View from ISS. © Alexander Gerst

Happy Birthday ISS: OHB celebrates 20 years of International Space Station

Our contribution to a chapter of space history


By the time you reach 20, you feel grown up and have already experienced good things as well as not so good things in life but still have your best years ahead of you. Celebrating its 20th birthday in November, the International Space Station ISS can look back on a wealth of research experience in weightless conditions, contributing things that make life on the earth better as well as paving the way for our efforts to embark on missions to the moon and Mars in the future. At an altitude of some 400 kilometers above the earth’s surface, the ISS has been orbiting at speeds of around 28,000 kph ever since its launch on November 20, 1998, only ten months after the signing of the international agreement of all ISS-partners, carrying a considerable amount of OHB technology and knowledge with it. And nearly each year new OHB contributions are added. And since birthdays provide a great opportunity for revisiting the past, we would like to take you back to 2008, the year in which the European Columbus module was being readied for its journey.


In February 2008 the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, bound for the International Space Station ISS. On board was the European research laboratory Columbus, which docked with the ISS three days later. OHB was the only European company that was involved in the development of all the scientific research facilities for the COLUMBUS module and played a key role in the first biological experiment for the European space research laboratory.

EPM: The first research rack to go into operation in the Columbus module on board the ISS

At the time, one of the questions for which scientists were seeking answers was this: How does weightlessness affect the human organism? These and other questions were to be answered by the EPM (European Human Physiology Facility), which was developed and built for the European Space Agency ESA under the supervision of OHB’s Human Spaceflight department. EPM is made up of several modules allowing the astronauts to perform various examinations in the area of human physiology. One of these modules is the “Cardiolab”, a medical diagnostics system which is used to examine how the cardio/vascular system adjusts to gravity-free conditions over an extended period of time in space. In one of the first EPM experiments, the “MEEMM” module was also used for mapping the brain and muscular activity of the astronauts on board the ISS. Over the years, EPM has been used for 20 different experiments. Some human-physiological EPM experiments were carried out on up to ten different astronauts to statistically validate the scientific results.

ISS centrifuges made in Bremen

At the same time, Klaus Slenzka, head of life sciences at OHB, and his team wanted to look more close at how plants grow and their roots develop in space conditions. Questions concerning the gravitation biology of plants and small organisms are investigated in the Biolab. OHB built the first experiment for the Biolab research laboratory on board the ISS.  In an experiment known as WAICO, root growth in arabidopsis, also known as thale or mouse-ear cress, was examined in varying degrees of gravity as well as in completely gravity-free conditions. The OHB protocol permitted fully automatic execution of the experiment, with the astronaut’s task largely confined to sowing the arabidopsis seed in the 16 experiment containers and placing them on centrifuges in the Biolab incubator. This incubator is connected to a life support system to create the atmospheric conditions necessary for the plants to grow, while the centrifuges simulate varying degrees of gravity right up to twice the earth’s gravity. Both the centrifuges and the life support system were developed and build by OHB as well.

Fitness machine made by OHB: Flywheel

ESA astronaut Frank De Winne (Belgium) was the first member of the International Space Station ISS crew to use the “Flywheel”, a exercise device developed and built by OHB. The “Flywheel” was designed as a countermeasure against muscle and bone atrophy afflicting astronauts in space. In a total of eight different exercises, the Flywheel trains the muscles of the legs, arms and chest. In contrast to the equipment mostly used in the past, it covers nearly all the main parts of the muscular system. The “Flywheel” supplements the existing sports equipment on board the ISS such as an exercise bike, a treadmill and a gym with hydraulic resistance.

The Flywheel was sent to the ISS in a special stowage and transport rack, the European Transport Carrier ETC, which was developed by OHB as the prime contractor. The ETC safely holds the equipment and sensitive samples for the research activities to be conducted in the European Columbus module. More than half of the equipment being transported by the ETC to ISS was originated from OHB; for example, a high-speed camera for the Fluid Science Lab FSL and five medical devices for the European Physiology Module EPM.

By the way, if you are interested, you can try out the Flywheel at OHB in Bremen, where it can be found in the foyer of the company headquarters.

Knotted and wired: ISS infrastructure from Bremen 

OHB was also materially involved in the infrastructure of the ISS, providing the harness for Columbus. The company assembled the entire harness for the electronic test module (ETM) as well as the flight module (FM). Each module contains around 1,700 connectors with over 12,000 contacts as well as 33 different types of cables with a total length of over 30 kilometers for each module. The harnesses for both parts were produced and then tested in OHB’s Columbus clean room. This name is no coincidence as it was OHB’s founding father Prof. Manfred Fuchs (deceased) who was one of the name giver of the Columbus module.

In October 2007, the second node for the ISS was successfully placed in orbit on board the US space shuttle Discovery. Named “Harmony”, it included harnesses and secondary structures, internal scaffolding and racks also supplied by OHB in Bremen. The node is the module which links the ISS laboratories. The first one is called Unity and has been in operation as the second part of the ISS since December 1998. The nodes provide access to the connected laboratories and also contain living, stowage and storage space.

In addition to interfaces for the European Columbus laboratory and the Japanese module, Node 2 has a docking station for the Space Shuttle. The internal structures were developed by OHB and built by companies in Bremen and surrounding regions. They mainly contain the power and data distribution systems and the life support systems (air conditioning / cooling / heating / fire suppression) for the extended part of the ISS in its final stage of expansion and for a crew of seven astronauts. The harnesses developed and built by OHB are composed of conventional copper cables for power supply and data traffic as well as optic cables for transmitting image data.

