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Friday, November 20, 1998 Published at 06:50 GMT

The Space Station era dawns

The International Space Station: A city in space

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

It is a project as audacious as the building of the Pyramids or the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the middle ages.

The International Space Station came a step nearer to reality on Friday when a Russian rocket blasted into orbit the first stage of the giant laboratory.

BBC Science Correspondent Sue Nelson: A challenging piece of engineering
The "city in space", which will sit 402 kilometres above the Earth, will take several years and cost many billions of dollars to complete.

When it is finished, it will be so big - more than 100 metres across - that it will be visible from the ground.

[ image: Zarya: The first ISS component]
Zarya: The first ISS component
The United States and Russia are just two of sixteen nations co-operating in this major scientific and technological project.

Zarya, built in Russia but paid for by the US, is the first component of the station to go up, delivered on a Proton rocket.

Its orbit will be altered so that it can be visited by the space shuttle in a few weeks time. The shuttle will be bringing the next module for connection called Unity.

Many more missions will be necessary before astronauts can start to use the station as testbed to develop new technologies.

Hello, goodbye

For the Russians, the whole project is a mixed blessing because with the ISS under construction they must start saying goodbye to their own space station Mir.

Russian space official Maxine Tarasenko talks about the ISS
Mir has been in space for 12 years and has made over 70,000 orbits of the Earth. Although at times it has seemed like an endurance test in space, Mir's achievements have been remarkable.

The Russians are clearly reluctant to abandon Mir. Although the West's common perception is that it is an accident prone station, Russia sees it differently. They regard it as having proved that man can live in space and overcome problems.

Russia had said it would bring Mir back to Earth in June 1999, but it now seems likely that they will keep it in space for at least another year.

[ image: The Proton rocket blasted off without a hitch]
The Proton rocket blasted off without a hitch
The problem is that Russia cannot really afford one space station, let alone two.

If they abandon Mir, for the first time in the space age, they will be without a major space project of their own. It is therefore unsurprising that they are emotionally attached to Mir.

Once it is gone, then the last vestige of the cold war space rivalry between the United States and Russia will go with it.

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In this section

Shuttle makes night landing

Shuttle launches 'disco ball'

Shuttle astronauts head home

Space station astronauts unpack bags

Space station repairs begin

Shuttle docks at space station

Perfect launch for Discovery

Hearing lost in space

New test for space 'lifeboat'

Astronauts cross new threshold

Space station comes alive

Unity and Zarya are one