Upward Bound: Tales of Space Station Alpha

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The international space station crew floats around the Zvezda module

For two years, the ungainly assortment of cylinders, panels, nodes and antennae known as the International Space Station had orbited the Earth in the cold of space waiting for a crew. On Thursday November 2, that crew arrived — two Russians and their American commander — aboard a Russian Soyuz space capsule, ready to claim the high frontier for all mankind, and for all time.

This Expedition One crew is not the first human presence aboard the station — space shuttle crews have ferried supplies, equipment and modules to the orbiting vehicle since the project's inception, in November 1998, but this is the first crew to live there, and if all goes according to plan, they will be replaced by a succession of crews with no end. By the time the station wears out in 10 to 25 years, there should be another. Permanent habitation of outer space is the goal.

For such an important event, there was little in the way of ceremony as the crew made its way aboard. Once astronaut Sergei Krikalev had opened the space station hatches, he simply floated through and turned on the lights. The ceremony came later, once a video camera was in place and the three men in blue overall jumpers and white shirts could be seen back on Earth.

"It was a long journey, but we made it," said Bill Shepherd, the lone American aboard. He wasn't talking about the 33 orbits the Soyuz flew while chasing the space station through the heavens, but the years of planning, drafting, wrangling and false starts that had led to the opening of this $100 million monument to the dream of space colonization.

Each weekend in The Sampler, TIME.com will bring you an update on how the mission is going. In addition, watch for more immediate news if it is warranted.

How did the International Space Station come about?
The first practical space station plans date back half a century to the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who was brought to the United States after World War II and would ignite America's part in the space race. After developing the rockets that took astronauts to the moon, he turned his attention to the idea of a permanently manned space station. He planned for orbiting wheels that would slowly spin to provide the kind of artificial gravity that would allow hundreds of people to work in an Earth-like environment. But the cost of delivering materials to such a venture, never less than $10,000 a pound, soon diminished the scale of the designer's dreams.

Instead, the first space stations, both U.S. and Russian, were simply modified third stages of existing rockets. Then came the Mir in 1986, with multiple modules. It was habitable but lacked the power for much in the way of experimentation. Ultimately it would be of greater interest to film directors, game-show producers and wealthy would-be space tourists than to scientists. It is currently abandoned.

And now we have the International Space Station, first proposed by President Reagan as Space Station Freedom 15 years ago, and now grown into a sort of outer-space League of Nations in order to contain costs.

Why did it take so long? Who's involved?
"We grew up, certainly I grew up, thinking that space was our future," says Jim Van Laak, the philosophical manager for space-station operations at NASA. "You look back at movies like '2001: A Space Odyssey‚' and we thought we'd have a colony on the moon by this point. The practical matter is that it's a lot harder than we thought, and we have to take one step at a time. The technology, the understanding of how to keep people alive in space for long periods of time comes slowly, but the space station is a critical first step."

So the international consortium of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada has started small, with just three men. As the station nears completion in five or six years, the number will grow to seven, but not much more than that. Still, NASA and its partners hope it will be enough that the next step will be a permanent outpost on the moon or a trip to Mars.

How come an American is in command? How did he get the job?
If anyone has a right to talk of the station as a long journey, it's space station commander Jim Shepherd, or "Shep" as he is known to all, including wife Beth and Russian ground controllers (who pronounce it "Ship"). Shepherd, 51, joined the U.S. Navy to become a pilot, then the only route to commanding a space mission. Poor eyesight ended that dream, so he became a frogman and used that as a stepping-stone to the Astronaut Corps, but as a mission specialist, not a commander — someone qualified to ride the space shuttle but not to fly it.

The space station opened the door to being in charge. And so after he spent much of the 1990s spearheading the redesigns that would turn Freedom into the ISS, the reward was command of the first crew to spend a four-month rotation aboard. But that four-month trip was preceded by a four-year wait as deadlines slipped and the cash-strapped Russians had trouble delivering Zvezda, a Mir-like module where Shepherd, Krikalev, 42, and Yuri Gidzenko, 38, will eat, sleep and do most of their work while in space.

I've heard that Shepherd has been criticized by the Russians for being inexperienced. How is he dealing with that?
Yes, there have been repeated questions about his ability to command. American shuttle flights are of short duration, and Shepherd had just about two weeks' experience in orbit, compared to cosmonauts who spend months in space. Krikalev, for one, has spent more than year in space. The first cosmonaut pilot assigned to the crew and charged with the task of flying the Soyuz capsule refused to serve with Shepherd, whom he considered a rookie. Shepherd's authority was further undermined by Russian ground controllers, who will call the shots until the U.S.-built laboratory module is in place next year. The international protocols called for English to be the language spoken by everyone on the mission, just as it is by commercial pilots and air-traffic controllers in most of the world. But the ground controllers in Korolyov, near Moscow, simply didn't know much English, so Russian will dominate the air-to-ground chatter. And though Shepherd has been a diligent student of Russian, his first efforts aboard the station produced a groan from the translator assigned to help U.S. flight controllers.

Shepherd has shown a determination to make things work. He is openly deferential to his more experienced colleagues. "A good leader sometimes has to be a good follower," he said shortly before launch. Although there clearly is some rivalry between the two space programs, Shepherd has remained scrupulously neutral.

Once in orbit, though, he proved he is no wallflower, as the onetime demolition expert dropped a small bomb on NASA administrator Daniel Goldin during an orbit-to Earth exchange.

The name of the station, the International Space Station, strikes many, including Shepherd, as too cumbersome. During his first day on the job, he decided to change it.

"The first expedition on the space station requests permission to take the radio call sign Alpha," he said. Both he and Krikalev had expressed favor for the name before launch, since the first letter of the Greek alphabet was neither Russian nor American. Goldin was taken aback, and somewhere off microphone huddled with others before coming back on the air.

"I authorize 'Station Alpha' for the entire Expedition One mission," Golin said. "Now you can sleep well at night and not have any concerns."

Shepherd signed off with the words, "Out, from Space Station Alpha."