The idea of artificial satellites was first suggested by Isaac Newton, and crewed ones were first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the 1890s, though he wasn’t able to publish until after the Russian Revolution. In 1899 Everett Hale published The Brick Moon, a novel in which an artificial satellite intended as an aid to navigation is accidentally launched with the workforce still aboard (Fig. 1). Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1945 paper on ‘Extraterrestrial Relays’ proposed three big satellites in geosynchronous orbit – taking for granted that they would be crewed, because a work force would be needed to keep changing the valves.
One early detailed study of a space station was by H. Noordung in The Problem of Space Travel (1928). Anticipating that permanent weightlessness could be such a problem, he proposed a ‘Living Wheel’ 30 metres across, rotating for artificial gravity, housing 24 people, topped by a 60 metre mirror generating 1000 KW of solar power – far more than any actual space station to date (Fig. 2). Variations of Noordung’s design dominated studies in the 1950s, in the Soviet Union (Fig. 3) and in the West, including Wernher von Braun’s design for the US Air Force (Fig. 4).
In the UK, H.E. Ross and R.A. Smith produced an alternative in which the living quarters were rotated on a counterbalanced arm (Fig. 5). All such space stations were to be built by fleets of ‘Ferry Rockets’ (Fig. 6) and intriguingly all the artwork shows the British one in geosynchronous orbit, so it could have been one of Clarke’s ‘Extraterrestrial Relays’, using the output of its huge mirror for global communications.
In the early 1950s von Braun, Willy Ley and others staged a series of seminars for Collier’s magazine (Fig. 7), later published in book form starting with Across the Space Frontier, edited by Cornelius Ryan (author of The Longest Day), published in the UK by Sidgwick & Jackson in 1952. Artwork by Chesley Bonestell and others was much copied (Fig. 8), and inspired the Wheel space station of the film The Conquest of Space (Paramount, 1955, Fig. 9).
The film poster (Fig. 10) highlights a big issue of the rotating wheel station – how do you get into it?
In the 1950s Across the Space Frontier, The Conquest of Space, the British and American stations in Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke, G. Harry Stine’s design for a space city, and the station in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Young Traveller in Space, all had non-rotating hubs (Fig. 10) and elaborate ‘cage’ arrangements for transfer to the main structure – something which even at 8 years old had struck me as dangerously complicated, and a real pain if it had to be used for transferring cargo. For a teenage essay I evolved an alternative of axial docking, putting the ship into a slow roll to match the station’s rotation. In one of his few serious disagreements with Arthur, Stanley Kubrick did the same for the Blue Danube sequence of 2001 (Figs. 11 and 12), and for the novel of 2001 Arthur changed it back, elsewhere citing an experienced astronaut who had told him that it couldn’t be done. I take leave not to believe that, when they all had to practice extricating spacecraft from spins in the MASTIFF trainer – standing Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott in good stead, in the near-disaster of Gemini VIII.
For all real space stations to date, lacking fleets of ferry rockets for construction, the designs have been cylindrical, often converted rocket stages. The first space stations were the Soviet Salyut series, of which seven were flown, starting with Salyut 1 in 1971 (Fig. 13).
Salyuts 2, 3 and 5 were military missions, and it turns out that the military ones were actually a different spacecraft called ‘Almaz’ (Fig. 14), whose main mission was orbital surveillance. Its intended counterpart was the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory, cancelled in 1969. It was to be launched on a Titan III booster, with a Gemini capsule on the top, and there was a test flight in November 1966, reusing an early Gemini – the first time a spacecraft was reused in the US space programme (Fig. 15).
In the civilian post-Apollo programme, there were to have been six Skylab missions using converted S-IVB stages, developed for Saturn I and Saturn V. The fuel tanks of the four ‘Wet’ Skylabs were to be converted on-orbit; all four were cancelled, and seen only as the ‘Ironman’ station in the film version of Marooned (Fig. 16).
