25 years ago, Russia launched the first element of the International Space Station into space. Then the USA brought the second part. The then commander: American astronaut Bob Cabana. In an interview with tagesschau.de looks back.
tagesschau.de: Do you remember where you were when the Russians sent the first component of the ISS into space?
Bob Cabana: At the beginning it was November 20, 1998, I invited the whole team to my house to watch the launch. We turned on the TV and watched the Proton rocket launch Zarya into orbit. And we knew that we, too, would now have a mission.
We started two weeks later. So there was great joy in my living room that evening. It was a great event. Earlier, as a crew, we went to Kazakhstan to see “Zarya” before take-off. We toured the vehicle because we had to activate it in orbit later. We did space walks with him. It was important for us, as a crew, to see the equipment before flying into space.
“Absolutely unique mission”
tagesschau.de: How exciting was it for you to fly on the ISS building mission?
Cottage: I was very pleased to lead the first mission to assemble the space station. This was an absolutely outstanding mission from start to finish. We started in December 1998 and launched Unity. “Unity” was an American communications hub located in the cargo bay of our space shuttle Endeavor. Our mission was the first American flight to the International Space Station.
I think “Sarja” and “Unity” are really great names for both modules. “Sarya” means “sunrise” in Russian. “Sunrise” for a new day and “Unity”. If you look at what holds the Unity interconnect module together, on one side you have the US lab, on the other you have Zarya, the airlock and the truss structure attached to Unity. This is the heart of the space station.
Bob Cabana was the commander of the space shuttle Endeavor, which made the first flight to the ISS.
“Sergei, come here.”
tagesschau.de: She entered the ISS side by side with your Russian cosmonaut colleague. Did you plan it this way from the beginning?
Cottage: There were many reporters and everyone wanted to know. I didn’t even tell the crew who would be the first to enter the station. Then, when it was time to enter the space station for the first time, I opened the hatch and said, “Sergei, come here.”
If you look at how we got in, Sergei and I went through the hatch side by side. I thought it was very important. If we want to have an international space station, we need to get there as an international crew. There was no “first person”. I had the honor of being the first American, and Sergei was the first Russian. But we entered the station side by side, through each open hatch.
tagesschau.de: There was a lot of work waiting for you and your colleagues in space. Can you tell us what exactly you did?
Cottage: We completed three spacewalks to connect all critical power and data ports. The antenna on the Zarya module would not deploy and we had to help deploy it and then we activated the space station in orbit. We had a computer on board the space shuttle that we used to navigate around the space station to activate the systems and bring them to life.
We didn’t spend much time on the space station. It was only two days, and we had a lot of work to do, including removing the launch security bolts and panels that would give the station a better structure to support launch payloads and prepare it to welcome the first crew of astronauts on board.
“The cornerstone of our cooperation”
tagesschau.de: Did you already realize how fundamentally important and historic your work in space was?
Hut: The logbook entry signed by the entire crew says at the beginning: “From small beginnings great things come to pass.” It concerned our future and what we expect from our cooperation. And I truly believe that was the case.
Looking back at the history of the International Space Station: permanent crew on board in space from October 2000 to the present. It’s absolutely amazing what she has achieved, international cooperation in partnership. From that small beginning, from that first mission, everything went great. Great preparation, great international cooperation, amazing team that made it all possible.
tagesschau.de: How important was it then for the US and Russia to build the ISS together?
Cottage: I believe it is crucial to include our Russian partners. Previously, there was the “Shuttle Mir program” where the Russians actually flew American astronauts to the Mir space station to learn how we could work with our Russian partners. In this way, we laid the foundations for our partnership.
When I look at the partnership on the International Space Station, it’s truly amazing when you consider that Russia, the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are partners. We’re all working on this together, about 400 kilometers above Earth, with a crew that’s there every day. That’s quite impressive. I think the International Space Station set the standard for how we cooperate in space and explore the world beyond our home planet.
tagesschau.de: Since Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Russia has been largely isolated in space, and joint projects with ESA, for example, have been canceled. How does cooperation work on the ISS?
Cottage: I can say that we are working very professionally with our Russian partners to ensure the safe operation of the International Space Station. Our inspection teams and astronauts in orbit work well together. This is crucial if we are to make progress, and it is important that we continue to cooperate in this one area. We rely on the Russians for propulsion control. If you rely on us to provide power aboard the International Space Station, we are connected. This is how the space station was designed. So, to continue to be successful, we need to be able to work together.
“The Brightest Star in the Sky”
tagesschau.de: When the ISS is sometimes visible from Earth in the night sky, do you go out and look up?
Hut: I don’t do it every time he comes, but sometimes. The station is the brightest star in the sky. It’s just amazing how bright it is when you watch it go by. And then this thought: I was up there, there are currently seven people working there who live in space.
I grew up in Minnesota. My cousin sent me a photo. It was in the Duluth, Minnesota newspaper after our mission. This was after we disconnected from the space station. And there were two stars in the sky. These were the space station and the space shuttle Endeavor. And it made the front page of the Duluth newspaper.
To me, that speaks to who we are. Our desire to explore, learn and own this visible sign. Launching a rocket is something special to me. I don’t care if there are people on board or not. Every time a rocket leaves planet Earth, it is an event. I want everyone to be able to share in the excitement and experience what it means to explore and go into space. This is our future and we must shape it well.
Interview by Ute Spangenberger, SWR
Uwe Gradwohl, SWR, tagesschau, November 20, 2023, 9:34