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How the International Space Station Works

Parts and Assembly of the International Space Station

International Space Station
Five spaceships are parked at the International Space Station including the SpaceX Dragon space freighter, the Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply ship and Russia's Progress 74 resupply ship and Soyuz MS-13 and MS-15 crew ships. NASA

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Building the International Space Station (ISS) is much like building a toy using a child's LEGO or K'nex building block set. But whereas those playthings tend to be small in scale, the ISS contains thousands and thousands of parts [source: Hollingham].

Some of the major components are listed below:

  • Pressurized modules such as the Zarya, Zvezda, Destiny, Columbus and Harmony provide breathable, warm environments for living quarters, equipment rooms and laboratories where the crews live and work [source: NASA].
  • Nodes are small modules that link the bigger ones together, allowing astronauts to traverse the station and move equipment around [source: ESA].
  • Docking portslet various space vehiclesattach themselves to the ISS [source: Howell].
  • The Integrated Truss Structure is a long, linear girder framework above the pressurized modules. This is an anchoring point for solar panels — and for the radiators that help control the station's temperature. It also contains the Mobile Base System's rail lines [source: NASA].
  • The Mobile Base System is a traveling work platform that runs along the truss structure rails. Onboard, there's a set of robotic arms that haul cargo and experiment packages [source: NASA].
  • External Research and Payload Accommodations provide multiple mounting locations along the outside of the ISS for experiments that can't be conducted within the facility [source: NASA].
  • Spacecraft such as the Soyuz spacecraft and Progress supply ship dock with the ISS to transport astronauts and supplies to and from Earth.

Assembly of the ISS began in November 1998 when a Russian proton rocket placed the first module, the Functional Cargo Block (Zarya), in orbit. A three-member crew, the ISS's first, was launched from Russia Oct. 31, 2000. The crew spent four months and 17 days aboard the ISS, activating systems and conducting experiments.

Since then, many spacecraft have delivered parts of the ISS into orbit and its assembly has progressed. During this time, the ISS has been manned continuously — as of this writing, 61 astronaut expeditions have successfully reached the station.

The station's current crew took over Oct. 3, 2019. Those brave men and women are the members of ISS Expedition 61 and they're scheduled to remain in space until February 2020. At that point, they'll hand over the reins to Expedition 62 [source: NASA].

As home offices go, the ISS is pretty darn big. At 357 feet (108.8 meters) in length, the aforementioned truss is almost as long as an American football field. The ISS also contains multiple sets of broad, rectangular solar panels with 240-foot (73-meter) wingspans. Weight-wise, the station tips the scales at 925,335 pounds (419,725 kilograms). And it has 13,696 cubic feet (388 cubic meters) of habitable space aboard, a figure that increases every time another vessel docks there [source: NASA].

Traveling at the breakneck speed of 17,227 miles per hour (27,724 kilometers per hour), the ISS orbits at an average altitude of 248 miles (400 kilometers) above the Earth's surface [sources: Conners and Howell].

Those are some pretty impressive specs, but perhaps even more impressive is how the ISS maintains a livable environment.

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