We all know about the International Space Station these days, but any previous space stations were not really very well known…at least I didn’t know much about them. The United States and Russia have been in competition for years, and over far more than the space program, but it was one area that they carried on a heated competition over. It seems like one or the other was always a little bit ahead, but there were a few places that Russia definitely beat the United States. One such area was the Space Station.
On April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union (Russia) launched Salyut 1 (English translation: Salute 1). It was the first space station of any kind. More stations followed in the Salyut program, and there are parts of that space station program that are still in use on the International Space Station today. Salyut 1 originated as a modification of the military Almaz space station program that the Soviets were developing at that time. After the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969, the Soviets began shifting the primary emphasis of their manned space program to orbiting space stations, with a possible lunar landing later in the 1970s if the N-1 booster became flight-worthy (which it didn’t). I suppose that since the moon landing had already happened, they decided to focus their efforts on something they could be first at. It was the perfect motivation for the space station program…a desire to one-up the United States Skylab program, which was already in development. The basic structure of Salyut 1 was adapted from the Almaz with a few modifications and would form the basis of all Soviet space stations through Mir.
Several military experiments were nonetheless carried on Salyut 1, including the OD-4 optical visual ranger, the Orion ultraviolet instrument for characterizing rocket exhaust plumes, and the highly classified Svinets radiometer. Construction of Salyut 1 began in early 1970 and after nearly a year, it was shipped to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Some remaining assembly work had yet to be done and this was completed at the launch center. Launch was planned for April 12, 1971 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight on Vostok 1, but technical problems delayed it until the 19th. The first crew launched later in the Soyuz 10 mission, but they ran into troubles while docking and were unable to enter the station; the Soyuz 10 mission was aborted and the crew returned safely to Earth. Its second crew launched in Soyuz 11 and remained on board for 23 days. This was the first time in the history of spaceflight that a space station had been manned, and a new record in time spent in space. This success was, however, overshadowed when the crew was killed during re-entry, as a pressure-equalization valve in the Soyuz 11 re-entry capsule had opened prematurely, causing the crew to asphyxiate. After this accident, missions were suspended while the Soyuz spacecraft was redesigned. The station was intentionally destroyed by de-orbiting it after six months in orbit, because it ran out of fuel before a redesigned Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to it. Space stations have come a long way since that first station, but the Salyut 1 will always have the place of honor as the very first one.
When most of us think of a space station, we think of the International Space Station that exists today, but in reality, that is not the first space station that ever floated above our atmosphere. The first one was a small space station called Skylab 1, The idea of a space station and crew to live and work in space was one that was tossed around for years. It was finally realized and launched into space on May 14, 1973, but this was not to be a mission without any issues.
Just 63 seconds into the launch, a meteoroid shield that was supposed to shelter Skylab accidentally opened. This put Skylab 1 at serious risk. Later the facility experienced communications problems with the antenna as a direct result of the launch incident. Nevertheless, as problems go, this was the least of the agency’s worries. “When the meteoroid shield ripped loose, it disturbed the mounting of workshop solar array wing No. 2 and caused it to partially deploy. The exhaust plume of the second stage retro-rockets impacted the partially deployed solar array and literally blew it into space,” NASA wrote.
NASA scrambled to stabilize the space station and take necessary measures to minimize the posibility of overheating, as well as, figuring out a way to handle its reduced power situation. The first crew, which was led by Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad, would need to make the station habitable before they could get to work. The crew’s first job, which took place during the spacewalk, just hours after launch, was to deploy the solar array, but that didn’t work, because the metal strip holding it is place, refused to release. The crews continued to be frustrated with this and other operations problems, before finally managing to make the space station work relatively well.
Skylab spent six years orbiting Earth until its decaying orbit caused it to re-enter the atmosphere. It scattered debris over the Indian Ocean and sparsely settled areas of Western Australia. In all, three crews successfully lived on board the station for several months each. The last crew spent 84 days in orbit. This was an an American record that stood until the shuttle era.
I’m sure that, looking back on those years now, NASA must have felt like it had been living in the stone age. With the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, going into space in earlier days was rather archaic. Of course, with the end of the Space Shuttle era, we don’t know what the face of space travel will be in the future. Only time will tell. Nevertheless, in 1973, we were well ahead of the rest of the world with the first space station, no matter how archaic it was.
Because of multiple problems experienced by Skylab 1, the space station’s orbit decayed faster than expected. This was mostly due to intense solar activity heating up Earth’s atmosphere. Soon, NASA knew that it was inevitable that the space station would come down. They adjusted the station as much as possible so it wouldn’t hit populated areas upon re-entering on July 11, 1979. A slight mathmatical error led to pieces falling in Australia, but fortunately nobody was hurt, and thankfully that was not the end of the space stations.