The Untold Story Of The ISS, The Most Complex Structure You’ll Never Visit

An architect’s account of the construction of the International Space Station was seven years in the making.


“One of the pleasures of great works of architecture and engineering is that you can visit them,” writes architect David Nixon. That’s impossible for the International Space Station, which is basically the most expensive and least-visited house ever constructed. “It is all the more surprising, then, that so little has been published on it,” Nixon continues in the foreword to his new book documenting the 40-year design process. “Not much more than a few paperback books, now out of date, and a pictorial reference guide from [NASA] are available for an achievement that is widely regarded as the engineering and construction masterpiece of modern times.”


Indeed, straightforward information about its design and construction is surprisingly difficult to come by, and it’s easy to understand why. As Nixon—who has spent his career as an architect designing for space programs, including the ISS—explains, the design was evolving right up until the final assembly just a few years ago. The shifting geopolitical climate, funding cuts, and legislative setbacks altered the construction plan over and over. It took thousands of on-the-ground engineers and hundreds of astronauts to finish it. It’s no wonder there’s no cohesive account of its design, especially one written from an architectural perspective.

So for the past seven years, Nixon has compiled the architectural history of the ISS, published next month under the title International Space Station Architecture Beyond Earth. The 250-page book documents the complex political and social currents that led to its creation, but the most unfathomable thing about its story is, by far, the fact that it was built at all. As Nixon puts it: “The International Space Station’s supreme achievement is its construction.”

The ISS’s Closest Living Relative Is CERN

The space station might be an entirely new building type, but it does have a relative here on Earth. Nixon says that the Large Hadron Collider is the closest comparable structure on this planet—for two reasons. First, an incredibly lengthy international collaboration was required to orchestrate its construction over decades. Second, its site is underground, where it was extremely difficult to run a complicated construction project.


Space Has A Smell, And A Sound

Considering that the vast majority of its designers had never been into space, the task of designing the station’s interiors involved unthinkable blindspots ranging from the smells to the sounds of the space. Designers had to consider everything from the color of the walls, including one ill-advised experiment with salmon (supposed to be a “soothing” color), to the acoustic effects of the interior, all without being able to experience any of those environmental conditions themselves. In some cases, their choices had unexpected results, as recounted by astronauts very vividly in the book.

For example, astronaut Nicole Stott explains that because of the changes in temperature on the surface of the modules, the spaces often echo with a startling creaking (“at first it is slightly alarming, but soon becomes familiar,” she writes). Equally surprising, she says that space itself has a smell:

“A big surprise to me was the ‘smell of space.’ By that, I mean what something smells like after being exposed to the vacuum of space. The best example is the suit used for a spacewalk right after a crew member re-enters the station from the airlock. I’ve heard different descriptions, but to me space has a sweet, metallic smell similar to that of an overheating car radiator.”

The Russian-Designed Modules Are Cozier

The collaboration between Russia and the U.S. on the station’s design during the Bush administration was a metaphor for a grander political detente, as the book recounts. But that didn’t mean that cultural differences didn’t still exist, even in the two countries’ approach to design. Stott describes how Soviet-borne interior design was more humane than its American counterpart:


“There is a difference in the interior design and ‘feel’ of the U.S.-built and Russian-built modules, although both are comfortable and technically sound. The U.S. modules are somewhat sterile, with a lot of white panels and exposed cables and equipment, while the Russian modules are what I would describe as ‘cosy,’ with a plush tan fabric covering the major surfaces. The smell of the modules is distinctive, too—neither smells bad, just different. You can close your eyes and float from one module to another and tell where you are just from the smell or feel of the place.”

Designing For A Micro-Society

After figuring out the structural design of the station, the agencies had to deal with a problem just as complex: the ergonomic and psychological impact of its design. In the 1970s and 1980s, a good deal of time was spent studying these issues and developing standards for designers, just like those used by architects here on Earth.

Architects and scientists were tasked with developing design guidelines for sustaining reasonable human comfort in as small a space as possible (at first, the minimum space per astronaut was pegged at just one seventh of the size of a typical studio apartment). The social structure of the station itself was carefully considered as well: Researchers called it a “micro-society,” and studied how design could avoid straining the social relationships between astronauts. These studies “advocated measures that included the fuzzy phrase ‘environmental richness’ and noted that the use of crew leisure time and the need for privacy were key habitability issues,” Nixon explains.

Sometimes It Still Comes Down To A Hacksaw

While a lot of the heavy lifting that took place in putting the ISS together was done by the space shuttle’s robotic arms, the real grunt work was left to hundreds of astronauts who had to do everything from untangling wires to actually bolting together the trusses that support the station’s photovoltaics. As Nixon explains, the work was so laborious that NASA developed a special type of nut that screwed on much faster—today, the same design is used ubiquitously in building design and structural engineering here on Earth under the name ZipNuts.


Still, sometimes the work came down to tools that have been around for centuries. In 2005, the space shuttle Discovery needed some repairs when it docked with the ISS after a thermal cloth designed to protect the shuttle had been dislodged. “Astronaut Stephen Robinson went out on a spacewalk to deal with the protruding gap fillers,” Nixon writes, “equipped with forceps and a hacksaw.”

You can preorder International Space Station Architecture Beyond Earth from Circa Press here.

All Photos: NASA

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.