The Spacecraft Tarot: International Space Station

Tippy Ki Yay
6 min readFeb 28, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

We are connected by the World.

In a typical tarot deck, the World tarot card appears at the very end of the Major Arcana in order to signify the end of a journey or completion of a project. The feeling of the world lying at your feet, or being on top of the world — these are the same feelings the World tarot card invokes. The World represents a shared success.

What better spacecraft to represent the World than the International Space Station (ISS), which has enjoyed over twenty years of continuous human presence in low-Earth orbit and stands as an emblem of global collaboration — a symbol for what can be accomplished when we set aside our differences and work as a team.

Dreams of an Earth-orbiting space station where humans could live and work blazed long before humans even made it to space. Russian space visionary Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky wrote in 1911, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” His concepts inspired many after him, and on April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union deployed the world’s first experimental space station named Salyut.

The crew and cargo vehicle Soyuz could dock to the station and cosmonauts could experiment with the station’s navigations systems, study the Earth’s atmosphere and geology from their unique vantage point, and monitor the long-term effects of spaceflight on human beings. Sadly the first crew of Salyut, the first space station crew in world history, died after 20 days in orbit while returning home aboard Soyuz 11. Although the capsule landed safely, the cabin had depressurized too quickly and the cosmonauts were found dead strapped in their seats. At the time, cosmonauts did not wear pressure suits while launching or landing, but because of this accident, that norm quickly changed.

The Salyut enjoyed several different iterations, with a total of nine space stations launched and six of them successfully hosting cosmonauts. Each version built on the lessons learned, gradually improving the systems and designs with each new implementation.

NASA began to experiment with its own space station starting on May 14, 1976, with the launch of Skylab, made from leftover hardware from the Apollo Moon landing program. The beginning did not bode well for Skylab — both a solar array, which would generate power for the station, and the shield, designed to regulate the temperature of the spacecraft, deployed prematurely during launch. The station entered its planned orbit, but the vehicle was both overheated and underpowered. To fix the error, the NASA team quickly put together a new heat shield that the astronauts could install when they arrived to Skylab on May 25.

The assembly of the bottom and upper floors of the Skylab orbital workshop at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are seen here on January 1, 1970. Image Credit: NASA

While the Skylab program only had one space station, that spacecraft was home to three astronaut crews that gained an enormous amount of knowledge on how to live for long periods of time in space. Up until the early seventies when the Salyut and Skylab programs developed, astronauts and cosmonauts had only spent periods of time in space of two weeks or less. These early space stations made it possible for humans to start living in space for months at a time — creating knowledge that would be vital for the ISS to eventually host astronauts for years at a time.

Another important precursor to the ISS was the Soviet Union’s Mir, the first modular space station that could be added to, bit by bit, over the years to increase its capabilities. Construction began on February 19, 1986, with the launch of the first pieces, and the space station lasted for 15 years, three times its planned life expectancy. Cosmonauts grew the first crop of wheat to be grown seed to seed in outer space aboard Mir.

“Mir” is Russian for a word that encapsulates “world,” “peace,” and “village” — fitting considering that the modules designed for what was to be Mir-2 eventually became the seeds for what is the International Space Station today.

Expedition 56 crew members captured the International Space Station from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking on October 4, 2018. Image Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved due to growing unrest, spurred by ideological differences between the central government and the constituent republics. The fate of Mir-2 was up in the air. Fortunately, the United States was already working on a plan for a new space station that would combine elements from many different nations. Although the United States and Russia had a history of tension, President Bill Clinton invited Russia to join.

On January 29, 1998, representatives from fifteen nations all over the world met in Washington D.C. and signed an agreement to design, deploy, and operate the ISS, together. The dream of an internationally-shared space station began to take form when the first element Zarya launched from Russia later that year on November 20. The first American element, Unity, followed closely behind, joining with Zarya and officially beginning construction. The arrival of the Expedition 1 crewmembers on November 2, 2000, marked the very beginning of over twenty years and counting of continuous human presence in space.

Space agencies from all over the globe have added more and more elements throughout the years. The Canadian Space Agency contributed the Canadarm, a gigantic robotic arm, which helps spacewalking astronauts perform construction and helps cargo vehicles to dock to the space station. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency contributed Kibo, a research facility with spaces for experiments. The European Space Agency contributed the Cupola, a dome-like structure with windows so astronauts can look outside when operating station equipment — or just look outside in general, one of space-explorers’ self-reported favorite pastimes.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 37 flight engineer, enjoys the view of Earth from the windows in the Cupola of the International Space Station on November 4, 2013. Image Credit: NASA

The ISS has been home to hundreds of astronauts from all over the world, as well as thousands of research experiments making use of the unique microgravity environment and viewpoint from space. These experiments have supported breakthroughs in a number of areas — from cancer research to natural disaster response to water purification.

The ISS represents the peak of international collaboration. No matter what strife is taking place on the ground, citizens from all cultures, religions, and backgrounds join together and break bread every day 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. Together they celebrate holidays from their own countries, sharing traditional meals and stories of each other’s homelands.

When astronauts report looking down on Earth from the ISS, they are captured by how little and fragile the planet seems. This phenomena is called the “Overview Effect.” When the Earth seems so delicate, it’s hard to understand how others can get so caught up in what divides us.

From space, there are no territory lines separating countries from one another. We are all spinning on the same hunk of rock in the infinite blackness.

An orbital sunrise appeared in the one of the seven cupola windows as the International Space Station orbited 260 miles above the Pacific Ocean on January 13, 2021. Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.