fruit and vegetables. Care is taken that foods do not create crumbs, and liquid condiments are preferred over solid to avoid contaminating station equipment. Each crew member has individual food packages and cooks them using the on-board galley. The galley features two food warmers, a refrigerator which was added in November 2008, and a water dispenser that provides both heated and unheated water.[309] Drinks are provided as dehydrated powder that is mixed with water before consumption.[309][310] Drinks and soups are sipped from plastic bags with straws, while solid food is eaten with a knife and fork attached to a tray with magnets to prevent them from floating away. Any food that floats away, including crumbs, must be collected to prevent it from clogging the station's air filters and other equipment.[310]


Space toilet in the Zvezda service module
The main toilet in the US Segment inside the Node 3 module

Showers on space stations were introduced in the early 1970s on Skylab and Salyut 3.[313]:139 By Salyut 6, in the early 1980s, the crew complained of the complexity of showering in space, which was a monthly activity.[314] The ISS does not feature a shower; instead, crewmembers wash using a water jet and wet wipes, with soap dispensed from a toothpaste tube-like container. Crews are also provided with rinseless shampoo and edible toothpaste to save water.[311][315]

There are two space toilets on the ISS, both of Russian design, located in Zvezda and Tranquility.[309] These Waste and Hygiene Compartments use a fan-driven suction system similar to the Space Shuttle Waste Collection System. Astronauts first fasten themselves to the toilet seat, which is equipped with spring-loaded restraining bars to ensure a good seal.[308] A lever operates a powerful fan and a suction hole slides open: the air stream carries the waste away. Solid waste is collected in individual bags which are stored in an aluminium container. Full containers are transferred to Progress spacecraft for disposal.[309][316] Liquid waste is evacuated by a hose connected to the front of the toilet, with anatomically correct "urine funnel adapters" attached to the tube so that men and women can use the same toilet. The diverted urine is collected and transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is recycled into drinking water.[310]

Crew health and safety


On 12 April 2019, NASA reported medical results from the Astronaut Twin Study. One astronaut twin spent a year in space on the ISS, while the other twin spent the year on Earth. Several long-lasting changes were observed, including those related to alterations in DNA and cognition, when one twin was compared with the other.[317][318]


Video of the Aurora Australis taken by the crew of Expedition 28 on an ascending pass from south of Madagascar to just north of Australia over the Indian Ocean.

The ISS is partially protected from the space environment by Earth's magnetic field. From an average distance of about 70,000 km (43,000 mi), depending on Solar activity, the magnetosphere begins to deflect solar wind around Earth and ISS. Solar flares are still a hazard to the crew, who may receive only a few minutes warning. In 2005, during the initial 'proton storm' of an X-3 class solar flare, the crew of Expedition 10 took shelter in a more heavily shielded part of the ROS designed for this purpose.[319][320]

Subatomic charged particles, primarily protons from cosmic rays and solar wind, are normally absorbed by Earth's atmosphere. When they interact in sufficient quantity, their effect is visible to the naked eye in a phenomenon called an aurora. Outside Earth's atmosphere, crews are exposed to about 1 millisievert each day, which is about a year of natural exposure on Earth, resulting in a higher risk of cancer. Radiation can penetrate living tissue and damage the DNA and chromosomes of lymphocytes. These cells are central to the immune system, and so any damage to them could contribute to the lower immunity experienced by astronauts. Radiation has also been linked to a higher incidence of cataracts in astronauts. Protective shielding and drugs may lower risks to an acceptable level.[43]

Radiation levels on the ISS are about five times greater than those experienced by airline passengers and crew, as Earth's electromagnetic field provides almost the same level of protection against solar and other radiation in low Earth orbit as in the stratosphere. For example, on a 12-hour flight an airline passenger would experience 0.1 millisieverts of radiation, or a rate of 0.2 millisieverts per day; only 1/5 the rate experienced by an astronaut in LEO. Additionally, airline passengers experience this level of radiation for a few hours of flight, while ISS crew are exposed for their whole stay.[321]


Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin at work inside Zvezda service module crew quarters

There is considerable evidence that psychosocial stressors are among the most important impediments to optimal crew morale and performance.[322] Cosmonaut Valery Ryumin wrote in his journal during a particularly difficult period on board the Salyut 6 space station: "All the conditions necessary for murder are met if you shut two men in a cabin measuring 18 feet by 20 and leave them together for two months."

