How the International Space Station Works

The ISS is a collaboration between five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. It is funded by the participating countries and operates under an international legal framework.

The space race between the Americans and the Russians took a significant turn on November 20, 1998. President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build an international space station, to facilitate quantum leaps in scientific research. What then began as a collaboration with Europe and Japan soon became an international venture, with Russia invited in 1993, and all five space agencies getting on board by 1998.

Weighing nearly 400 tons(400.000 kg), the International Space Station covers an area almost as long as a football field, with each solar array spanning 112 feet long(3,5 m). Constructing such a structure and launching it into space all at once would have been impossible, with no rocket large enough or powerful enough. As a result, the Space Station launched in pieces and gradually assembled in orbit in over 40 missions.

The ISS is designed as a series of linked, cylindrical modules powered by the sun and cooled by heat-radiating loops divided between the two major segments of the station: the Russia-operated Russian Orbital Segment, and the US segment that includes contributions from different countries. Both are linked to a larger structural truss housing solar arrays and thermal radiators, and generate power and house laboratories, docking ports, and living quarters. 

Kibo, a Japanese science laboratory space used for experiments in space vacuum, is the biggest module on the US side. Node 3, also known as the Tranquility module, houses the cupola providing astronauts with breathtaking views of the Earth. 

Keeping the station cool can be challenging, with the sun heating one side, and the cold vacuum of space freezing the other. To tackle this situation, solar arrays have been mounted on a "blanket,"  delivered to space folded, and then deployed to full size once in orbit. These are arrays capable of rotation to face the sun for maximum power generation. The four array sets generate up to 120 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power over 40 homes.

Unfortunately, all is not well aboard the International Space Station, with the engineering marvel likely facing decommission. Recent air leaks in the living quarters have only worsened this worry. NASA anticipates commercial low-Earth orbit stations launched by private companies, such as Blue Origin, to replace the ISS. Moreover, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has already expressed its intent to construct its own station after it leaves the ISS in 2024. Barring any miracles, the ISS will deorbit in 2031, with debris directed toward the Earth’s farthest point from land, Point Nemo.