Building the International Space Station took over 40 missions between 1998 and 2011, with one more piece planned for delivery in 2015. Now you can watch the whole thing come together in just a few seconds thanks to this construction timelapse!

Top image: The Intentional Space Station nearing completion in 2009 with then freshly-installed solar panels. Credit: NASA

International Space Station nearing completion in September 2009, with the Canadarm "waving" to Space Shuttle Discovery. Image credit: NASA

Timelapse of assembling the International Space Station. Image credit: UnexplainableExplanations


The space station is massive, over 400 tons of material spread outover 100 meters long and nearly 75 meters wide. That's a football field, or five side-to-side hockey rinks!

Did the timelapse go by too fast? Try this annotated video covering each step with a bit more labelling to help you track what's happening:

No rocket could carry it into orbit intact, so it was assembled piecemeal, one delivery at a time. It was a massive international effort, with components contributed by space agencies in the United States (NASA), Canada (CSA), European countries (ESA), Russia (Roscosmos), and Japan (JAXA).

Just what are all those bits and pieces? Here's a coded map:

Flight assembly map for the International Space Station. Image credit: ESA

Each piece is labelled by a mission identification code. The single letters identify country of manufacture (A stands for America, R for Russian, E for European and J for Japanese), the multi-letter codes identify the assembly flight (UL is 'Utilisation Flight', LF is 'Logistics Flight' and ULF is the combination, a 'Utilisation and Logistics Flight'), and the number identifiers are (mostly) chronological mission numbers, each counter for a different agency.


The space station was assembled in over 40 missions between 1998 and 2011. This abridged timeline covers just the 31 missions when new components arrived, skipping logistics, preparation, and supply missions:

1998 November 20 (1 A/R): Zarya Control Module.
1998 December 4 (2A): Unity node with 2 pressurized mating adapters.

The Zarya Control Module and the Unity Node Module were mated together on 6 December, 1998. Image credit: NASA

2000 July 12 (1R): Zvezda Service Module.

2000 October 11 (3A): Z1 Truss, a 3rd pressurized mating adapter and a Ku-band antenna. Inside the Z1 Truss are four Control Moment Gyroscopes used to maintain the space station's attitude control.

An edge-on view of the space station with new truss and antenna. Image credit: NASA

2000 November 30 (4A): P6 Truss, with the first NASA solar panels. The Truss was temporarily mounted to the Z1 Truss until more pieces were attached to the station.
2001 February 7 (5A): Destiny Laboratory module.
2001 March 8 (5A.1): Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module.
2001 April 19 (6A): Racks to the Destiny Laboratory, Canaradm2, and a UHF antenna that provides space-to-space communications capability.

The Canadarm 2 walked itself off space shuttle Endeavour and onto the space station. Now with the help of Dextre, it even takes selfies. Image credit: NASA


2001 July 12 (7A): Joint Airlock.
2001 September 14 (4R): Pirs Docking Compartment.
2001 December 5 (UF-1): Racks to the Destiny Laboratory.
2002 June 5 (UF-2): Payload and experiment racks to the Destiny Laboratory and Mobile Base System for the Station's Mobile Servicing System.

By June 2002, the International Space Station is starting to look like an operational outpost in orbit. Image credit: NASA


2002 October 7 (9A): First starboard (S1) truss segment.
2002 November 23 (11A): First port (P1) truss segment. P6 solar arrays deployed and activated.

The Space Shuttle's Return to Flight mission saw the installation of an external stowage compartment onto the Canadarm. Image credit: NASA


2006 September 9 (12A): Second and third starboard truss segments (P3/P4), a pair of solar arrays and radiator.
2006 December 9 (12A.1): Third port truss segment (P5).
2007 June 8 (13A): Second and third starboard truss segments (S3/S4), pair of solar arrays.
2007 August 8 (13A.1): Third starboard truss segment (S5).
2007 October 23 (10A) Node-2 Harmony module.

2008 February 7 (1E): Columbus laboratory.

Installation of the Columbus laboratory. image credit: NASA

2008 March 11 (1J/A): First pressurized component of the Japanese Kibo laboratory.
2008 May 31 (1J): Second pressurized module and robotic arm of the Japanese Kibo laboratory.

The space station is finally up to full power-production capacity with the last of its solar arrays. Image credit: NASA


2009 March 15 (15A): Final starboard truss segment (S6) and final solar array pair.

2009 July 15 (2J/A): Experiment Module Exposed Facility and Experiment Logistics Module Exposed Section for the Japanese Kibo laboratory.


Logistics in space are even more complicated than they are on Earth. Image credit: NASA

2009 August 28 (17A): Life support and science racks.
2009 November 12 (5R): Mini-Research Module-2 (MRM2), "Poisk."

Since the day it was installed, the Cupola has been a favourite place for photographs. Image credit: NASA


2010 February 8 (20A): Node-3 'Tranquility' and Cupola.
2010 April 5 (19A): Science racks.
2010 May 14 (ULF4):Integrated Cargo Carrier and the Mini-Research Module-1 (MRM1), "Rassvet".

The EXPRESS Logistics Carrier is really just an extra storage locker, but in space. Image credit: NASA


2011 February 24 (ULF5): Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 4, and Robonaut 2
2011 May 16 (ULF6): Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02)
2015 (planned) (R3): Multipurpose Laboratory Module with European Robotic Arm. Somehow, we don't see this making the space station any less creepier at night.

It is a gorgeous, enormous station. Image credit: NASA

NASA recently announced new commercial contracts for crew transportation to the space station, hopefully moving astronauts away from reliance on Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft in the future.