November 20, 2018

Twenty years of the ISS – the most unlikely machine humanity has ever built

  • On 20 November 1998, a Russian Proton rocket took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome and carried the first element of the ISS, the Zarya module, into orbit.
  • Over the following years, up until 2012, numerous other modules and components were added, increasingly building up the ISS into an extensive research station.
  • Germany is involved in around 37 percent of operations and roughly 45 percent of the scientific activities on the ISS, making it the Station's foremost European partner.
  • Focus: human spaceflight, ISS, international collaboration

Twenty years ago today, on 20 November 1998, a Russian Proton rocket took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and carried the first component of the International Space Station, the Zarya module (Zarya is Russian for sunrise), into Earth orbit. Sixteen days later, on 6 December 1998, the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour joined the Russian Zarya module together with the US Unity connecting node. This docking manoeuvre represented much more than just an impressive technical achievement. It was a visible event marking the start of the biggest collaborative project ever to take place among people in space. Lasting international cooperation between Russia, the US, Europe, Canada and Japan was thus achieved for the first time in space. Through the European Space Agency (ESA), Germany is involved in around 37 per cent of operations and roughly 45 per cent of the scientific activities on the ISS, making it the station's foremost European partner. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Space Administration in Bonn coordinates and manages these contributions to the ESA. As a centre of research, DLR has also been and still is involved in numerous experiments on board the Space Station.

The launch of the Proton rocket carrying the Zarya module is already considered as a historic endeavour, marking not only the transportation of the first ISS component into Earth’s orbit, but also the beginning of the most intense flight phase in the history of space travel. Ever since, the Space Station has garnered plenty of acclaim, and the ISS is often referred to as our outpost in space. It is testament to the overcoming of the Cold War and to the peaceful cooperation in space for the benefit of all. "It is also an ideal test environment for new technologies and scientific disciplines, not to mention a unique laboratory for experiments that cannot be conducted at any scientific facility on Earth,” says Volker Schmid, Head of the ISS Expert Group at DLR.

Many other modules and structural components were added in the years leading up to 2012. The components, which were transported on Russian carrier rockets or the US Space Shuttle, were added to the ISS in 32 stages of expansion to make it into an extensive research station. It took 42 flights for the modules and large components to be carried into orbit. While the first building block of the ISS, the 12.6-metre-long Zarya module, weighed some 20 tonnes, in its current form the ISS has a total mass of around 420 tonnes. Today, the space station consists of six research laboratories, two living units, an observation dome (the Cupola), several storage spaces, connecting nodes, docking facilities and robotic arms. Its residents live and work in a space of around 1000 cubic metres – about as much room as on a Boeing 747.

Astronauts have been present on the space station since November 2000. Soon after, in February 2001, the US Destiny module docked onto the Space Station as its first research unit. This allowed scientific activities to be carried out at an altitude of 400 kilometres, in permanent microgravity conditions.

DLR has been 'present' on board the ISS from the very beginning. In fact, it was a German-Russian experiment investigating cold plasmas that marked the beginning of scientific research on the space station, back in February 2001. The plasma crystal experiments are among the most successful research projects to have taken place on the ISS. Over 70 scientific publications have documented the new knowledge gained from the experiments carried out over the last 15 years. Such work has led to fundamental insights relating to solid-state and fluid physics in particular, while also facilitating applications for space physics, plasma physics, plasma technology and fusion research.

The Columbus space laboratory has been the centrepiece of European research on the International Space Station for 10 years. Microgravity conditions allow researchers to gain unique insights in an array of disciplines, ranging from astrophysics and materials research to psychology and medical treatment options. The Columbus laboratory was developed on behalf of ESA, under close supervision by DLR. The German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen controls and supervises the operation of the European space laboratory. Overall, the various ISS crews have completed more than 2500 experiments to date. Over 360 ESA experiments have been conducted on board the ISS so far, of which around half were developed by Germany. The DLR Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) in Cologne oversees and monitors materials science experiments.

Hans Schlegels is inextricably associated with the successful docking of the Columbus laboratory to the ISS. The German astronaut embarked on his journey to the Space Station on board the Atlantis Space Shuttle on 7 February 2008. He spent almost seven hours outside the ISS working on the assembly. Schlegel was the second German, after Thomas Reiter, to perform an extra-vehicular activity. Reiter opened a new chapter in summer 2006, when he became the first European astronaut to be sent on a long-duration mission to space. He spent almost six months on the station, during which time he performed over 30 scientific experiments alongside his service and maintenance tasks. The third German to form part of an ISS crew is Alexander Gerst, who spent six months working as a flight engineer on the Space Station during the Blue Dot mission in 2014. The 42-year-old physicist began his second long-term stay in June 2018, with the horizons mission. On 3 October, he became the first German and the second European to assume command of the ISS. Not only has Alexander Gerst sent us stunning pictures of our blue planet from Earth orbit, but he has also provided us with another description of the Space Station as: "The most complex, valuable and unlikely machine humanity has ever built, for the benefit of all."

The current horizons mission involves around 100 scientists, engineers and programme managers from all over Germany working on 41 German experiments.

Germany on the ISS
The International Space Station (ISS) is the biggest technological project in history. It is operated jointly by the USA, Russia, the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), Canada and Japan. The DLR Space Administration in Bonn coordinates Germany’s contributions to ESA programmes for the expansion, operation and use of the ISS, and is responsible for implementing the national programme for this purpose. The Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) assists scientists in the preparation, implementation and evaluation of German and European space experiments. The European Astronaut Centre (EAC) is responsible for training the astronauts and the operations teams working in the Columbus laboratory, in conjunction with DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training. The Columbus Control Center at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen oversees operations on board the ISS module in close coordination with the NASA control centres in Houston and Huntsville.


Martin Schulz

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR, Strategy and Communications

Volker Schmid

ISS Specialist Group Leader, Head of the Cosmic Kiss Mission
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR
Science and Exploration
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn