The Cold War had been concluded for less than a decade when NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, crammed themselves into a Soyuz spacecraft and blasted into orbit on Halloween, 20 years ago.
Two days later their small spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, then a fraction of the size it is today. Their arrival would herald the beginning of what has since become 20 years of continuous habitation of the laboratory that NASA, leading an international partnership, would continue to build for another decade.
Born of a desire to smooth geopolitical tensions in the aftermath of the great conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, the space station partnership has more or less succeeded—the station has remained inhabited despite the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, and later, nearly a decade of no US space transportation. NASA, Roscosmos, and the European, Japanese, and Canadian partners have been able to rely on one another.
Not that it has been easy. Tensions have existed from those very first moments on the station. Shepherd, who would serve as the first ISS commander over his more experienced cosmonaut counterparts, wanted to nickname the station “Alpha.” He had support for this from Krikalev, but some Russian space officials believed their earlier, Mir space station, had earned that honor. The new station, they believed, ought to be named “Beta.” NASA, too, had not signed off on this designation.
Nevertheless, Shepherd pressed ahead. He liked that Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, neither American nor Russian. So on the crew’s first day aboard the station, during a space-to-ground call with NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, Shepherd said over the public loop, “The first expedition on the space station requests permission to take the radio call sign Alpha.”
Goldin was not expecting this, and he spoke away from the microphone for a few moments, conferring with others on the ground. Then he came back and said the name “Station Alpha” was authorized for the duration of Shepherd’s nearly four-month expedition.
This suited the crew, and Shepherd replied, “Out, from Space Station Alpha.” Since then, more than five dozen other crews have rotated onto the International Space Station, most recently Expedition 63, which launched in mid-October. Always, in the two decades since, there have been at least two humans on board.
Days before the most recent launch to the space station from Kazakhstan, the mission’s NASA crew member, Kate Rubins, addressed this anniversary in the crew’s final pre-flight news conference.
“I think the International Space Station is one of the most incredible engineering achievements in human history,” she said. “It is quite a marvel to see such a giant machine that was built entirely by humans and flown off the surface of Earth still persists in space 20 years later.”
The station is unique in that no one has