25 years ago, Russia launched the first component of the International Space Station into space. Then the United States brought the second part. Commander at the time: American astronaut Bob Cabana. In an interview with tagesschau.de he looks back.
tagesschau.de: Do you remember where you were when the Russians took the first component of the ISS into space?
Bob Cabin: At the start, it was November 20, 1998, I invited the entire team to my house to watch the start. We turned on the TV and watched the Proton rocket launch Zarya into orbit. And we knew that now we too would have a mission.
We started two weeks later. That night there was great joy in my living room. It was a great event. We had previously traveled to Kazakhstan as a team to see “Zarja” before it took off. We toured the vehicle because we needed to activate it later in orbit. We did spacewalks with him. For us as a crew, it was important to see the hardware before going into space.
“An absolutely exceptional mission”
tagesschau.de: How exciting was it for you to fly on the mission to build the ISS?
Cabin: I was very satisfied to be able to lead the first mission to set up the space station. This was an absolutely exceptional mission from start to finish. We started in December 1998 and launched Unity. “Unity” was the American center located in the payload compartment of our space shuttle “Endeavour”. Our mission was the first American flight to the International Space Station.
I think “Sarja” and “Unity” were really cool names for both modules. “Sarya” means “sunrise” in Russian. “Dawn” with a view to a new day and “Unity”. If you look at what’s holding the Unity docking module together, on one side you have the US lab, on the other side you have Zarya, the airlock, and the lattice structure that is attached to Unity. It is the heart of the space station.
Bob Cabana was the commander of the shuttle Endeavour, which made the first flight to the ISS.
“Sergei, come here.”
tagesschau.de: She floated to the ISS hand in hand with his Russian cosmonaut colleague. Did you plan it like this from the beginning?
Cabin: There were many journalists 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, when we opened the hatch I said, “Sergei, come here.”
If you look at how we got in, Sergei and I went through the hatch side by side. I thought that was very important. If we want to have an international space station, we have to go in as an international crew. There was no “first person.” I had the privilege of being the first American and Sergei was the first Russian. But we entered the station side by side, through every hatch we opened.
tagesschau.de: There was a lot of work waiting for you and your colleagues in space. Can you tell us what exactly you did?
Cabin: We made three spacewalks to connect all critical power and data ports. An antenna on the Zarya module did not deploy and we had to help deploy it and then activate the space station in orbit. We had a computer on the flight deck of the space shuttle that we used to navigate the space station to activate the systems and bring them to life.
We didn’t really spend much time on the space station. It was only two days and we had a lot to do, such as removing the launch safety bolts and panels that gave the station more structure to withstand the launch loads and preparing it for the first crew of astronauts on board.
“Fundamental stone of our association”
tagesschau.de: Have you already realized how fundamentally important and historic your work in space was?
Cabin: The logbook entry signed by the entire crew says at the beginning: “From small beginnings come great things.” It was about our future and what we expect from our collaboration. And I truly believe that was the case.
A look back at the history of the International Space Station: a permanent crew aboard in space from October 2000 to the present. It is absolutely amazing what you have achieved: international collaboration in partnership. So from that small beginning, from that first mission, things went extremely well. Great preparation, great international collaboration, an incredible team that made all this possible.
tagesschau.de: How important was it then for the United States and Russia to build the ISS together?
Cabin: I think it is crucial that we have included our Russian partners. Previously there was the “Shuttle Mir program,” in which the Russians took American astronauts to the Mir space station to learn how we could work with our Russian partners. In this way we have laid the foundations of our association.
When I look at the partnership on the International Space Station, it’s really amazing when you consider that Russia, the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are all partners. We are all working on it together, about 400 kilometers above the Earth, with a team that is there every day. That’s pretty impressive. I believe the International Space Station set the standard for how we collaborate in space and explore the world beyond our home planet.
tagesschau.de: Since the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, Russia has been largely isolated in space and, for example, joint projects with ESA have been cancelled. How is collaboration going on the ISS?
Cabin: I can say that we are working very professionally with our Russian partners to ensure the safe operation of the International Space Station. Our control teams and our astronauts in orbit are working well together. This is crucial if we are to move forward and it is important that we continue to cooperate in this area. We depend on the Russians for propulsion control. You trust 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 must be able to work together.
“The brightest star in the sky”
tagesschau.de: When the ISS is sometimes visible in the night sky from Earth, do you go out and look up?
Cabin: I don’t do it every time he comes, but I do from time to time. The station is the brightest star in the sky. It’s absolutely amazing how bright it is when you see it go by. And then this thought: I was up there, there are seven people working there right now, living in the space.
I grew up in Minnesota. My cousin sent me a photo. It was in the Duluth, Minnesota, newspaper after our mission. It was after we undocked from the space station. And there were two stars in the sky. These were the space station and the space shuttle Endeavor. And it appeared on the front page of the Duluth newspaper.
And to me that speaks to who we are. Our desire to explore, learn and have a visible sign of it. Rocket launches are something very 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 wish everyone could share this excitement and see what it means to explore and enter space. This is our future and we must shape it.
The interview was conducted by Ute Spangenberger, SWR
Uwe Gradwohl, SWR, tagesschau, November 20, 2023 09:34