Two ‘Dry’ Skylabs were manufactured on the ground, with the addition of a Multiple Docking Adaptor and the Apollo Telescope Mount, the most advanced telescope cluster flown in space to that time (Fig. 17). Only one was launched, on the last of the Saturn Vs, and in the process the outer meteoroid and thermal protection layer was ripped off, taking with it one of the main solar panels and jamming the other, leaving the station on emergency power from the ATM. The station was rescued by the first visiting crew of astronauts, including Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, who declared at launch, “Skylab Two – we fix anything!” They deployed a parasol from one of the scientific airlocks to cool the badly overheated Skylab, and freed the jammed solar panel, generating enough power for the mission to continue. The parasol was replaced by a larger one on a later mission (Fig. 18).
There were three Apollo missions to Skylab in 1973-74, taking 28, 59 and 84 days. The media focussed on trivia, like the ‘strike’ by the second crew when the workload got on top of them, and the student experiment in which a spider called ‘Arabella’ managed to spin a web in weightlessness at the second attempt, only to die of hunger because there were no insects aboard. But the major results were published in a series of books covering material technology, astronomy, medical research and Earth observations (two volumes each), as well as many scientific papers. One of the most important was a study of the effects of high-energy cosmic rays on the central nervous system, published as a set of papers in a dedicated issue of the journal Acta Astronautica. The alarm had been raised by astronauts who noticed strange flashes in their eyes during the lunar missions, and the finding was that three years’ exposure would result in serious mental deterioration, unless ships, space stations, and Moon and Mars bases, could all be provided with heavy-duty radiation shielding – possible for lunar and Martian installations, but really difficult for ships – one of many issues to be resolved before attempting crewed missions to Mars.
Skylab was left functional in orbit, and the intention was to refurbish and reposition it for use in the Space Shuttle programme, starting by raising it back to a safe, higher orbit in 1979. In one of his few defeats, the Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, a sworn enemy of the space programme, failed to get a motion passed forbidding NASA to do it. Unfortunately the Shuttle wasn’t ready for flight till 1981, and unexpectedly high solar activity had increased drag on the station, bringing it down in 1979. The attempt to deorbit it into the Indian Ocean was only partially successful, and that year’s bid to host the World Science Fiction Convention ran with the slogan, ‘Come to Australia – Skylab did!’ To this day, if you attempt to quote Skylab results in favour of space manufacturing, you can be sure of the reply, “Skylab? That fell, didn’t it?”
A US Senator with a more positive attitude was inspired by my ‘Epsilon Boötis’ paper (ON, May 29th–June 12th) to bring in a bill to extend the Apollo programme, launching Skylab 2 as planned. He got no takers, and instead it was cut in half to make a walk-through exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I’ve never gone through it because of the length of the queue, but to be honest, knowing that I just might have saved it, I don’t have the heart for it.
Meanwhile, what the Soviet programme was doing was impressive in itself, but even more so now, when we know that Salyut 4 and Salyut 6 were only the second and third of their kind (Fig. 19). In addition to their regular experiments and observations, Salyut 6 cosmonauts pulled off unmanned dockings by seven Progress ferries; cargo transfers, including fuel, and equipment such as a radio telescope, were handled as routine; a Soyuz replaced another at the end of its planned lifetime; the station was operated in gravity gradient mode, with its long axis pointing towards earth, to exchange spacecraft between the two docking ports, and rotated end-over-end for artificial gravity, while transferring fuel from a faulty tank. Mission durations ran to 140 and 175 days, way past Skylab’s, and there was a successful docking with a large cargo vessel from the Almaz programme, Kosmos 1267, which was suspected at the time of being a prototype for a manned Mars mission.
Salyut 7 continued the impressive run of development, all of it in rehearsals for the much more ambitious Mir station to come. Mir was launched by a Proton booster in 1986. At first it was intended that Salyut 7 would act as a storeroom for it, and during the Halley’s Comet Watch at Airdrie Public Observatory, we were also keeping tabs on the two space stations as they drew closer together. When a Mir crew transferred across, however, it turned out that power had failed inside Salyut 7 and its interior was unusable, almost frozen solid.
Unlike Skylab’s Multiple Docking Adaptor, which was for emergency rescues only, it swiftly became clear that Mir’s was for serious business. Science research modules called Kvant 1 and 2 were added, initially with linear docking, but Kvant-2 was then moved to form half of a T-shape, before it was balanced by a Kristall module for material processing. That was its configuration when visited by British cosmonaut Helen Sharman in 1991. Two more modules were still to be added, Spektr for biological research and Priroda for Earth studies. Their installation was delayed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but insisted upon by NASA before Shuttle flights to Mir began in 1995, in anticipation of building the International Space Station (Fig. 20).
Meanwhile, however, before the collapse, the Soviets had amazed the world by jumping straight from liquid-hydrogen fuelled upper stages for satellite launches (years behind schedule when first used), to a fully LH2 fuelled booster called Energia, capable of launching 100 tons more than Saturn V with added boosters and an upper stage. On only its second launch it successfully flew a space shuttle called ‘Buran’, unmanned, and despite technical problems it was landed successfully at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. There was derision in the West, suggesting this was only an inferior copy of the US Shuttle, but significantly Buran was capable of landing twice as much cargo as the Space Transportation System.
Before Skylab, western production of silicon chip wafers was bedevilled by quality issues, with 85% of product being rejected due to impurities. Experiments on Skylab achieved much higher purity, reducing the rejection rate to 15%. It augured well for manufacturing in space, but once they knew that it could be done, manufacturers on Earth managed to achieve much higher rates, spurring on the microchip revolution as costs fell. But biological experiments looked still more promising, and a single experimental run on Salyut 6 matched an entire year’s output of a particular exotic vaccine by the Salk Institute. In addition, France had a track record of cooperation with the Soviet programme (for a long time, General de Gaulle was the only Westerner to have visited the Baikonur Cosmodrome), and they had an experiment on Kristall making gallium arsenide semiconductors. I was shown samples of those on my visit to the Hughes Corporation’s space facilities in Malibu in 1986, and I was told they would revolutionise computing if they could be manufactured economically. It seemed no coincidence that the Buran shuttle was designed to dock with the Kristall module (Fig. 21), and if it was to start bringing back vaccines and GaAs semiconductors back from space by tens of tons, from raw materials launched separately by Energia, it would be a major boost not just to Russia’s space programme but to the country’s entire economy.
In the wake of the USSR’s collapse, it was not to be. Not only did neither Energia nor Buran fly again, but there was no funding to preserve the hardware. Like NASA’s ruthless policy at the end of its programmes, the key words were ‘abandon in place’; and the coup de grace came in May 2002, when the vehicle assembly building collapsed during an inspection, destroying two Energias and a shuttle, killing several of the inspection team. There is an alternative history to be written there, some day.
Mir was deorbited in March 2001, after two near-fatal onboard fires and the crippling of the Spektr module in collision with a Progress cargo ferry, in an ill-advised attempt at manual docking instead of using the Ukrainian automated system. Soviet sources insisted the deorbiting was at US insistence; US sources say that the Russians simply couldn’t afford to maintain it while honouring their commitment to the International Space Station. From 1975 to 1986, all that was left of the former Post-Apollo programme in the USA had been the Space Shuttle, and President Nixon had only kept that after the US Air Force came on board, insisting on a redesign which would allow it to launch Big Bird spy satellites from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. All military flights on the Space Shuttle were dropped after the loss of the Challenger in 1986, and only then did President Reagan at last agree to a new space station programme. As ‘Space Station Alpha’ and later ‘Freedom’ it went though multiple redesigns until 1989, when the Russians proposed a merger of their Mir-2 concept with Freedom’s, making it an international programme in which the proposed European Columbus lab and Japan’s Kibo would become attached modules, instead of free-flying, occasionally occupied small space stations. The Carter administration agreed in the interests of detente; even so, it was nine years later before assembly in orbit got under way.
In 2018, I was asked to review Columbus in Space, Europe’s Voyage of Discovery on the International Space Station, by Julien Harrod. It was a well-produced book and I wished I could recommend it unreservedly. But as it read, Columbus was designed for the ISS from the outset and followed smoothly on from the use of Europe’s Spacelab module on the Space Shuttle, and the timeline for this was presented as a winding road, ‘From Vision to Mission’, starting in 1983. A more accurate representation of the actual process would have been as a game of snakes and ladders; it’s like saying that in World War 2 Britain, the USA and Russia were in opposition to the Axis from the invasion of Poland onwards, in complete unity throughout. To take just one example, there’s not a hint of the anger in Europe when NASA cancelled the X-38 space station lifeboat, when Europe had fully met its 40% commitment and the first flight model had already started drop tests. ESA stopped producing its magazine On Station after editorials suggesting that Columbus might go back to being a free-flyer, after all.
