It Took Teamwork to Make It to 20 Years

NASA astronauts (left to right) Christina Koch and Jessica Meir harvested Mizuna mustard greens on Thanksgiving day in 2019 inside the ESA (European Space Agency) laboratory module’s VEGGIE facility. (Credits: NASA)

By Danielle Sempsrott
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Building the Team

For 20 consecutive years, NASA has been sending humans to low-Earth orbit to live and work aboard the International Space Station, a unique microgravity laboratory that’s making new discoveries to this day. The technology used for LASIK eye surgery, air purifiers, and robotic arms that assist in medical surgeries are just a few of the things we benefit from here on Earth thanks to science performed on the orbiting laboratory. However, getting the space station into orbit and maintaining it is one of humanity’s biggest challenges – one that required people from all over the world working together to make it possible.

In 1996, George Abbey, the director of Johnson Space Center at the time, decided the space station program office needed a team that could go out to the factories and manufacturing sites that were building station hardware, to determine a faster and more efficient way to move it to Kennedy Space Center. Tip Talone was working on the Space Shuttle Program when he was tapped for the task.

The Zenith-1 (Z-1) Truss is officially presented to NASA by The Boeing Co. on the Space Station Processing Facility floor on July 31, 2000. STS-92 Commander Col. Brian Duffy, comments on the presentation. At his side is Tip Talone, NASA director of International Space Station and Payload Processing at KSC. Talone and Col. Duffy received a symbolic key for the truss from John Elbon, Boeing director of ISS ground operations. The Z-1 Truss is the cornerstone truss of the International Space Station and flew in Space Shuttle Discovery’s payload on STS-92. (Credits: NASA)

“At that point in my career, I had turned a blind eye to space station, because frankly, I wanted nothing to do with it. I liked what I was doing, and I didn’t want to know any more than I had to about whatever those guys were doing over there,” he said.

According to Glenn Chin, who was the lead integration engineer, overseeing the Italian build of the three multi-purpose logistics modules, Node 2, Node 3, and the cupola elements of space station, “They asked Tip to pull together this team so that we could go out to these different factories to provide lessons learned, visibility, transparency, and support to the contractors, as well as build a communication bridge between the factories and NASA.”

Talone’s only marching orders were that the organization had to be made of around 75 people – half from shuttle and half from a payloads background, and all of them had to be NASA employees because it was a NASA initiative. Outside of those parameters, Talone was given carte blanche to handpick his team, which would form the Space Station Hardware Integration Office (SSHIO).

Building the space station was truly a monumental international effort – one that Talone’s organization was right in the middle of. Through the SSHIO, small groups visited manufacturing sites throughout the country and all over the world – from Alabama, California, and Oklahoma, to Canada, Italy, Japan, and more – to oversee the station hardware being built and to integrate themselves with the contractors and manufacturers at each site. While there, they also instilled some of the processes and procedures needed to make things safe for spaceflight.

With companies in several countries independently building parts for the station, everything had to work exactly as designed when crews started assembling it in orbit, travelling at speeds of five miles per second. One of the ways they ensured this was through a multi-element integrated test, which involved taking all of the major pieces that made up the basic space station and cabling them together on the ground to run all of the electrical systems, telemetry systems, and verify that all of the software worked across all elements. Ultimately, the test uncovered problems the team was able to fix before sending everything to space – something Talone believes to have been one of the greatest successes of the team.

“It was grueling, but it was fun. And I never regretted getting up in the morning to go to work,” Talone said. “We could really see how it was unfolding in front of us and how it was all coming together. And the team knew they were really a part of history; part of something that was either going to be one of the greatest things ever done, or possibly going to be a spectacular nightmare.”

Expedition 1 and Beyond

Cosmonaut Sergei K. Krikalev, flight engineer for Expedition One, is positioned by a porthole aboard the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station (ISS) as the Space Shuttle Atlantis approaches for docking to begin several days of joint activities between the two crews. (Credits: NASA)

On Oct. 31, 2000, the Expedition 1 crew members launched on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, arriving at the space station Nov. 2 and marking the beginning of uninterrupted human occupation aboard the orbiting laboratory. Talone was in the control room in Moscow, Russia, at the time Expedition Commander William Shepherd entered the Zvezda Service Module for the first time. “And, what a feeling,” Talone recalled.

Not only did that historic moment show that we had the technological knowledge and capability to build and construct a livable habitat of that scale in space, it showed that countries from all over the world could successfully come together for a greater good – something that has resulted in international partnerships and long-lasting friendships.

It took 13 years and 42 assembly flights to fully construct the space station we know today, which measures 357 feet long. Since that Expedition 1 mission, 241 people from 19 countries have visited or called the space station their home.

“The NASA, international, and contractor teams all had to work together, and we learned that we’re not all that different from one another and that there isn’t just one answer to every question or one way to do every job,” said Talone. “It just takes wanting to do it, having the will to make it happen, and turning people loose to go do it. So, it was a grand experiment, and one that worked out, because it’s still flying around up in the sky.”

Jose Camacho, utilization and life sciences project manager, was an electrical engineer assigned to assembly and checkout of station’s outboard trusses, including the solar arrays responsible for power generation when he started working at Kennedy in 2000. He had the opportunity to sit on console for STS-97 – the first mission carrying hardware that he worked on. “It was really neat, hearing and seeing video of the astronauts pulling the P6 element out of the orbiter bay and installing it onto station. That’s when it really hit me – like wow, I worked on this hardware, and now it’s on orbit, getting installed.”

Being part of the team that achieved 20 continuous years of human presence in space has been an important part of Camacho’s life and something he appreciates having had a role in. “It’s just a testament of the great work everybody put into it to make it what it is today,” he said. “I just hope that we can continue exploring and never stop.”

For two consecutive decades, astronauts have been using the space station and its microgravity environment to conduct research and scientific experiments. Some recent and upcoming cargo resupply missions that will deliver crew supplies, hardware, and critical science and research to the space station include Northrop Grumman’s 14th contracted cargo resupply mission and SpaceX’s CRS-21. Beyond resupply missions, the agency is working with commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing to achieve safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit for even more astronauts, including private astronauts. SpaceX’s first regular, long-duration mission to the space station – titled Crew-1 – is scheduled for later this year.

In 2010, NASA astronaut Robert Behnken, STS-130 mission specialist, participates in the mission’s first session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction and maintenance continue on the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA)

With greater commercial access to space, station research is ramping up. In the past 20 years, astronauts have done everything from cardiac research to experimenting with Nickelodeon slime to study the movement of non-Newtonian fluids in microgravity to growing a variety of crops in space. As NASA prepares to send the first woman and the next Man to the Moon under the Artemis program, the research done in low-Earth orbit will equip teams with the knowledge necessary for those long-duration missions to the lunar surface and, ultimately, to Mars.

Researchers such as Gioia Massa, a plant scientist at Kennedy, rely on the station to provide opportunities to conduct research that could take weeks, or even months, as seeds grow into crops ready for astronauts to harvest and eat.

“Having astronauts live and work in space for long durations has helped us learn how plants can provide both nutrition and flavor to meet astronaut needs, as well as investigate the psychological benefits that caring for plants may provide,” said Massa. “This work would not be possible without the perseverance and ingenuity displayed by the astronauts as they learn from and overcome the challenges associated with spaceflight to make their gardens grow in plant facilities on station today, and will be able to use it to grow crops on the Moon and beyond.”