On November 2, 2000 at 10:52 Moscow time, 20 years ago, the Soyuz TM-31, a Soyuz manned spacecraft was launched from the Baikonur spaceport in central Kazakhstan to dock with the International Space Station (ISS.) The flight of the crew of the first long-term expedition to the ISS began.
In 90 minutes after the docking mission, the hatch was opened and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergey Krikalev and their US colleague William Shepard set foot on board of the ISS for the first time. On those memorable days, people in Russia and the USA were glad for the successful start of joint space exploration with all heart. However, from the very beginning, the happiness of this significant event was clouded with one detail for Russia. What was it?
“Walkout in Protest” by Cosmonaut Solovyov
The history of the ISS began with the launch of the Zarya Russian module into orbit. Somewhat later, compartments of US, European and Japanese manufacture were docked to it. The first expedition on the Soyuz Russian ship was to dock Zvezda, another Russian module. The docking with the station presupposed a long-established and well-tested scheme. It was used by Russian crews during approaches to the Mir station. It would seem logical to appoint a Russian cosmonaut from Star City, a closed urban locality in the Moscow region which is home to the military research and space training facility, as the commander of the expedition. Several years before the first mission to the ISS, some agreements were made with the US experts.
The proposal to Anatoly Soloviev, a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut and Hero of the Soviet Union, to become the commander of the first crew at the ISS was not made on the spur of the moment. According to the space heavyweights of two countries, his huge experience would ensure success during the launch and operation of the station. By that time, Solovyov had already done four launches to the Mir station, dozens of space walks and the most difficult tasks during spacewalks, as well as had about 400 days of stay in Earth orbit.
Unexpectedly, the U.S. side peremptorily announced the appointment of NASA astronaut William Shepherd as a mission commander on the ISS. As the tough American guys put it, Shepherd was one of them through and through. He used to be a Navy SEAL and Captain. He made an exemplary career in NASA. Most importantly, by the time of launch on the ISS, Shepherd had made three space flights with the total duration of as much as ... 18 days. The difference between 400 and 18 days is obvious. So who do you think was chosen for the mission?
The Russian space agency went along with its US colleagues’ decisions almost without objections. Solovyov was offered to fly to the ISS as a space coachman. To put is simply, to take the crew to the station and to control the ship when returning to Earth. It was at that moment when Solovyov flatly refused. It became an unprecedented case in the history of cosmonautics. By the way, Solovyov's “walkout in protest” delighted even some ordinary US astronauts. Secretly from their colleagues, they shook his hand and expressed support and sympathy. The Russian space officials quickly found a replacement for stubborn Solovyov.
Apparently, Anatoly Solovyov was given a senior executive position in the Cosmonauts Training Center as non-financial damages. However, he also remained true to himself. “I want to fly!” he answered briefly and clearly. Soon, in August 1997, together with Pavel Vinogradov, he went on his fifth space mission. The crew had to do the most serious work to save the Mir orbital station. However, that is a different story.
Cooperation in Near-Earth Orbit
Today the ISS, the bright manmade “star” in the sky, can be seen from the Earth with the naked eye. It is a huge unique high-tech scientific complex. The station is assembled of 15 modules with total weight of over 420 tonnes. Imagine how this structure orbits around the Earth at a speed of 28,000 km/h at an altitude of over 400 km. In just 90 minutes the station makes a round-the-world trip around our planet. In a day it manages to fly it 16 times.
“Today, on the Internet you can easily find when the ISS is flying over your area,” says Yuri Usachev, a Russian pilot and cosmonaut and a Hero of Russia. “One will see a very bright spot. It will not be confused with anything. Probably, only the moon and the sun are brighter.”
Currently, a total of 15 countries are taking part in the project. Namely, Russia, USA, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, France, Sweden, and Switzerland.
For two decades, 248 spacemen and space tourists from 18 countries visited the ISS. Dozens of records have been set at the station. Thousands of unique experiments which are simply impossible to repeat on Earth, have been carried out. The ISS has become a real flying laboratory for peaceful scientific cooperation. Here is just a brief list of works being done there – medical and biological research, generation of high-tech materials and biologically-based products, astrophysical observations, and the study of the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. At present, the 64th crew is working at the station.
Recently, Sergey Krikalev, the executive director of Roskosmos, a state corporation of the Russian Federation responsible for space flights, cosmonautics programs, and aerospace research, reminded that from the very beginning, the plan was to use the ISS during 15 years. However, Zarya and Zvezda were examined in 2013 and 2015 retrospectively and extended for operation until 2024. Little is known about the future of the orbital station. Rumor has it the ISS might be used for the needs of the lunar project and a new joint project with China. Moreover, the Russian segment even might be disconnected and used separately.
As they say, time will show what will happen to the ISS. One thing has been absolutely clear so far, though. The station continues to be almost the only international project where neither political nor any other disagreements practically affect the joint decision making. The fruits of business cooperation in the space industry bring a lot of practical benefits to the countries taking part in the project.
On November 2, Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics together with the Roskosmos State Corporation held an online meeting dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the manned regime of the International Space Station. USSR spaceman Sergey Krikalev, one of the participants of the first mission to the ISS, the Hero of the Soviet Union and the Hero of Russia, spoke about the creation of the station, its role in the construction of space agencies, the records set during the first manned docking with the station and the first long-term expedition. He also answered the questions of the meeting’s participants and spectators on the air.