launch space station parts into orbit. Rocketry advanced rapidly during World War II, especially in Germany, where the ideas of Oberth and Noordung had great influence. The German V-2 rocket, a missile with a range of about 300 miles, became a prototype for both U.S. and Russian rockets after the war.
In 1945, renowned German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun came to the U.S. to build rockets for the U.S.
Army. In the 1950s, he worked with
and Walt Disney Studios to produce articles and documentaries on spaceflight. In them, he described a wheel-shaped space station reached by reusable winged spacecraft. Von Braun saw the station as an Earth- observation post, a laboratory, an observatory, and a springboard for Moon and Mars flights.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. This triggered the Cold War competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union in space which characterized the early years of the Space Age—competition replaced today by cooperation in the International Space Station Program. In response to Sputnik, the U.S. established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958 and started its first man-in-space program, Project Mercury, in 1959.
Project Mercury had hardly begun when NASA and the Congress looked beyond it, to space stations and a permanent human presence in space. Space stations were seen as the next step after humans reached orbit. In 1959, A NASA committee recommended that a space station be established before a trip to the Moon, and the U.S. House of Representatives Space Committee declared a space station a logical follow-on to Project Mercury.
In April 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space in the Vostok 1 spacecraft. President John F. Kennedy reviewed many options for a response to prove that the U.S. would not yield space to the Soviet Union, including a space station, but a man on the Moon won out. Getting to the Moon required so much work that the U.S. and Soviet Union were starting the race about even. In addition, the Moon landing was an unequivocal achievement, while a space station could take many different forms.
Space station studies continued within NASA and the aerospace industry, aided by the heightened interest in spaceflight attending Apollo. In 1964, seeds were planted for Skylab, a post-Apollo first-generation space station. Wernher von Braun, who became the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was instrumental in Skylab’s development.
By 1968, a space station was NASA’s leading candidate for a post-Apollo goal. In 1969, the year Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the agency proposed a 100-person permanent space station, with assembly completion scheduled for 1975. The station, called Space Base, was to be a
laboratory for scientific and industrial experiments. Space Base was envisioned as home port for nuclear-powered tugs designed to carry people and supplies to an outpost on the Moon.
NASA realized that the cost of shipping supplies to a space station using expendable rockets would quickly exceed the station’s construction cost. The agency also foresaw the need to be able to return things from a space station. A reusable spacecraft was the obvious solution. In 1968, NASA first called such a spacecraft a space shuttle.
In May 1973, the U.S. launched the Skylab space station atop a Saturn V rocket similar to those that took astronauts to the Moon. The rocket’s third stage was modified to become an orbital workshop and living quarters for three- person crews. Non-reusable Apollo spacecraft originally designed for Moon missions ferried astronauts to and from the station. Skylab hosted three different crews for stays of 28, 56, and 84 days. Skylab astronauts conducted medical tests and studied microgravity’s influence on fluid and material properties. The crews also made astronomical, solar, and Earth observations. Long-duration microgravity research begun on Skylab will continue and be refined on the International Space Station.
Skylab proved that humans could live and work in space for extended periods. The station also demonstrated the importance of human involvement in construction and upkeep of orbital assets–the first Skylab crew performed emergency spacewalks to free a solar array jammed during the station’s launch.
Skylab was not designed for resupply, refueling, or independent reboost. When the last Skylab crew headed home in February 1974, NASA proposed sending the Space Shuttle to boost Skylab to a higher orbit or even to refurbish and reuse the station. But greater than expected solar activity expanded Earth’s atmosphere, hastening Skylab’s fall from orbit, and shuttle development fell behind schedule. Skylab reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 1979.
The Space Shuttle was originally conceived as a vehicle for hauling people and things back and forth between Earth and a space station. People and the supplies they needed for a long stay in space would go up, and people and the industrial products and experiment samples they made on the station would come down. But economic, political, social, and cultural priorities in the U.S. shifted during the Apollo era. Despite Apollo’s success, NASA’s annual budgets suffered dramatic cuts beginning in the mid-1960s. Because of this, NASA deferred plans for a permanent space station until after the space shuttle was