The International Space Station was assembled in orbit, and today marks the 22nd anniversary of the launch of the first module of the ISS “Zarya” (meaning “dawn” in Russian) into space (November 20, 1998). A few weeks later, the second module “Unity” was launched and the two modules were coupled together, marking the first stage in the assembly of this permanent station, a cooperation between nations to propel humanity further into an era of space travel and space exploration for humans.
BIRA-IASB scientist Christian Muller followed the ambitious enterprise from the very start, and witnessed Belgium’s role in the birth of the largest and only habitable artificial satellite :
In 1972, when President Nixon announced the approval of the space shuttle during the Apollo 16 mission, we thought this new vehicle would join a permanent space station in orbit. The SPACELAB programme - started in 1976 and in which BIRA-IASB participated - was also seen as a preparation for science to be carried out on a space station.
However, NASA never managed to secure funding for a permanent station. In the meantime, from 1987 onwards, our Institute had started cooperation with the Russian space research institute IKI for the installation of an atmospheric research instrument on the MIR station, which was also meant as preparation for a much larger station.
Difficulties encountered by the two space agencies and a new political context were to lead Russia, NASA, ESA and the Japanese space agency to join forces for the realization of the International Space Station. BELSPO, on the occasion of a Belgian Presidency, led the negotiations for ESA in Washington with the support of a BIRA-IASB scientist seconded to the Minister's office. These agreements brought for us the presence of the SOLAR instrument on the COLUMBUS module of the ISS, and the creation of the B.USOC as a support structure for the ISS within the framework of an ESA network. We also knew that other Belgian astronauts would follow Dirk Frimout into space.
The launches of ZARYA and UNITY in 1998 marked the beginning of this new era.