OHB was also responsible for providing the harness for the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which was used to handle supply and disposal tasks for the ISS. OHB assembled cables and wires with a length of around five kilometers for connecting the computer systems with the instruments, motors and relays in each of the five ATV flight models. On its journey to the ISS, the ATV was exposed to the risk of damage from natural and man-made particles (meteorites and space debris). These particles impact the surface of the ATV at high speed (normally 10-72 km/s) and can cause severe damage to the primary structure and subsystems. To ensure the success of the mission, the vehicles and their subsystems must therefore be equipped with a protection system during all orbital mission phases. This protection system (MDPS - Meteoroid and Debris Protection System) was developed and validated by OHB System for the ATV.

PK-4 research module for conducting research into complex plasmas

In 2014, the European-Russian ISS research module “PK-4”, in which the Microgravity Department of Armin Stettner at OHB Oberpfaffenhofen site (formerly Kayser-Threde GmbH) played a key role, embarked on its journey to the ISS. “PK-4” is a permanent installation within the European Columbus research module designed to conduct experiments on complex plasmas.

OHB additionally developed and assembled two sub racks for moduels power supplies, communications and data collection. In addition, it fabricated and integrated a large part of the mechanical structure as well as the control and operating software for the experiment. PK-4 was installed in the EPM. In this way, it was possible to meet the complex requirements for this new plasma crystal apparatus by developing a research laboratory for the International Space Station ISS suitable for use in space conditions.

Plasma accounts for over 99% of visible material in space. Complex plasmas (which are made up of ions, electrons, inert gas and micro-particles) can be explored most easily in weightless conditions as this avoids particle sedimentation. “PK-4” generates complex plasma crystals in a glass tube filled with an inert gas. The data derived from various experiments shall provide new insights into the physics of condensed materials, various astrophysical questions and future applications in semiconductor technology and medicine.

"PK-4 was a successful collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Garching, with which we also developed the two predecessor experiments PKE-3 (PKE-Nefedov) and PK-3 Plus," says OHB-PK-4 Payload Manager Roland Seurig. "We have accompanied the PK-4 from Phase 0 onwards and are now also firmly involved in the operational Phase E. Although PK-4 is a European-Russian experiment, it is open to the worldwide scientific community." 

ANITA, a gas analyser for determining air quality, which NASA operated on the ISS between 2007 and 2008, was also developed by the former Kayser-Threde. The instrument can detect trace gases such as CO2 and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, methanol and chlorinated hydrocarbons. ANITA even brought luck to the ISS crew: the instrument revealed that toxic gases were emitted during an experiment. Fortunately, they were not dangerous to the astronauts' health. The Microgravity Department is currently developing the 2nd ANITA generation. 

Eager to perform experiments on board the ISS: OHB’s human space flight department

OHB’s human space flight department not only journeys all over the world but is also extremely eager to perform as many experiments as possible. Thus, OHB has qualified the Myotones muscle measurement devices for experiments on board the ISS. On his current mission, German astronaut Alexander Gerst is using it to measure changes in his muscle tension in weightless conditions. Scientists are pinning great hopes to the results of the experiments as they want to be able to use them in diagnosing and treating muscle diseases and sports injuries more effectively in the future. The tests will also provide valuable insight into the effectivity of training in orbit. 

OHB develops the electronics and software, among other things, for the VIP-GRAN (Vibration Induced Phenomena in Granular Materials) experiment on board the ISS to investigate the dynamic and statistical properties of granular materials in weightless conditions. And the space pioneers at OHB are also venturing onto the moon: the Human Spaceflight department is working on a study for the design of a lunar base using 3D printing technologies. Known as URBAN, the project is specifically tasked with evaluating the feasibility and resource requirements for the implementation of 3D printing for building, expanding and operating a lunar base.

3D is also playing a role in the MELT (Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology) project.  The purpose of this project is to use the ISS as a technology demonstration environment for testing and operating a printer that is capable of producing high-performance components from technical polymeric materials.

Our film shows you impressions of the projects being performed by our Human Spaceflight department:


Human Spaceflight is a firm part of our corporate DNA and something which we are incredibly proud of. 

Dr Marco Berg, Head of Human Spaceflight


ISS: Looking back on 20 years filled with pride but what comes next?

OHB’s involvement in the ISS was a decisive factor in the company’s success. “This was our nursery, the place where we have our roots,” says Dr Marco Berg. During the years in which development work was performed on the ISS and then on Columbus, 50 percent of all OHB employees were involved in projects related to ISS, many of them continue to play decisive roles in our satellite projects today. These activities opened many doors for OHB in European space sector according to Berg: “Human Spaceflight is a firm part of our corporate DNA and something which we are incredibly proud of.”

Of course, work is well under way for plans for a new base which will be located in a special orbit around the moon. Known as the “Gateway”, it is planed that separate modules to be launched between 2022 and 2026. The ISS partners – Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada – are casting their eyes to the future and currently planning the next major milestone in human space flight, namely a lunar orbital base for manned missions to the moon or Mars. The working title is currently “Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway” or simply “Gateway”. OHB has been selected to participate in one of two parallel studies for planning a European module that goes by the evocative name of ESPRIT (European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications). The company will be handling key development tasks as a subcontractor for French aerospace group Thales Alenia Space. ESPRIT is being executed on behalf of the European Space Agency ESA.

Back to the future: We are eagerly awaiting the date on which the Gateway goes into operation as an incredible amount of knowledge acquired on board the ISS has been incorporated in its development. Hopefully, by the time it celebrates its 20th anniversary we will be able to look back just as proudly on the many projects that OHB has contributed to it. 



The ISS is a joint project of NASA in the United States, the Russian space agency Roskosmos, the European space agency ESA as well as the space agencies CSA in Canada and JAXA in Japan. In Europe, the countries involved are Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands,