Marianne J. Dyson

The History of Space Stations

Author Note: this chapter was originally written for Space Station Science, but was cut to make room for more photos and activities. I've posted it here for people interested in the history of space stations. I'd like to thank NASA space station scientist Dr. Jack Bacon, and Skylab astronaut Dr. Joseph Kerwin for their help in reviewing the original chapter for technical accuracy.

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For more details on space station history, check out my history reference book, Space and Astronmy: Decade by Decade at a library near you.

Building on What we Know

The Soviet Union launched the world's first space station, Salyut 1, on April 19, 1971. Since then, we have learned a lot about living in space. Many of the procedures and systems on the current space station reflect this history.

The first space station crew, Nikolai Rukavishnikov, Vladimir Shatalov, and Alexei Yelisyev, arrived at the Salyut 1 three days after its launch. But they couldn't get in. Something was wrong with the hatch. Running low on supplies, they had to leave after 6 hours. [Ref. 1] You can be sure that later hatch designs were easier to open.

The second crew, Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, got in okay and stayed for 24 days. They were the first people to spend that long in space.

But on June 30, 1971, tragedy struck. The ground team sent to greet the returning heroes opened the hatch of their spaceship to a terrible sight. The three men were dead. A valve had opened by mistake in space and let all the air out of the ship. With no space suits to provide air, the cosmonauts died before reaching the ground. [Ref. 2] Now, all cosmonauts wear suits for launch and landing.

The world's second space station, Salyut 2, launched in April of 1973. It had been in space less than two weeks when the engine exploded. The space station tumbled out of control and crashed to Earth in May. Luckily, there were no cosmonauts onboard.

The next space station was a secret one called Cosmos 557. Its main job was to provide spy photos of the ground as it flew overhead. But before a crew got there, it too went out of control. It burned up in May of 1973. [Ref. 1] The Soviets then designed more reliable engines.

That same month, the United States launched its first space station. This was Skylab, an orbital workshop for three people.

To save money, the Americans used leftover Apollo boosters, called Saturn V's, for their space station. The Saturn V's were gigantic, so Skylab ended up three and a half times bigger than a Salyut. [Ref. 3]

Skylab's first crew, Charles Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz, showed the value of having human problem-solvers in orbit. During a rough ride to orbit (the crew rode up separately), Skylab was damaged. It was short of power and unable to get rid of its heat. Unless the crew could fix things quickly, the space station was doomed.

A NASA technician with a reputation as a 'fix-it' man, started thumbing through the yellow pages. He found what he was looking for — fishing poles that would telescope down to 18 inches. Using the poles as ribs, NASA engineers designed a collapsible nylon umbrella to shade the station from the sun. The crew took it with them when they launched a few days later. Like a parasol out a car window, they popped it out an 8x8 inch scientific airlock. [Ref. 4] The station was then cool enough to function. Further demonstrating the importance of having humans on the job, they did a spacewalk to free a solar array to restore power. Skylab was fixed. [Ref. 5]

The next crew (July - August 1973) set a record of 58 days in space -- the first time the United States had a crew in space longer than the Soviets. One of the astronauts was Alan Bean, the first person to both walk on the Moon and live on a space station. The other crew members were Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma.

The third crew of Skylab (Carr, Gibson, Pogue) were in orbit and away from their families for 84 days. (Count 84 days back on your calendar. If you had been in space, what holidays would you have celebrated there?) A mission this long was a new challenge for the ground team as well as the crew. For example, Skylab crews brought back 175,000 pictures of the sun and about 40 miles (64 km) of electronic data tape to process. [Ref. 3] The current space station uses real-time computerized data sets and digital cameras whose images can be automatically processed by the space station control center.

Also, astronauts returning from these long missions were too weak to stand, let alone escape if there had been a landing emergency. As a result, exercise equipment became a requirement of all long space missions.

The United States abandoned Skylab in February 1974. There simply was no way to get there. (The last Apollo ship was used for the Apollo-Soyuz mission and the space shuttle was not ready until 1981.) The current space station is reached by space shuttles as well as Russian rockets.

The Soviets launched Salyut 3 in June of 1974, Salyut 4 in December 1974, and Salyut 5 in June of 1976. [Ref. 1] Because of the new rule to wear space suits, crews were limited to two men each until a new design in 1979. They tried to break the American's record of time in space, but technical problems kept them from it until Salyut 6.

A limiting factor on time in orbit was how much supplies the crew could bring with them. The Soviets solved this problem by designing Salyut 6 with two docking ports. One was always occupied by their return/escape ship. The other was used for visiting ships. Supplies were unloaded from unmanned cargo ships. Then the rocket was used to 'take out the trash,' solving another problem of long missions.

