25 years ago, Russia took the first component of the International Space Station into space. Then the USA brought the second part. Commander at the time: North 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 ISS component into space?
Bob Cabana: At the start, it was November 20, 1998, I invited the entire team to come to my house and watch the start. We turned on the TV and watched the Proton rocket launch Zarya into orbit. And we knew that now we would also have a mission.
We started two weeks later. So that night there was great joy in my room. It was a big event. We had already traveled to Kazakhstan with a team to see “Zarja” before it took off. We visited the vehicle because we needed to activate it later in orbit. We did spacewalks with him. It was important for us as a crew to see the hardware before we went into space.
“An absolutely remarkable mission”
tagesschau.de: How exciting was it for you to fly on the mission to build the ISS?
Cabin: I was very pleased to be able to lead the first space station assembly mission. This was an absolutely remarkable mission from start to finish. We started in December 1998 and launched Unity. “Unity” was the American center located in the cargo bay of our space shuttle “Endeavour”. Our mission was the first American flight to the International Space Station.
I think “Twill” and “Unity” – those were really great names for both modules. “Sarya” means “sunrise” in Russian. “Sunrise” in view of a new day and “Unity”. If you look at what holds the Unity connection module together, on one side you have the US laboratory, on the other side you have Zarya, the airlock and the truss structure that is attached to Unity. It is the heart of the space station.
Bob Cabana was the commander of the space 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 fellow Russian cosmonaut. Did you plan it that way from the beginning?
Cabin: 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. So when it came time to enter the space station for the first time, when we opened the hatch, I said, “Sergei, come here.”
If you watch how we entered, Sergei and I went through the hatch side by side. I found this 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 all the hatches 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 did three spacewalks to connect all critical power and data ports. An antenna on the Zarya module was not deployed and we had to help deploy it, and then we activated the space station in orbit. We had a computer in 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 actually don’t 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 screws and the panels that gave the station more structure to support the launch loads and prepare it for the first crew of astronauts on board.
“Fundamental stone of our partnership”
tagesschau.de: Have you realized how important and historic your work in space was?
Cabin: The logbook that the entire crew signed says at the beginning: “From small beginnings, great things come.” It was about our future and what we expect from our collaboration. And I truly believe that was the case.
Remembering the history of the International Space Station: a permanent crew aboard in space from October 2000 to the present. It’s absolutely incredible what she’s 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 it all possible.
tagesschau.de: How important was it at that time that the US and Russia built the ISS together?
Cabin: I think it is crucial that we include our Russian partners. Previously, there was the “Shuttle Mir program,” where the Russians took American astronauts to the Mir space station to learn how we could work with our Russian partners. We thus establish the foundations of our partnership.
When I look at the partnership on the International Space Station, it’s really surprising when you consider that Russia, the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are all partners. We’re all working on this together, about 250 miles above Earth, with a team that’s there every day. That’s quite impressive. I think the International Space Station set the standard for how we collaborate 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 cancelled. How is the collaboration on the ISS going?
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 want to move forward and it is important that we continue to cooperate in this area. We rely on the Russians for propulsion control. You trust us to provide power aboard the International Space Station, we’re connected. This is how the space station was designed. Therefore, for us 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?
Cabin: I don’t do this every time she comes, but occasionally. The season is the brightest star in the sky. It’s absolutely amazing how bright it looks when you see it go by. And then this thought: I was up there, there are seven people working there now, living in the space.
I grew up in Minnesota. My cousin sent me a photo. It was published 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. They were the space station and the space shuttle “Endeavour”. And it made 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 in this excitement and see what it means to explore and enter space. This is our future and we must shape it well.
The interview was conducted by Ute Spangenberger, SWR
Uwe Gradwohl, SWR, tagesschau, November 20, 2023, 9:34 am