The nascent International Space Station (ISS), including left to right: a Progress cargo ship, the Zvezda Service Module, the Zarya FGB control module and the Unity module, photographed by a departing Shuttle crew. Image credit: NASA

Jul 8, 2015 Heart of ISS to go into record books

Sen—This weekend, the cornerstone of the International Space Station (ISS) will mark its 15th anniversary in space. The 20-ton Russian-built Zvezda (star) Service Module blasted off into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 12, 2000. Following a 10-minute ride on a Proton rocket, the Zvezda successfully made it into Earth's orbit, finally turning the ISS into a reality.

Fifteen years later, the heart of the ISS has beaten the record of the now deorbited Mir space station as the longest-serving human habitat in space. Moreover, with a projected retirement of the ISS in 2024, the service module is now slated to circle the planet for nearly quarter of a century or maybe even longer.


The interior of Zvezda's front section, which serves as a main crossroads for the Russian-built modules of the station. Image credit: NASA

Although two earlier components of the ISS have been in space since the end of 1998, the embryonic station could not host people onboard except for short visits until the arrival of the Zvezda module. It was the service module, which was designed to provide all key life-support functions for the crew, to boost the station's constantly decaying orbit and keep humanity's biggest structure in space from spinning out of control.

Interestingly, the origin of the Zvezda Service Module and the wider Russian contribution into the ISS project might be considered a good illustration of how the history of relations between West and East is sometimes misunderstood and misinterpreted, despite this particular episode having played out two decades ago.

According to a popular Western account, the U.S. invitation to Russia to join the ISS stemmed from an effort by Clinton's White House to keep Russian "rocket scientists" employed at home instead of them going to Iran to build ballistic missiles.

Besides a crude definition of a "rocket scientist," which eliminates the need to explain how specialized engineers in the narrow field of human spaceflight could suddenly start designing military missiles, the theory does not hold water on several other key points.

If the aim of the U.S. invitation to Moscow was purely political, why was Russia offered a "driver seat" in the project and asked to bring the whole complement of its spacecraft, including the critical service module, Soyuz and Progress? Wouldn't it have been been more prudent, if the objective was political, simply to offer the Kremlin a deal to build non-critical components for the station, like science laboratories or storage modules, while NASA retained responsibility for irreplaceable core functions of the whole project? And, even if Russia was in a position to demand such a huge role, why did NASA not back it up with its own propulsion, life-support, refueling and emergency evacuation capabilities?

I would argue that a self-congratulating myth about the U.S. keeping Russian engineers employed was invented to cover NASA's own inability to develop critical components of the station under an ever-shrinking budget. The invitation to Russia was an effort not only spread the cost of the project, but also to obtain the capabilities that NASA simply did not have.

It is worth remembering that when the Reagan Administration first approved in 1984 what would become the Space Station Freedom and later the ISS, the project relied completely on the Space Shuttle for its assembly and servicing. However in 1986, the Challenger disaster seriously crippled the orbiter's future flight rate and reliability, while the space station faced increasing budget cuts if not outright cancellation. In the following years, the Freedom space station project survived several scale downs, which severely degraded its original architecture.

As a result, the station arrived at the end of the Cold War still on the ground and without any prospects of funding for its own propulsion or for a dedicated lifeboat, which would take the crew back to Earth, when the Shuttle was not around! (That would be most of the time, because the Shuttle could not stay in space for more than a week or two during each mission, while the station was expected to be continuously occupied.) To make matters worse, various technical problems often kept the Shuttle grounded, sometimes for many months at a time, putting the future space station at risk of being left stranded without any way to boost its orbit or to repair a critical system. At the same time, the development of an alternative transportation system would take years, even under the best financial conditions, which were nowhere in sight.

As a result, by the end of 1992, the NASA-led space station project dithered on the brink of collapse. Fortunately, with the end of the Cold War came Russian proposals to merge Freedom with the Mir-2 space station, which was also stuck on the ground under the wreck of the USSR.

NASA was initially cool to the idea, but after exhausting all other options during the first half of 1993, the agency simply had no choice but to take up Russia on its offer.

In the end, already available Russian hardware essentially saved the multi-national project from financial and engineering bankruptcy. Essentially, the Zvezda, the Soyuz and the Progress were the real reasons why Russia was invited into the international partnership in 1993, despite the nation's nearly catastrophic economic situation and the uncertain political future in the aftermath of the post-Soviet collapse. Amazingly, as a U.S. delegation came to Moscow to discuss the final details of the Russian involvement in the ISS at the beginning of October 1993, the Americans found themselves in a middle of a civil war situation, with tanks and troops loyal to president Boris Yeltsin firing on hundreds of unruly opposition members held up in the parliament building.

Despite this vivid lesson in Russian politics, the Clinton Administration pressed ahead with the agreement and by December of the same year the Russian space agency stood in what would become known as the "critical path" of the multi-billion-dollar project. Until that day, it was an exclusive club of top Western powers—the U.S., Europe, Canada and Japan. Walking out of the meeting with a NASA delegation in those days, Deputy Director of RKA, Valery Alaverdov told the author of this blog that he could hardly believe the luck befallen on the Russian space program, which was all but written off for dead.


The Zvezda Service Module under construction in Moscow. Image credit: NASA

However in the following years, cheap oil kept the Russian economy on its knees, making it nearly impossible for the Kremlin to fund its contribution into the ISS project. As a result, the construction of the service module fell almost two years behind schedule. To make matters worse, the Proton rocket, which had to deliver the irreplaceable Zvezda into orbit, suffered two catastrophic failures right on the eve of the launch in 1999.

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, the price tag of the project continued to escalate, in part due to Russian delays and partly due to NASA's own problems with its components. Still, the Republican members of Congress, eager to score political points, aimed a wave of criticism toward the Clinton Administration and NASA for their decision to let Moscow into "the critical path" of the project, as if there was any alternative. That's when the story about employing Russian "rocket scientists" became especially popular.

In any case, after a marathon investigation into the Proton failures of 1999 and the last-ditch efforts to complete the service module, the beleaguered spacecfaft finally made it to the launch pad in the first week of July 2000. As the launch personnel in Baikonur started the ignition sequence, there was no alternative but a successful launch. Amazingly, the ISS architecture included a dozen of modules, but the loss of this single component would doom 20 years of efforts by engineers and politicians on three continents. Fortunately, the Proton performed by the book delivering a destination for space travelers around the world for the next three decades.


The Zvezda Service Module aboard a Proton rocket lifts off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 12, 2000. Image credit: NASA