How Space Stations Work

The International Space Station (ISS)

The International Space Station
Image courtesy of NASA

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan proposed that the United States, in cooperation with other countries, build a permanently inhabited space station. Reagan envisioned a station that would have government and industry support. To help with the enormous costs of the station, the U.S. forged a cooperative effort with 14 other countries (Canada, Japan, Brazil, and the European Space Agency, which is comprised of: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden). During the planning of the ISS and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States invited Russia to cooperate in the ISS in 1993; this brought the number of participating countries to 16. NASA took the lead in coordinating the ISS's construction.

The assembly of the ISS in orbit began in 1998. On October 31, 2000, the first crew of the ISS was launched from Russia. The three-member crew spent almost five months aboard the ISS, activating systems and conducting experiments. The ISS has been manned ever since and is scheduled to be finished in 2011.


Also set for 2011 is the launch of an orbiting laboratory by China called Tiangong-1. In October, 2003, China became the third nation ever to launch manned spacecraft. Since then, China has been developing a full-fledged space program including a space station. The Tiangong-1 will be capable of docking multiple Shenzhou spacecraft and will serve as the first module of a proposed Chinese space station planned to be completed by 2020. The space station may have both civilian and military purposes.

Speaking of the future, let's take a look at what could be in the stars, so to speak, for space stations.