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Humanity in Space: The science of Space Stations

The history and science of space stations

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

The Incredible Jeff navigates the galactic voyage of The Science of Space Stations in this episode of Fueled By Death Cast. This is the third segment in the Humanity in Space series, which has taken us into a deep dive into the cosmos, where so many merely dream to be.

A photo from NASA of a Space Shuttle attaching to a Space Station above Earth

The initial thought of the space station is embedded in science fiction. The first mention of the idea was in Edward Everett Hale’s "The Brick Moon," published in 1869. The story tells of a 200-foot brick sphere that is meant to orbit the Earth as a navigational aid for ships but is accidentally launched into space with people inside.

The term “space station” was coined some 50 years later by Romanian rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. Oberth published two papers – “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space" in 1923 and “The Way to Space Travel” in 1929. The latter spoke to space stations being refueling stations for rockets and to monitor the weather on Earth.

He also conceived a 100-meter-wide concave mirror that could be used to reflect sunlight onto a concentrated point on Earth. During World War II, German scientists ran with this idea and developed the “sun gun” – a superweapon that could be mounted on a space station to focus the sun’s energy to boil an ocean or burn a city. It was never completed.

Oberth also started to teach and mentor a young scientist by the name of Wernher von Braun, who was handpicked by the German military in 1932 to develop rockets for the war effort. Von Braun was secretly moved to the United States as part of “Operation Paperclip.” He is known as the father of rocket technology, but also developed some of the first highly detailed space station designs

Von Braun appeared on Walt Disney’s “Tomorrowland” series in 1956, where he brought his wheel station idea to the public. This station would rotate to provide artificial gravity and be an orbiting laboratory for missions to the Moon. This idea was never built. A decade later, this idea inspired the station featured in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Futuristic space station ideas almost became a reality in 1958. When NASA was created, the first mission was getting an astronaut into space and the second was to develop a space station.

Astronaut Valerie Polyakov observes operations with the Space Shuttle Discovery on its STS-63 mission through a window on the Mir Core Module in February 1995.
Astronaut Valerie Polyakov observes operations with the Space Shuttle Discovery during a mission on the Mir Core Module in February 1995.

Exploring various wheel like designs, these were tested into the early 1960s. The focus was shifted to a lunar landing after the Russians put the first human in space.

In April of 1971, the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1 — the first space station of any kind into low Earth orbit. Salyut 1 proved to be a successful station and was sixty-six feet in length with several compartments.

The transfer compartment was equipped with a docking port for the Soyuz. The docking system developed is still in use today on the International Space Station (ISS).

The main compartment was pressurized and was where astronauts would work and sleep. The auxiliary compartments contain various scientific equipment, engines and batteries, and life support.

The first crew was supposed to be the Soyuz 10, but they ran into trouble while docking and had to abort the mission and return safely to Earth.

The Soyuz 11 crew became the first man mission on a space station and remained in orbit for 23 days. Upon re-entry, the pressure seal was broken, and the crew died. They became the only astronauts to technically die in space. This also came from the fact they were not wearing pressurized spacesuits, on re-entry. This became mandatory after this spaceflight.

Salyut 1’s mission ended in October, six months after its launch, because it was running out of fuel. It burned up over the Pacific Ocean. 

Salyut 1 was part of the Almaz Space Station development being created by the Russian military. Salyuts 2,3 and 5 were all military stations launched under the guise of a civilian space station.

The Salyut 3 space station was outfitted with an anti-aircraft gun that was fired at least once, but possibly up to three times, while the station was unmanned. This is the only known armed crewed military spacecraft.

The Almaz and subsequent Salyut programs laid the groundwork for space stations. Later models introduced the second spacecraft to port, which allowed for more re-fueling, supplies, and crews to inhabit the stations continuously.

A black and white image of a space station floating through space above EarthA photo of the Russian Salyut 5.

The idea for creating a space station out of a part of a Saturn 5 rocket was first conceived by von Braun in 1964. These initial ideas led the way to what would eventually be called “Skylab.”

Skylab station included a solar observatory, a workshop, and several hundred science experiments. 

Skylab was also instrumental in updating the habitability of a space station. Astronaut comfort had not been a concern with previous space station designs, as they were smaller, and astronauts stayed only a short amount of time.

