The Road to Space Stations

Space stations have been a mainstay of human space exploration since the early 1970s. Of the many types of hardware that have been blasted into space—whether orbiting satellites, reusable transport vehicles such as the shuttle, or unmanned robotic probes making one-way journeys to distant planets and beyond—none possess the complexity, technological sophistication, or size of a space station. These qualities make space stations the workhorses of space exploration. They are highly valued as medical laboratories for learning about the effects of weightlessness on humans, platforms for astronomical studies of distant stars and galaxies, and observation posts for viewing and analyzing natural and human-caused phenomena on Earth.

The technological complexity of modern space stations took decades to develop. Today's International Space Station (ISS), the latest and most complex laboratory in space, is the beneficiary of research efforts dating back to the early 1950s, when the first plans were drawn up to blast a simple satellite no larger than a large beach ball into Earth's orbit. The road to space stations began as a dream that quickly captured the imagination of scientists. These researchers' efforts resulted in technological innovations that made possible ever larger and more sophisticated space stations.

Since the late nineteenth century visionaries have dreamed of space stations in orbit around Earth. This artist's conception is from 1957.

The First Dreams

Even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, space stations were viewed as solutions to many of Earth's problems. Scientists, physicians, sciencefiction writers, politicians, industrialists, and some of the general public dreamed about space stations in orbit around Earth. For some, space stations promised to be places to perform cutting-edge scientific research in a weightless environment. Physicians dreamed of performing medical experiments on astronauts, and other scientists hoped to create crystals, semiconductors, and pharmaceuticals with far fewer of the imperfections caused by Earth's gravitational field. For others, space stations promised to serve as staging points for travel to distant planets or even as space colonies that might one day relieve the already apparent overcrowding and pollution on Earth.

The concept of a staffed outpost in Earth's orbit served as grist for science fiction from 1869, when American writer Edward Everett Hale published a story titled "The Brick Moon" in Atlantic Monthly magazine. In the article, Hale's manned outpost was intended to function as a navigational aid for ships plying Earth's oceans. More than fifty years later, in 1923, Romanian science-fiction writer Hermann Oberth became the first person to use space station as a term for an installation that would serve as the jumping-off place for human journeys to the Moon and to Mars. Just five years later, Herman Noordung, an Austrian scientist, published the first space station blueprint. His design consisted of a doughnut-shaped structure that comprised crew living quarters, a power-generating station attached to one end of the central hub, and an astronomical observation station.

In modern times, the first person to seriously consider the creation of space stations was the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. In 1952 von Braun published his concept of a space station in Collier's magazine. He envisioned a facility shaped like a wheel that would have a diameter of 250 feet and would orbit more than 1,000 miles above Earth. Space historian Randy Liebermann explains that the Collier's article was part of a broad but carefully crafted vision on von Braun's part:

After 25 years of continuous and directed thinking and endless hours of experimentation, von Braun, the world's leading rocket engineer, had the chance to come out of his sequestered military environment and through a national magazine inform the general public of his detailed blueprint for realizing manned space travel.1

Science Energizes the Dream

Von Braun and other scientists took up the challenge of making the dream of using space stations

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