Space Curious: The origin story of the International Space Station

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana will tell us all about it

Left: Cabana (left) and Krikalev (right) about to open the hatch to enter Zarya for the first time. Right: The STS-88 crew pose in the Unity hatch leading to Zarya. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

At any given time, as we’re sitting in traffic or walking the dog, astronauts are working and living above us.

In fact, ever since Oct. 31, 2000, humans have been living in space -- meaning we’re going on 21 years.

That means most college students today have never known a day without an astronaut orbiting above them on the International Space Station.

The International Space Station, or ISS, is just shy of the same length as an American football field and the largest spacecraft ever built.

Its construction was a collaboration between 16 different countries, and today, spacecraft from three countries can dock at the orbiting facility. The space station is a floating six-bedroom home for astronauts and doubles as an orbiting laboratory with hundreds of experiments ongoing at one time from growing vegetables in space to research involving mice and flies.

For the very first episode of WKMG-TV and Graham Media Group’s podcast, “Space Curious,” we wanted to go back to the beginning and learn how the International Space Station came to be -- with someone who was there at the beginning: Kennedy Space Center Director and former astronaut Robert “Bob” Cabana.

Before he led the Kennedy Space Center, Cabana was an astronaut and flew on four space shuttle missions, including as the commander of the first space station assembly mission.

On Dec. 4, 1998, Cabana, along with four other NASA astronauts and Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, launched from Kennedy Space to mate the U.S.-built module, Unity, to the Russian pieces of the ISS, Zarya. The two pieces were created on opposite sides of the world, but Cabana and his crew were tasked with connecting the two pieces 200 miles above Earth.

Russia's Zarya module mated to the Unity node. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

“It just went flawlessly,” Cabana said. “It sets a stage for the whole space station, assembly sequence -- having that first mission go so well.”

The astronauts were also the first to go inside the ISS, but who would get to float through the hatch first was a surprise until the time came.

“When it came time to go inside, I didn’t tell anybody who was going to be first, and the media kept asking, and I wouldn’t tell. I didn’t even tell the crew,” Cabana said. “I felt as an International Space Station, we needed to enter as an international crew.”

Cabana and Krikalev went into the ISS at the same time.

“Sergei and I enter side by side, so there was no first person to enter the International Space Station,” Cabana said.

Construction and assembly of the space station would take a total of 13 years. Since Halloween in 2000, astronauts have continuously lived on the ISS.

Listen to the full Space Curious episode above to hear Cabana recount the mission in detail.

Space Curious is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

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About the Author:

Emilee is a digital journalist for News 6 and, where she writes about space and Central Florida news. Previously, Emilee was a space writer and web editor for the Orlando Sentinel and a producer at the Naples Daily News.