Skylab had award room for meals, relaxation, and a window to view Earth and space.

The astronauts of the Apollo missions complained about the quality of their food, so food was greatly improved for Skylab. It has continued to be improved to this day.

On Skylab, each astronaut had a personal sleeping area with a curtain, a sleeping bag, and a locker. The station even boasts the addition of a shower and a toilet, which not only added to the astronaut’s comfort for prolonged stays in space but also allowed for precise urine and feces samples for examination on Earth.

Some of the biggest advancements in space station technology were the ones that could monitor the human body and how it reacts to prolonged time in space.

In particular, the Skylab shower was an interesting way to improve an astronaut’s mental state in space. It has a cylindrical curtain that went from floor to ceiling and a vacuum system to suck away water, which was the biggest concern of water droplets floating away. Astronauts would use six pints of water and soap, which were carefully planned out, to allow an astronaut to take one shower per week. Astronauts that used the shower on the space station said it was an enjoyable experience but drying off was a little tedious. The entire process from set up to packing the shower away took over two hours.

Skylab helped further the scientific discoveries of both space and Earth immensely during its six years in space. Three manned crews stayed at the station. The first crew stayed for 28 days and performed two spacewalks, to repair much of the damage the station had sustained during launch and deployment. The other crews stayed for 59 and 84 days, respectively.

The science performed on Skylab included human adaptability and physiological experiments, biomedical research, crystal growth, space physics, Earth weather and geology experiments, and even student experiments that included spiders spinning webs in low gravity.

The study of X-ray emissions from the Sun actually contributed to the birth of the field of X-ray astronomy.

Skylab ended its mission in 1979 because the space shuttle program was not yet ready to re-supply the station. The demise of the station was an international media event, with many worried it might re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and crash land in a populated area. T’shirts with bullseyes and Skylab repellant with a money-back guarantee were sold across the world. The San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000.00 prize for the first piece of the station delivered to its offices.

NASA aimed the station at a spot off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, but the station did not burn up as expected. There was a 4 percent calculation error, which resulted in Skylab crashing down into Western Australia, one of the most underpopulated regions on Earth.

The shire of Esperance in Australia jokingly fined NASA $400 dollars for littering, to which NASA ignored.  On the 30th anniversary in 2009, California radio host Scott Barley got his morning show listeners to rally together and raise the money. Scott flew to Australia and delivered the money personally.

Seventeen-year-old Stan Thornton picked up some of the chunks of the space station off his roof in 1979 and flew to San Francisco to collect his $10,000.00 reward.  

A colored photo of the Mir Space Station floating hundreds of miles above Earth. A small island on Earth is shown in the background.This is a photo of the Mir Space Station.

Until the ISS broke the record, the Mir station had the longest continuous human presence in outer space for 3,644 days. Twelve out of the fifteen years the station was operating, it was occupied by humanity.

Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov still holds the record for the longest, single human spaceflight at 437 days and 18 hours between 1994-1995. His combined space experience exceeds 22 months.

Following the success of the Salyut program, the Mir station was technically the 8th mission of the Salyut program. The first module of the station, known as the Core Module, was launched in 1986.  When complete, the station consisted of seven pressurized modules and several unpressurized components. The docking module was actually installed by the space shuttle Atlantis, as part of mission STS-74. The shuttle docked to the station afterward.

The station's assembly marked the beginning of the 3rd generation of space station design. The first being the Salyut 1 and Skylab and the 2nd including Salyut 6 and 7, as they incorporated two docking ports.

There are several main modules that make up the design of Mir – the Mir Core, Kvant-1, Kvant-2, Kristall, Spektr and Priroda. The space station was visited by twenty-eight long-duration crews, that all varied in length from 72 days to 437. Mir’s time in space heralded a new era in space exploration and scientific advancement. It also sustained a few accidents that threatened the station's safety.

Mir’s contributions to humanity in space were vast before it ended its mission in 2001. It was replaced by the ISS, which will be covered in an upcoming episode of Fueled By Death Cast, as we journey through the Humanity in Space series.

Tune into Fueled by Death Cast weekly to see more of this six-part series about the science of humans in space. Catch the episodes on the Death Wish Coffee YouTube channel.

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