NASA's interest in psychological stress caused by space travel, initially studied when their crewed missions began, was rekindled when astronauts joined cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. Common sources of stress in early US missions included maintaining high performance under public scrutiny and isolation from peers and family. The latter is still often a cause of stress on the ISS, such as when the mother of NASA Astronaut Daniel Tani died in a car accident, and when Michael Fincke was forced to miss the birth of his second child.

A study of the longest spaceflight concluded that the first three weeks are a critical period where attention is adversely affected because of the demand to adjust to the extreme change of environment.[323] ISS crew flights typically last about five to six months.

The ISS working environment includes further stress caused by living and working in cramped conditions with people from very different cultures who speak a different language. First-generation space stations had crews who spoke a single language; second- and third-generation stations have crew from many cultures who speak many languages. Astronauts must speak English and Russian, and knowing additional languages is even better.[324]

Due to the lack of gravity, confusion often occurs. Even though there is no up and down in space, some crew members feel like they are oriented upside down. They may also have difficulty measuring distances. This can cause problems like getting lost inside the space station, pulling switches in the wrong direction or misjudging the speed of an approaching vehicle during docking.[325]


Astronaut Frank De Winne is attached to the TVIS treadmill with bungee cords aboard the International Space Station

Medical effects of long-term weightlessness include muscle atrophy, deterioration of the skeleton (osteopenia), fluid redistribution, a slowing of the cardiovascular system, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, and a weakening of the immune system. Lesser symptoms include loss of body mass, and puffiness of the face.[43]

Sleep is disturbed on the ISS regularly because of mission demands, such as incoming or departing ships. Sound levels in the station are unavoidably high. Because the atmosphere is unable to thermosiphon, fans are required at all times to allow processing of the atmosphere which would stagnate in the freefall (zero-g) environment.

To prevent some of these adverse physiological effects, the station is equipped with two treadmills (including the COLBERT), and the aRED (advanced Resistive Exercise Device) which enables various weightlifting exercises which add muscle but do not compensate for or raise astronauts' reduced bone density,[326] and a stationary bicycle; each astronaut spends at least two hours per day exercising on the equipment.[308][309] Astronauts use bungee cords to strap themselves to the treadmill.[327][328]

Microbiological environmental hazards

Hazardous moulds which can foul air and water filters may develop aboard space stations. They can produce acids which degrade metal, glass, and rubber. They can also be harmful for the crew's health. Microbiological hazards have led to a development of the LOCAD-PTS that can identify common bacteria and moulds faster than standard methods of culturing, which may require a sample to be sent back to Earth.[329] As of 2012, 76 types of unregulated micro-organisms have been detected on the ISS.[330] Researchers in 2018 reported, after detecting the presence of five Enterobacter bugandensis bacterial strains on the ISS, none pathogenic to humans, that microorganisms on ISS should be carefully monitored to continue assuring a medically healthy environment for astronauts.[331][332]

Reduced humidity, paint with mould-killing chemicals, and antiseptic solutions can be used to prevent contamination in space stations. All materials used in the ISS are tested for resistance against fungi.[333]

In April 2019, NASA reported that a comprehensive study of microorganisms and fungi present on the International Space Station has been conducted. The results can be useful in improving health and safety conditions for astronauts.[334][335]

Fire and toxic gases

An onboard fire or a toxic gas leak are other potential hazards. Ammonia is used in the external radiators of the station and could potentially leak into the pressurised modules.[336]

Orbital debris threats

A 7 g object (shown in centre) shot at 7 km/s (23,000 ft/s), the orbital velocity of the ISS, made this 15 cm (5.9 in) crater in a solid block of aluminium.
Radar-trackable objects, including debris, with distinct ring of geostationary satellites

The low altitudes at which the ISS orbits are also home to a variety of space debris,[337] including spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, explosion fragments (including materials from anti-satellite weapon tests), paint flakes, slag from solid rocket motors, and coolant released by US-A nuclear-powered satellites. These objects, in addition to natural micrometeoroids,[338] are a significant threat. Objects large enough to destroy the station can be tracked, and are not as dangerous as smaller debris.[339][340] Objects too small to be detected by optical and radar instruments, from approximately 1 cm down to microscopic size, number in the trillions. Despite their small size, some of these objects are a threat because of their kinetic energy and direction in relation to the station. Spacewalking crew in spacesuits are also at risk of suit damage and consequent exposure to vacuum.[341]