Harrod did give some idea of the difficulties of working aboard the ISS, but it was mostly in terms of the detailed planning, even choreography, which the ground planners have to undertake to let the astronauts work round the obstacles, giving the impression that despite the complexity it all works smoothly. The closest he came to mentioning outright stress was where he said “The Dutch company behind the fans in Columbus takes some pride in having produced the quietest fans on the Space Station. Many astronauts have remarked that Columbus is the most relaxing place on the outpost…” It doesn’t sound like much, until you remember that there are fans in every compartment and they’re on all the time. The book to have in the other hand as you read this one is Endurance, Scott Kelly’s account of his 12-month mission aboard it. Kelly remains proud of the ISS, which he helped to build, and of what he accomplished while on it, but his narrative is the most candid that I’ve read and leaves one in no doubt why he resigned immediately when he got home. In particular he made a big issue of the poor air quality and the difficulty in maintaining the Russian oxygen generators, which had been a problem from the outset, and action to improve the situation has only now been taken. It’s noteworthy that these difficulties aren’t mentioned by Tim Peake in his book Limitless, nor by Samantha Cristoforetti in hers, Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut, though they were both on the ISS with Kelly at the time. All too obviously, they were hoping for more flights, and Cristoforetti has just finished a stint as the first woman commander of the ISS.
Building the ISS has been the most costly and complex engineering project in human history (Fig. 22), and there were many critics who said it wasn’t worth doing. The most frequent accusations were that the astronauts would have to spend too much time on maintenance to do any worthwhile research, and anyway the vibrations in the structure would compromise the results. Those were the reasons why the UK scientific establishment maintained its long-standing opposition to manned spaceflight, and why Britain withdrew from the ISS project in late 1980s. In reality the maintenance problems have not proved over-burdensome, and for the quality of scientific work, the astronauts themselves came up with an amazing solution: when a sensitive experiment is in progress, they keep still. Whoever could have expected that? It wasn’t until the 21st century that it became apparent that more than 50% of the cutting-edge scientific papers being published were coming out of work on the ISS – and even now, Britain has only one astronaut involved.
After years of dependency on the Russians, the USA now has its own transport to the ISS, courtesy of Elon Musk, while the alternative Boeing Starliner falls ever further behind schedule. Flights to the ISS and work on it are almost all that’s left of the cooperation in space which has taken so long to build. The aggressive Director of the Roscosmos agency has gone, along with his threats to pull the Russian modules off the station, and Russia’s plans to build its own station for them depend on the new family of Angara boosters, which are also far behind schedule. NASA hopes that operations in Earth orbit will be taken over by commercial companies in the 2030s, and Axiom Space, Inc., is currently the front runner in that area. But meanwhile China is pursuing its own programme, and has just completed the first phase of its Tiangong-3 space station, with further expansion on the cards. So what will happen between here and the middle of the century is anyone’s guess.
To see the International Space Station, go to the website www.heavens-above.com. Register, sign in and enter your location; on the right, you will then see a graphic showing the current position of the space station over the Earth, and on the left, if you click on ‘ISS’ under ‘Satellites’, you will get a 10-day forecast of upcoming sightings. If you get a message saying ‘No visible passes during the search period’, as I just did, you simply have to wait a few days until the next set of passes begins. When it does, look to the southwest for a bright object, comparable to Mars and Jupiter which are currently in the night sky, but moving steadily eastward. On a great circle arc, its movement is quite different to an aircraft’s, and of course, completely silent. At this time of year, probably you won’t be able to follow it right across the sky because it will disappear into the Earth’s shadow; but for however long you do see it, it will remain worth watching.
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President Reagan gave the go-ahead for the space station in January 1983 .