Elegy to a Space Station

Thirty years and one day ago, on May 14, 1973, a Saturn vehicle thundered into orbit.

Its payload was not an Apollo mission to the Moon, for which it was originally designed, but rather, in historian Henry Cooper's words, a "house in space" called Skylab.

The Apollo program had essentially ended exactly five months before, with the Apollo XVII mission, the last one and the only one that actually carried a working scientist to the lunar surface.

NASA had long-term plans for building space stations in low Earth orbit, as part of Wehrner von Braun's grand scheme to settle the Moon and send men to Mars. But the Nixon administration, after soon-to-be-disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew's announcement of plans to do exactly that by the 1980s, was denounced by war-weary pundits and politicians, backed off from any ideas it might have had of resurrecting a vigorous space program -- one that had already essentially been pre-empted due to decisions made by the previous administration, under fire for the costs of the Great Society and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, NASA knew that it had to gain some experience with space stations, and the use of existing Apollo hardware might allow an affordable prototype that would provide valuable lessons for future designs. Fortunately, they did receive approval to build such an Apollo-derived station.

It was essentially a reoutfitted upper stage of a Saturn booster, for which propellants were unneeded because it didn't have to deliver hardware all the way to the Moon. It contained all the systems necessary to support a crew of three and their science experiments for several missions.

The program got off to an inauspicious start. The shroud protecting the systems on the outside of the fledgling space station came off during ascent, tearing off a meteoroid protection system, and one of its two solar panels that were to provide power for life and science.

Thus, the first mission to the facility was radically altered, from one of simply starting up systems and settling in for work, to an emergency and heroic one of repair, in the hopes that the station could be used at all.

A week and a half later, the first crew, Charles "Pete" Conrad, Paul Weitz, and Joe Kerwin, set off to the station and performed several such repairs, including putting out a parasol to cool the station, replacing one of the functions of the lost meteoroid shield. The lost solar panel was not replaced, but the station had three successful crewed missions, performing most of its objectives without it.

Because of the Saturn's size, ironically, Skylab had a greater diameter (22 feet) and more spaciousness in many ways than the current multi-decabillion-dollar International Space Station, which had to be extruded through a 15-foot hole represented by the diameter of the shuttle payload bay.

It remains a jarring comparison to walk through the huge, almost cathedral-like backup Skylab module in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and then view the relatively cramped module for the "modern" ISS.

In fact, of course, we could have had an even more spacious follow-on to that program with this one. It would only have involved developing a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle, which could have occurred in less than half a decade, for a small fraction of the total program cost of the current station program.

It could have been constructed from barrel sections of the shuttle external tank, which would have yielded a diameter 5 feet greater than Skylab, and almost twice the diameter of any current station module, with over three times the cross-sectional area. And we could have had a fully functional station in a single launch, with a huge and very capable one in two or three more.

And with several other such modules, we could even, had we chosen, have had a huge, spinning space station like that envisioned in Clarke's movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey, and several years prior to 2001.

But of course, that would have required a national space policy that actually required, or even desired, a functional space station on orbit, as opposed to one that simply required that major NASA centers be given something to keep themselves busy, and sufficient funds with which to do so, and to justify the space shuttle itself, after its development had been completed.

Of course, defenders of our current, much-more-expensive, much-more-behind-schedule encore would point out (and in fact do) that it contains as much volume as a Boeing 747 in orbit. So some might think it churlish of me, even on the three-decade anniversary of the magnificent achievement of our first, spectacularly successful space station, to point out any deficiencies in our present one.

Those same people might think it even more so if I additionally point out that regardless of how large, or how many people the ISS might support in theory, now or in the future, it remains constrained not just by hardware on orbit, but by our fragile, expensive and inflexible space transportation infrastructure, and our corresponding utterly inadequate ability to spontaneously return more than three people from orbit at once.

The purpose of the Orbital Space Plane program is ostensibly to solve this problem, but it has some severe flaws, some of which Congress is starting to recognize, thankfully. Unfortunately, while they are properly critiquing NASA's current plans, they don't seem to offer much useful as an alternative.

Sadly, because of the limited and myopic viewpoint of those running our space policy, in which only NASA's perceived needs are considered when formulating plans for space transportation, and the potential capabilities of private industry and the desire of the American people for a space program for themselves, rather than a few civil servants, continue to be ignored, there's little prospect for fixing this real problem any time soon.

So 30 years after the launch of our first space station, and two years after 2001, Arthur C. Clarke's vision of Pan Am spaceliners and rotating orbital hotels, while certainly technically feasible, remains frustratingly far beyond our national and institutional reach or, apparently, desire.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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