Ballistic panels, also called micrometeorite shielding, are incorporated into the station to protect pressurised sections and critical systems. The type and thickness of these panels depend on their predicted exposure to damage. The station's shields and structure have different designs on the ROS and the USOS. On the USOS, Whipple shields are used. The US segment modules consist of an inner layer made from 1.5 cm thick aluminum, a 10 cm thick intermediate layers of Kevlar and Nextel, and an outer layer of stainless steel, which causes objects to shatter into a cloud before hitting the hull, thereby spreading the energy of impact. On the ROS, a carbon plastic honeycomb screen is spaced from the hull, an aluminium honeycomb screen is spaced from that, with a screen-vacuum thermal insulation covering, and glass cloth over the top.[citation needed]

Example of risk management: A NASA model showing areas at high risk from impact for the International Space Station.

Space debris is tracked remotely from the ground, and the station crew can be notified.[342] If necessary, thrusters on the Russian Orbital Segment can alter the station's orbital altitude, avoiding the debris. These Debris Avoidance Manoeuvres (DAMs) are not uncommon, taking place if computational models show the debris will approach within a certain threat distance. Ten DAMs had been performed by the end of 2009.[343][344][345] Usually, an increase in orbital velocity of the order of 1 m/s is used to raise the orbit by one or two kilometres.If necessary, the altitude can also be lowered, although such a maneuver wastes propellant.[344][346] If a threat from orbital debris is identified too late for a DAM to be safely conducted, the station crew close all the hatches aboard the station and retreat into their Soyuz spacecraft in order to be able to evacuate in the event the station was seriously damaged by the debris. This partial station evacuation has occurred on 13 March 2009, 28 June 2011, 24 March 2012 and 16 June 2015.[347][348]

End of mission

Many ISS resupply spacecraft have already undergone atmospheric re-entry, such as Jules Verne ATV

According to the Outer Space Treaty, the United States and Russia are legally responsible for all modules they have launched.[349] Natural orbital decay with random reentry (as with Skylab), boosting the station to a higher altitude (which would delay reentry), and a controlled targeted de-orbit to a remote ocean area were considered as ISS disposal options.[350] As of late 2010, the preferred plan is to use a slightly modified Progress spacecraft to de-orbit the ISS.[351] This plan was seen as the simplest, cheapest and with the highest margin.[351]

The Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEK) was previously intended to be constructed of modules from the Russian Orbital Segment after the ISS is decommissioned. The modules under consideration for removal from the current ISS included the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (Nauka), planned to be launched in December 2020 as of September 2019,[166] and the other new Russian modules that are proposed to be attached to Nauka. These newly launched modules would still be well within their useful lives in 2020 or 2024.[352]

At the end of 2011, the Exploration Gateway Platform concept also proposed using leftover USOS hardware and Zvezda 2 as a refuelling depot and service station located at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. However, the entire USOS was not designed for disassembly and will be discarded.[353]

In February 2015, Roscosmos announced that it would remain a part of the ISS programme until 2024.[15] Nine months earlier—in response to US sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea—Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had stated that Russia would reject a US request to prolong the orbiting station's use beyond 2020, and would only supply rocket engines to the US for non-military satellite launches.[354]

On 28 March 2015, Russian sources announced that Roscosmos and NASA had agreed to collaborate on the development of a replacement for the current ISS.[355][356] Igor Komarov, the head of Russia's Roscosmos, made the announcement with NASA administrator Charles Bolden at his side.[357] In a statement provided to SpaceNews on 28 March, NASA spokesman David Weaver said the agency appreciated the Russian commitment to extending the ISS, but did not confirm any plans for a future space station.[358]

On 30 September 2015, Boeing's contract with NASA as prime contractor for the ISS was extended to 30 September 2020. Part of Boeing's services under the contract will relate to extending the station's primary structural hardware past 2020 to the end of 2028.[359]

Regarding extending the ISS, on 15 November 2016 General Director Vladimir Solntsev of RSC Energia stated "Maybe the ISS will receive continued resources. Today we discussed the possibility of using the station until 2028," with discussion to continue under the new presidential administration.[360][361] There have also been suggestions that the station could be converted to commercial operations after it is retired by government entities.[362]

In July 2018, the Space Frontier Act of 2018 was intended to extend operations of the ISS to 2030. This bill was unanimously approved in the Senate, but failed to pass in the U.S. House.[363][364] In September 2018, the Leading Human Spaceflight Act was introduced with the intent to extend operations of the ISS to 2030, and was confirmed in December 2018.[17][365][366]


