The materials used in Mir and ISS

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2016

This month in history, Materials World celebrates the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Mir space station core module. Khai Trung Le writes, Ashley Cooper illustrates.

Russia and the Soviet Union’s Mir space station achieved an impressive number of records during its lifespan from 1986 to 2001 – first modular space station, largest artificial satellite, longest continuous human presence in space and longest single human spaceflight. Most have since been superseded by the International Space Station (ISS), but these records were befitting for the space station named peace, or world. 

‘100-tonne Tinker toy’, an oft-used but unattributed quote, is an apt description of Mir’s ramshackle appearance, an iconic spindly mass of PV arrays and cylindrical compartments banded together by seemingly fragile strips of metal. However, Mir was a significant step forward from the former Salyut programme, and although the core module closely resembled previous Soviet space stations Salyut-6 and Salyut-7, it included more efficient life support systems, additional solar panels, added six onboard computers, and the infamous water recycling system that produces drinkable water from greywater, urine and sweat. Power was supplied by PV arrays, and backed by a uranium reactor steamed electric recharger.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many similarities between the materials used in the construction of the ISS and Mir. Aluminium was used for container and module construction, plastics as high-energy radiation stoppers, and titanium and stainless steel for plumbing. Although material developments allow for the ISS to benefit from, for example, the inclusion of Kelvar and ceramic fabrics within the aluminium shell for additional protection against impacts, it is no surprise to see the ISS building incrementally on the proven success of Mir, given the conflict between pioneering spirit and the need to guarantee success. To this day, NASA continues to make use of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the first model of which was devised in 1967, for supply and passenger flights.

While Major Tim Peake was recently celebrated as the first British astronaut in 20 years, and the first official Briton to spacewalk, Mir also brought opportunities for the UK to break records, with Helen Sharman OBE becoming both the first Briton in space and the first woman to visit Mir in May 1991.

Mir was decommissioned and returned to the Earth’s atmosphere on 23 March 2001, with any components that had not disintegrated on re-entry crashing into the Tasman Sea, 1,800 metres east of New Zealand. While the beacon for international co-operation has been passed on to the ISS, Mir lived up to its name in bringing the world together in some of its most significant steps towards space exploration.