The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Where were you when the ISS launched its first module in November of 1998? Some of us watched, others were in school, still other weren't even alive yet. Either way, it's hard to believe that today is the International Space Station—the largest cooperative science project ever—is celebrating its 15h birthday today.

The first crew to live on the Station, Expedition 1, arrived on November 2, 2000. Since then, the Station has been continuously occupied for 13 years. It's the longest continuous human presence in space by far, and the only permanent weightless laboratory.

Today, the huge orbiting laboratory includes contributions from NASA, the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Including the current Expedition 38 crew, 211 people have visited and worked on the Station on more than 352 spaceflights.

To wish the ISS a happy birthday, we took a look back at the coolest moments from its life: From its first inhabitants, to its construction, to its present-day operations.


So, who were the first residents of the ISS? Cosmonaut Yuri P. Gidzenko and astronaut William M. Shepherd, shown here on the far right. This May 1998 ceremony in Moscow celebrated the crew who would go on to link the station's first modules.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The first component of the ISS was called Zarya. It launched flawlessly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan atop a Russian Proton rocket at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


Here's the Russian Zarya module, floating in space, as seen from the Space Shuttle Endeavour the same year. Three weeks after its launch on November 20, Zarya was joined by the US Unity module.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The Space Shuttle Endeavour lights up the night sky as it embarks on the first U.S. mission, STS-88. During the 12-day mission, the crew mated the first two elements of the ISS: The already-orbiting Zarya control module and the Unity connecting module carried by Endeavour.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


December 6, 1998. Backdropped against a blanket of heavy cloud cover, the Russian-built Zarya approaches the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the U.S.-built Node 1, also called Unity (foreground).

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


Here, astronaut James Newman makes the final connections to join Unity and Zarya. The STS-88 crew carried a large-format IMAX camera from which this picture was taken.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


28 December 1998: Unity docked with Zarya.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: ESA


This June, 1999 view shows the ISS stack over the Earth from Space Shuttle Discovery.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


A lovely shot from September 8, 2000, shows the ISS from Atlantis. At this point, the ISS was comprised of the Functional Cargo Block (FGB), Zarya, Node 1 / Unity, the Service Module, Zvezda, Pressurized Mating Adapters 1 and 2, and the Progress M1 vehicle.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


August 20, 2001. Backdropped by an Earth dotted with clouds, this close-up view of the ISS was taken by one of the crew members on the Space Shuttle Discovery after undocking, ending more than a week of joint operations.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The ISS seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour after undocking. The Endeavour undocked on December 2, 2002 as the two spacecraft flew over northwestern Australia. The Space Shuttle mission installed the P1 truss.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


August 3, 2006. ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, Expedition 13 Flight Engineer 2, works on a cooling line in the S1 truss of the International Space Station during a 5-hour, 54-minute spacewalk.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


August 6, 2005. This full view of the Space Station was photographed by a crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery following the undocking of the two spacecraft.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


December 19, 2006. Here's the ISS as the STS-116 Space Shuttle Discovery mission undocked after the P5 truss section was added. During the mission, the Station's electrical supply was rewired and the P6 solar array was retracted.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


A view of the ISS from the Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission in February 2008. This mission transported the European Columbus laboratory to the ISS and began its deployment. This was one of the first images of the ISS with Columbus docked to Node-2.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: ESA/NASA


Held by the ISS' robotic Canadarm2, ESA's Columbus laboratory is moved from its transport position in Space Shuttle Atlantis' payload bay to the starboard side of the Harmony module of the station, in February 2008.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The ISS seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as it left the Space Station in June, 2008. The 13-day STS-124 mission brought the Japanese Kibo laboaratory to the Space Station.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel is shown here making his first six hour, 45 minute space walk in 2008. Schlegel and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim replaced a nitrogen tank used to pressurize the ISS's ammonia cooling system.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The definitive cosmic beauty. Backdropped by black space and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere, the ISS is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft began their separation near the end of the STS-119 mission in March 2009.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


The un-piloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle approaches the ISS in September of 2009. Once the HTV was in range, the ISS astronauts used the Station's robotic arm—Canadarm2, seen bottom right—to grab the cargo craft and attach it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node. The Japanese space laboratory Kibo is at the top of this image.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, STS-130 mission specialist, in his mission's third and last spacewalk at the ISS in February, 2010. During the five-hour, 48-minute spacewalk, Patrick and astronaut Robert Behnken removed the insulation blankets and launch restraint bolts from each of the Cupola observatory's seven windows.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station during mission STS-132 in 2010. On the right is ESA's space laboratory Columbus.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: NASA


This picture is one of the first taken of a shuttle docked to the ISS from the perspective of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. It shows the ISS docked with Europe's ATV Johannes Kepler and the Endeavour.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: ESA/NASA


The ESA's ATV Edoardo Amaldi approaches the ISS for docking on March 28, 2012. This shot was taken by NASA astronaut Don Pettit on board the ISS, and shows the ATV thrusters firing under automated control as the vessel nears the Russian module, where it docked.

The ISS, Earth's Ultimate Outpost, Turns 15 Today

Photo: ESA/NASA/Don Pettit


Top photo: The International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery on March 25, 2009 – NASA/ESA