launch space station parts into orbit. Rocketry advancedrapidly during World War II, especially in Germany,where the ideas of Oberth and Noordung had greatinfluence. The German V-2 rocket, a missile with a rangeof about 300 miles, became a prototype for both U.S. andRussian rockets after the war.In 1945, renowned German rocket engineer Wernhervon Braun came to the U.S. to build rockets for the U.S.Army. In the 1950s, he worked with
magazineand Walt Disney Studios to produce articles anddocumentaries on spaceflight. In them, he described awheel-shaped space station reached by reusable wingedspacecraft. Von Braun saw the station as an Earth-observation post, a laboratory, an observatory, and aspringboard 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 earlyyears of the Space Age—competition replaced today bycooperation in the International Space Station Program. Inresponse to Sputnik, the U.S. established the NationalAeronautics and Space Administration in 1958 and startedits first man-in-space program, Project Mercury, in 1959.
Apollo and Space Stations (1958-1973)
Project Mercury had hardly begun when NASA and theCongress looked beyond it, to space stations and apermanent human presence in space. Space stations wereseen as the next step after humans reached orbit. In 1959,A NASA committee recommended that a space station beestablished before a trip to the Moon, and the U.S. Houseof Representatives Space Committee declared a spacestation a logical follow-on to Project Mercury.In April 1961, the Soviet Union launched the firsthuman, Yuri Gagarin, into space in the Vostok 1spacecraft. President John F. Kennedy reviewed manyoptions for a response to prove that the U.S. would notyield space to the Soviet Union, including a space station,but a man on the Moon won out. Getting to the Moonrequired so much work that the U.S. and Soviet Unionwere starting the race about even. In addition, the Moonlanding was an unequivocal achievement, while a spacestation could take many different forms.Space station studies continued within NASA and theaerospace industry, aided by the heightened interest inspaceflight attending Apollo. In 1964, seeds were plantedfor Skylab, a post-Apollo first-generation space station.Wernher von Braun, who became the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was instrumentalin Skylab’s development.By 1968, a space station was NASA’s leading candidatefor a post-Apollo goal. In 1969, the year Apollo 11 landedon the Moon, the agency proposed a 100-person permanentspace station, with assembly completion scheduled for1975. The station, called Space Base, was to be alaboratory for scientific and industrial experiments. SpaceBase was envisioned as home port for nuclear-poweredtugs designed to carry people and supplies to an outpost onthe Moon.NASA realized that the cost of shipping supplies to aspace station using expendable rockets would quicklyexceed the station’s construction cost. The agency alsoforesaw the need to be able to return things from a spacestation. A reusable spacecraft was the obvious solution. In1968, NASA first called such a spacecraft a space shuttle.
In May 1973, the U.S. launched the Skylab space stationatop a Saturn V rocket similar to those that took astronautsto the Moon. The rocket’s third stage was modified tobecome an orbital workshop and living quarters for three-person crews. Non-reusable Apollo spacecraft originallydesigned for Moon missions ferried astronauts to and fromthe station. Skylab hosted three different crews for stays of 28, 56, and 84 days. Skylab astronauts conducted medicaltests and studied microgravity’s influence on fluid andmaterial properties. The crews also made astronomical,solar, and Earth observations. Long-duration microgravityresearch begun on Skylab will continue and be refined onthe International Space Station.Skylab proved that humans could live and work in spacefor extended periods. The station also demonstrated theimportance of human involvement in construction andupkeep of orbital assets–the first Skylab crew performedemergency spacewalks to free a solar array jammed duringthe station’s launch.Skylab was not designed for resupply, refueling, orindependent reboost. When the last Skylab crew headedhome in February 1974, NASA proposed sending theSpace Shuttle to boost Skylab to a higher orbit or even torefurbish and reuse the station. But greater than expectedsolar activity expanded Earth’s atmosphere, hasteningSkylab’s fall from orbit, and shuttle development fellbehind schedule. Skylab reentered Earth’s atmosphere in1979.
NASA Responds to Changing Priorities(1974-1979)
The Space Shuttle was originally conceived as a vehiclefor hauling people and things back and forth betweenEarth and a space station. People and the supplies theyneeded for a long stay in space would go up, and peopleand the industrial products and experiment samples theymade on the station would come down. But economic,political, social, and cultural priorities in the U.S. shiftedduring the Apollo era. Despite Apollo’s success, NASA’sannual budgets suffered dramatic cuts beginning in themid-1960s. Because of this, NASA deferred plans for apermanent space station until after the space shuttle was