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Flight Plans Newsletter

15. Space Stations: The United States and the USSR

by Richard Wallace, The Museum of Flight  NASA image of Skylab

The idea of a manned satellite orbiting Earth had its beginnings in 19th century literature. In 1869, American writer Edward Everett Hale wrote a short story called “The Brick Moon.” That story and its sequel, “Life on the Brick Moon,” were published in The Atlantic Monthly. Hale’s “moon” was a brick sphere 60 meters (200 feet) in diameter, designed as a nautical aid for navigation. It gets launched by a pair of giant flywheels, but something goes amiss and the people who designed the structure, along with their visiting families, become accidental passengers. All turns out fine.

In 1903, the Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a work of fiction called “Beyond the Planet Earth” in which he imagined human-occupied stations in space, orbiting Earth. The catchphrase “space station” was coined in 1923 by another rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth, Germany’s most influential physicist during the inner war years.

Werner von Braun, Germany’s chief rocket scientist, who later became the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, is credited with popularizing in America the idea of the space station. Featured in a 1950s Walt Disney television program, von Braun’s concept was a giant rotating wheel that would function as an observatory, science lab and hub for future planetary travel.

However, space station design, both in the USSR and the United States, would develop in a very different direction from von Braun’s majestic wheel.

Apollo to Skylab

From the very beginning, the “Space Race” drove the decisions that would put American space station development on the back burner. A June 1997 NASA fact sheet describes how the space agency viewed the U.S. presence in space: “In 1959, a NASA committee recommended that a space station be established before a trip to the Moon.” However, the moon mission won out after the USSR sent cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin into space on April 12, 1961.

In 1969, the year of Apollo 11 and the first moon walk, NASA once again proposed a space station, this one capable of holding 100 people. Named “Space Base,” the project was quickly seen as too costly: Shipping parts into space via expendable rockets would soon cost more than the station’s construction. Out of this contradiction came the idea of a reuseable spacecraft: the Space Shuttle. But that technology needed to be worked out.

In May 1973, the United States used the technology of Apollo to launch Skylab. The third stage of a Saturn V rocket was modified to be both living quarters and project workshop for a three-person crew. Astronaut crews would be ferried back and forth using surplus Apollo spacecrafts. Although it was occupied for just over one year, Skylab proved that people could live and work in space for long periods of time. Close to 300 scientific and technical experiments were conducted. The third and last Skylab crew stayed on board for 84 days.

Soon after the end of the Apollo era, NASA’s annual budgets were significantly cut. NASA decided that all future plans for a permanent space station would need to wait for the completion of the Space Shuttle.

The USSR: Three generations of space stations

Soviet space station design proceeded in three stages. A NASA fact sheet from January 1997 states: “First-generation [Soviet] space stations had one docking port and could not be resupplied or refueled. The stations were launched unmanned and later occupied by crews. There were two types: “Almaz” military stations and “Salyut” civilian stations”.

The civilian project soon took top billing. Like the Americans, the Soviets adapted elements of their space program technology to this new endeavor: utilizing their Soyuz spacecraft as a ferry vehicle for cosmonauts. Salyut 1, sent into space by a Proton rocket, reached Earth orbit on April 19, 1971. It was the world’s first space station.

Early failures visited this phase of operation, including the death of the Soyuz 11 crew during their return to Earth, due to an air leak in the spacecraft.

The Soviets quickly bounced back. Their second-generation stations, Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 (1977-1985), designed for longer-duration missions, had two docking ports: one for refueling and accepting new supplies, and another for new crew. Their accomplishments are noteworthy: 237 days in space (a crew of Salyut 7); and hosting a variety of cosmonauts and astronauts from many countries including France, India and the noncommunist bloc countries. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated that docking maneuvers with large space modules could be done successfully.

Space station Mir, the first long-term station in history, was launched on February 20, 1986. Mir was the first use of modular unit design: a space station built over time. Mir, which was deliberately taken out of orbit on March 23, 2001, helped pave the way for international cooperation in space. The Shuttle/Mir program, a U.S./Russian joint venture in the 1990s, involved 11 shuttle flights to Mir.

A New Era In 1984, President Ronald Reagan called for the construction of a space station in his State of the Union address. A new era of space exploration began, one that would lead to the planning and construction of The International Space Station. The ISS is an enterprise of 16 nations. It is four times the size of Mir, with a mass of nearly 1,040,000 pounds, and will eventually have six state-of-the-art laboratories, all powered by the sun.