Next week, the International Space Station will hit a major milestone: 20 years of continuous crewed operations — two decades in which there have always been humans in space. That legacy began on Halloween in 2000, when the first crew lifted off.
On Oct. 31, 2000 to be exact, three men boarded a Soyuz spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for Expedition 1. Other crews had traveled into space to assemble the space station, but when the Expedition 1 crew arrived there on Nov. 2, NASA astronaut William Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko became the first official crew to live aboard the space station. Although much of their four-month mission was spent getting the space station ready for many future crews to live (somewhat) comfortably, they also performed the first scientific experiment on the ISS.
In anticipation of their mission’s 20th anniversary, Shepherd, Kirkalev, and Gidzenko spoke with NASA about their historic mission. Current Expedition 64 crewmembers Sergey Ryzhikov, Kate Rubins, and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov also spoke with NASA, reflecting on the anniversary and the 20 years of innovation since Expedition 1.
It may seem that it’d be difficult for America and Russia to work together, after the two countries had spent decades embattled in a space race. And yet, the American astronaut and the Russian cosmonauts worked together seamlessly. In fact, NASA was adamant on partnering with Russia. “It turned out to be an excellent partnership,” said George Abbey, the former director of the Johnson Space Center.
Cosmonaut Krikalev recalled that the crew had difficulties in training, but none were in their interactions as friends. Instead, in working through the difficulties of figuring out the right training materials and the right simulations (because no one had ever done this before), the crew members felt that they began sharing a single brain.
One day, Shepherd met with hardware developers and asked a few questions. When Krikalev came to the meeting a little later, he repeated the same three to four questions. “We were just like, oh my god, they’re sharing a brain now, these two,” said Ginger Kerrick, who was the Russian training integration instructor for Expedition 1.
Learning from each other
As anyone who’s tried to cross a language barrier knows, trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language, or doesn’t speak it well, is difficult. And yet, it was essential that the crew members not just be able to talk to each other, but to really understand each other. Although Shepherd initially expected they’d all speak English, as the U.S. had agreed with other partners that English would be the standard language on the space station, he quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.
“The key element of making a space station work was to understand why the Russians approached problems a certain way,” he said. “And the only method by which we were really going to get to that was if we could talk to all these people in Russian.”
In the end, the three men spoke a mixture of Russian and English and relied on very clear diagrams and schematic drawings of important systems on the ISS, such as the air purification system. Many of the diagrams created to simplify communication are still used on the space station today.
More than just learning to communicate, though, the Expedition 1 crew had to learn to think alike. Going into training, the U.S. was behind Russia in terms of the theoretical knowledge of the system. “They had less of a reliance on diagrams and documentation because the people teaching the classes were experts and knew that information inside and out,” Kerrick said. “Whereas on the U.S. side, we were all starting up and so we were developing materials, and we didn’t have the expertise.”
In training for the mission, the U.S. side learned about spending long durations in space from the Russians, who had been living and working aboard their Mir space station since 1986. Although Russia had decades on the U.S. in terms of experience on a low-orbit space station, the Russian side of the Expedition 1 group had something to learn, too. “We learned that we could use more computer-generated lessons or mock up simulators,” Krikalev said. “Before that computers were not as available and we had to have all these diagrams in our head.”
In the end, the ISS team created a mixed system of training. Because they didn’t know what information they would need, they had to over-prepare, Krikalev said. Now, he notices that space station crews are able to learn only what they need, but at that time they needed to learn as much as possible.
Kerrick, who spent four years traveling with and training the three crew members, vividly remembers launch day. It was a foggy day, she said, and as soon as the three men walked up the stairs of the launch vehicle and shut the hatch behind them, she started hyperventilating. “I knew that they were going to be safe, but something inside me said my family’s going on a rocket. We were a family of four and three of them were going into space,” she said.
One of the Russian military officials at the launch noticed her stress and put an arm around her to lead her through the crowd to get a closer view. As he parted the crowd, he said in Russian “this is the mother of the crew.”
Of course, the crew did end up being safe. Krikalev, who had been aboard Russia’s Mir space station before, felt familiarity when they first entered the ISS. The biggest difference was that it was clean, having yet been lived in.
The first thing the crew had to do, after making it through the hatch (which took a few minutes thanks to their stinging arms and legs, Gidzenko said), was to search for connectors that would allow them to turn on the lights and to set up the communication system that would let them talk to their team on Earth.
“We turned on the light. We got some hot water. We activated the toilet. And I remember Shep said, ‘Now we can live. We have light, we have hot water, and we have a toilet,” Gidzenko said.
Expedition 1’s main mission during their four months on the space station was to get it ready for Expeditions 2, 3, and onward. They had to make it livable, which came with some challenges.
“I don’t think you could say we had an average day, at least not too many of them,” Shepherd said.
One difficulty came before they even got off the ground. Houston had extensive simulators for the shuttle, which the crews spent hundreds of hours in as they trained. “And quite often we would be sitting waiting for the computers to come up, because the sim had crashed,” Shepherd said. It would take 30 to 40 minutes to reboot the computers and get everything running again.
About 10 days after they got to the space station, they encountered a major (but beautifully handled) challenge. Their first cargo ship was meant to dock automatically, but when it came within 100 meters of the station, it started to wobble. Before long, the oscillation was so big it started to be dangerous, Krikalev said. The team switched it to manual control and was able to carefully guide it in to dock.
Another struggle, given that running an international space station was new, was communication. Early on, the two control centers would sometimes send the crew conflicting orders, Shepherd said. “Occasionally we would get conflicting marching orders, things that Houston said and then the control center in Moscow later changed,” he said.
One day he got so frustrated he got on the radio, which both control centers could hear, and said: “Look, we’re the International Space Station, you guys have to coordinate one plan and give it to us.” That, he said, was his happiest day in space.
Looking to the future
Expedition 1 prepared the ISS for crews to come and, in looking back, the space station’s current crew plans to celebrate 20 years of continuous habitation with a dinner much like the meals Shepherd, Krikalev, and Gidzenko enjoyed sharing together and a long look out at Earth.
“I think the most fitting tribute is for the three of us to just go take a nice long view out the cupula, look at the beautiful Earth and appreciate this amazing space station,” said NASA astronaut Kate Rubins.
Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryzhikov chimed in to say that they’d also be thinking about the space station’s first crew. They’d recently found a note from the Expedition 1 crew about installing equipment. Through 20 years and 64 missions, the first crew still has their touch on the ISS.
Of course, much has changed on the space station in the two decades since the first crew lived there. Now, the ISS is a phenomenal laboratory. Equipment like top-of-the-line microscopes and an atom lab allow for experiments in biology, physics, chemistry and other areas that will teach us more about long-duration spaceflight, with the goal of traveling further into the universe.
Although the space station has seen 20 years of wear, and has needed replacements for things like the toilet that was recently sent to space, the hardwear and the structure is holding up. NASA has certified most of the space station’s hardware through 2028, Rubins said. Russia’s Mir space station lasted 15 years, but with advancing technology and greater knowledge of living in space, the astronauts aboard the ISS believe it will be around for years and years to come.
In the recent future, the space station’s capabilities will be tested when Crew-1 joins Expedition 64. In November, three NASA astronauts and one JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut will join Rubins, Ryzhikov, and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. This will mark not only the first time the ISS has housed seven people, but also the first time astronauts reach the space station via a commercial spacecraft, aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
Twenty years after the first crew arrived, the ISS and the space agencies that run it continue to make history.