The ISS has been described as the most expensive single item ever constructed.[367] In 2010 the cost was expected to be $150 billion. This includes NASA's budget of $58.7 billion (inflation-unadjusted) for the station from 1985 to 2015 ($72.4 billion in 2010 dollars), Russia's $12 billion, Europe's $5 billion, Japan's $5 billion, Canada's $2 billion, and the cost of 36 shuttle flights to build the station; estimated at $1.4 billion each, or $50.4 billion in total. Assuming 20,000 person-days of use from 2000 to 2015 by two- to six-person crews, each person-day would cost $7.5 million, less than half the inflation-adjusted $19.6 million ($5.5 million before inflation) per person-day of Skylab.[368]

International co-operation

Dated 29 January 1998
Participating countries

Sightings from Earth

The ISS and HTV photographed from Earth by Ralf Vandebergh
A time exposure of a station pass
Simulated motion of the ISS over North America, with 12 second motion markers and vertical lines projecting down to the surface of Earth. The ISS is shown red when it enters the earth's shadow and cannot be seen from Earth. It is only easily visible in the twilight interval of night just after sunset, or before sunrise.

Naked eye

The ISS is visible to the naked eye as a slow-moving, bright white dot because of reflected sunlight, and can be seen in the hours after sunset and before sunrise, when the station remains sunlit but the ground and sky are dark.[370] The ISS takes about 10 minutes to pass from one horizon to another, and will only be visible part of that time because of moving into or out of the Earth's shadow. Because of the size of its reflective surface area, the ISS is the brightest artificial object in the sky, excluding flares, with an approximate maximum magnitude of −4 when overhead (similar to Venus). The ISS, like many satellites including the Iridium constellation, can also produce flares of up to 8 or 16 times the brightness of Venus as sunlight glints off reflective surfaces.[371][372] The ISS is also visible in broad daylight, albeit with a great deal more difficulty.

Tools are provided by a number of websites such as Heavens-Above (see Live viewing below) as well as smartphone applications that use orbital data and the observer's longitude and latitude to indicate when the ISS will be visible (weather permitting), where the station will appear to rise, the altitude above the horizon it will reach and the duration of the pass before the station disappears either by setting below the horizon or entering into Earth's shadow.[373][374][375][376]

In November 2012 NASA launched its "Spot the Station" service, which sends people text and email alerts when the station is due to fly above their town.[377] The station is visible from 95% of the inhabited land on Earth, but is not visible from extreme northern or southern latitudes.[239]


The ISS as it transits the sun during an eclipse (4 frame composite image)

Using a telescope-mounted camera to photograph the station is a popular hobby for astronomers,[378] while using a mounted camera to photograph the Earth and stars is a popular hobby for crew.[379] The use of a telescope or binoculars allows viewing of the ISS during daylight hours.[380]

Some amateur astronomers also use telescopic lenses to photograph the ISS while it transits the sun, sometimes doing so during an eclipse (and so the Sun, Moon, and ISS are all positioned approximately in a single line). One example is during the 21 August solar eclipse, where at one location in Wyoming, images of the ISS were captured during the eclipse.[381] Similar images were captured by NASA from a location in Washington.

Parisian engineer and astrophotographer Thierry Legault, known for his photos of spaceships transiting the Sun, travelled to Oman in 2011 to photograph the Sun, Moon and space station all lined up.[382] Legault, who received the Marius Jacquemetton award from the Société astronomique de France in 1999, and other hobbyists, use websites that predict when the ISS will transit the Sun or Moon and from what location those passes will be visible.

See also


  1. ^ Privately funded travellers who have objected to the term include Dennis Tito, the first such traveller (Associated Press, 8 May 2001), Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu (Associated Press, The Spokesman Review, 6 January 2002, p. A4), Gregory Olsen and Richard Garriott.[228][229] Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk said the term does not seem appropriate, referring to his crewmate, Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil.[230] Anousheh Ansari denied being a tourist[231] and took offence at the term.[232]
  2. ^ ESA director Jörg Feustel-Büechl said in 2001 that Russia had no right to send 'amateurs' to the ISS. A 'stand-off' occurred at the Johnson Space Center between Commander Talgat Musabayev and NASA manager Robert Cabana. Cabana refused to train Dennis Tito, a member of Musabayev's crew along with Yuri Baturin. The commander argued that Tito had trained 700 hours in the last year and was as qualified as any NASA astronaut, and refused to allow his crew to be trained on the USOS without Tito. Cabana stated training could not begin, and the commander returned with his crew to their hotel.


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