Sometimes the extra port was used for manned ships. The first visitor to a space station was Vladimir Remek of Czechoslovakia who visited Salyut 6 in 1978. [Ref. 6]

Salyut 7, launched in 1982, had lots of problems. The radios broke, the power failed, and the water pipes leaked. The Soviets added new solar panels and chemical batteries and fixed the water pipes. [Ref. 1]

However, there was one problem they could not solve. The sun was in a cycle of increased activity. This caused the Earth's atmosphere to get hotter and expand. Like steam lifting the lid off of a pan on the stove, the expanding atmosphere ran into Salyut 7. The Soviets boosted it to a higher orbit. But like an old car, it used a lot of fuel. After operating far longer than any previous station, it was abandoned in 1986. It fell to Earth over Argentina in 1991. [Ref. 6]

The next space station was called Mir which means 'peace' in Russian. This space station was launched in February 1986. Unlike the Salyuts, it was designed for expansion. New modules were docked and moved to ports using a robot arm. Two modules were added to the Mir core before 1990, and four more by 1996. Improved engines were able to keep this biggest-ever station from being dragged down like the Salyuts. This capability plus continued use of supply ships allowed Mir cosmonauts to become the first humans ever to spend more than a year in orbit. [Ref. 2]

After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia decided not to replace the aging Mir. Instead they joined the United States, Canada, Japan, and ten European countries as partners in the International Space Station program. Mir became a place to test new station procedures and equipment.

In March of 1995, American Dr. Norman Thagard spent 3 months on Mir with two Russian cosmonauts. [Ref. 7] The mixing of cultures had some unexpected results. Doctors decided that Dr. Thagard had lost weight in part because he didn't care for pickled perch, a standard item on the Russian menu. This prompted both countries to add more variety to their menus. The next year, Shannon Lucid set a world duration record (188 days) for women in space, apparently satisfied with space station food.

Five more Americans gained valuable experience by living on the Mir between 1996 and 1998. These were John Blaha, Jerry Linenger, Michael Foale, David Wolf, and Andy Thomas.

A dangerous fire erupted during Dr. Linenger's flight in February, 1997. The crew donned oxygen masks as the station filled with smoke. They put the fire out without any long-term damage. Because of shift schedules, NASA wasn't told of the accident until the next day. As a result, ground communications were improved.

In June 1997, a Progress supply ship crashed into the Mir. Air rushed out of a hole in the Spektr science module where Michael Foale spent most of his time. The crew cut power cables and sealed the hatch, plunging the station into darkness. Only their quick actions prevented a total loss of the station and an emergency crew return. Weeks later, Foale and Anatoly Solovyev did a space walk to regain power. [Ref. 8] This proved the wisdom of having modular designs. Even though the Spektr module was permanently damaged, the rest of the station kept working.

The first piece of the International Space Station - named Zarya for sunrise in Russian - was launched unmanned from Kazakstan in November, 1998. A few weeks later, the crew of space shuttle flight STS-88 arrived to connect the second piece, Unity.

However, because of financial woes in Russia, the critical third module, Zvezda (meaning star), was delayed, and then delayed again. The delays cost NASA millions of dollars. Politicians called the partnership between the U.S. and Russia a mistake. Yet the U.S. did not have a booster powerful enough to keep a large space station in orbit. And Russia couldn't afford to build and maintain a station alone. The partners needed each other.

Zvezda finally launched successfully in July of 2000. Several space shuttle flights quickly followed to provide equipment. Then the first Expedition crew rode a Soyuz rocket to their new home, arriving in November, 2000. American Bill Shepard and Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev christened the new station, Alpha, though its official name remained International Space Station. The second Expedition crew, Russian Yuri Usachev, and Americans Jim Voss and Susan Helms, replaced the first crew in March of 2001.

Meanwhile, time ran out for Mir. Efforts to raise enough money to maintain it failed. After 15 years in orbit, the abandoned Mir met a fiery end over the Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001. [Ref. 9]

We have certainly learned a lot since the days of Salyut 1. Some of the lessons have been costly and painful. But we continue to explore because history has taught us we can only achieve if we keep trying.


1. Space Age, 1993; 2. Interview with Dr. Jack Bacon (NASA-JSC), 3-16-96; 3. "Space Exploration," Microsoft (R) Encarta. c. 1994 Microsoft & Funk & Wagnall's Corp.; 4. 5-30-73 LA Times newspaper; 5. Dr. Joseph Kerwin, phone interview, 6-97; 6. "North Texas Spacecraft," March 16, 1996; 7. "NASA Space News Roundup," NASA JSC, 1995. 8. "NASA Space News Roundup," NASA JSC, June 5, 1998. 9., 3-01.

More Information

All sites from Mark Wade's Encylopedia Astronautica unless otherwise noted.

Salyut 1:

Skylab - has links to all the crews:

Salyut 6:

Salyut 7:

Mir - all missions through 1999: NASA History site

The Shuttle-Mir Program from the NASA KSC site:

Test your knowledge of space stations! Download this ISS crossword puzzle. Stumped? Here's the ISS crossword solution.

Write a science fiction story involving a space station The Right Spin on Things.

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