At the end of the Space Race of the 1960s’ and early 1970s’ both the Soviet and American space programs lost funding for manned exploration to other celestial bodies. Instead the Americans and Russians started to focus on orbital manned missions. Both countries started building space stations, which became more and more complex. Because they needed a cheaper and reliable way of hurling their astronauts into space NASA started the Space Shuttle program. After the end of the Cold War new possibilities of cooperation resulted in the International Space Station being built.
Beginning in 1952, Wernher von Braun and Chesley Knight Bonestell, Jr., sketched an early dream of living in giant structures in space in magazine articles. In the 1970s, Gerard Kitchen O’Neill calculated how many resources would be required to build a city in space, in the shape of cylinder, a mile (1,600 m) long. There would be room inside for a million people. Work on smaller space platforms began in the 1960s. Scientists working for the United States Air Force were first to suggest an actual plan to build a habitat in space. It was called the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) and would have been built inside the shell of a Titan rocket.
Soviet space engineers developed the first space habitat. It was called Salyut, and it had about as much room as a small motor home. At least 10 were eventually built, and the first, called Salyut 1, was launched April 19, 1971. Cosmonaut Viktor Ivanovich Patsayev was the first human to climb aboard a space station when he and two other cosmonauts rocketed to Salyut 1 in a Soyuz capsule. Some of the Salyuts were used for military missions, the rest for scientific research.
NASA eventually built a space station in the 1970s, using an empty rocket booster as a space station. It was originally called the Orbital Workshop, but it became known as Skylab. Originally the plan was to use a working rocket booster and rebuild it from the inside after the fuel was consumed in the launch. However, the Saturn V rocket was so powerful that it could boost Skylab directly into orbit, even without the extra fuel. So, it was possible to send Skylab already fitted out for astronauts to live in it.
After Skylab, NASA wanted to stop using space capsules that could only go into space and return to Earth once. The idea of a reusable plane that could be launched into space on a rocket but land on a regular runway turned into the space shuttle. Its first flight was in 1981. The Space Shuttle program finished it’s last flight in 2011. The last mission was flown by the shuttle Atlantis.
Launching something that’s as much of an investment of time and resources as the Space Shuttle calls for some pretty intense safety precautions to protect both the orbiter and its crew. Weather is one of those issues that can cause some serious trouble for a Shuttle launch. Aside from positive weather conditions, in order for a Space Shuttle to be cleared for launch, it must successfully complete a range of preflight preparations and checks. All the onboard systems must be tested, and any critical problem that results halts the launch countdown.
After reaching orbit, the Space Shuttle began its mission. Although their most-common purpose was to bring supplies and payloads (cargo) to and from the ISS, Space Shuttles were also capable of retrieving satellites from orbit, launching robotic spacecraft, and carrying advanced scientific instruments such as telescopes and instruments to map the Earth. The crew compartment was the main place where the astronauts lived and worked.
The U.S. Space Shuttle program consisted of a fleet of five vehicles. The first two (Columbia and Challenger) are no longer operational due to devastating explosions. The remaining three are the Space Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Another vehicle, the Enterprise, was created for ground-landing test purposes and turned out to be too expensive to retrofit for spaceflight.
The Space Shuttle wasn’t just a tool for ferrying around astronauts, satellites, space probes, and supplies. It was also a unique opportunity for doing science in space. Toward that end, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), in the 1980s, committed to developing a mobile laboratory, Spacelab, that could function inside the Space Shuttle. Spacelab provided a platform for collaboration between the United States and Europe, considering the first entire laboratory module was provided by ESA, as were later components. Astronauts from several different countries eventually conducted research and experiments within Spacelab.
Among the Space Shuttle program’s notable “firsts” was bringing America’s first female astronaut into space. Sally Ride joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1977 and spent years undergoing the various types of flight, survival, and navigation training required for astronauts. In 1983, she made history with her first spaceflight aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Although the liftoff of Space Shuttle Columbia on mission STS-107 appeared to go well on January 16, 2003, engineers studying the details of the launch noticed a problem. During the launch, a piece of the Space Shuttle’s foam insulation broke loose from the external propellant tank and hit the left wing. As Columbia reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission, the compromised wing was destroyed by the heat caused by atmospheric drag. The entire spacecraft soon broke apart as it hurtled toward the Earth. People on the ground reported hearing a loud boom as the sky filled with smoke and flying debris.
As with the Challenger accident in 1986, Columbia’s demise caused the Space Shuttle program to cease operations for more than two years. During this time, organizational and decision-making procedures at NASA were overhauled, and technical design changes were made that would help limit foam detachment in later missions. Special cameras were also added to later Space Shuttle missions for purposes of surveying the orbiters’ thermal tiles for damage.
NASA decided that the first two shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster would be ‘‘test’’ flights to assess the effectiveness of new safety changes. Discovery was selected for the first RTF mission. More than one hundred cameras were installed on exterior spacecraft surfaces and at ground locations to provide an array of observation angles during ascent. Technical and time limitations also prevented NASA from successfully hardening orbiter surfaces to prevent damage from debris impacts.
The next logical step was to assemble a space habitat out of separate modules that could be launched like Salyut or Skylab. Seven separate modules were launched by the Soviet Union, beginning in 1986, to build Mir. In total, Mir was about as big as a school classroom, divided into smaller sections by the individual modules. Dozens of cosmonauts—and seven astronauts from the United States—spent many months living on Mir. When the political situation changed, and Russia took over the space projects of the former Soviet Union, plans for a second Mir space platform were dropped.
Russian cosmonauts repeatedly set and broke space duration records aboard the Mir station. Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov reached the one-year milestone when they completed 366 days in space in 1988. By 1995 the record was 437.7 days, set by Valeri Polyakov. As of 2017, this was still the record. The Mir is also famous for its nongovernmental inhabitants. Beginning in the 1980s the Soviet space program suffered financial difficulties. To raise funds, the space agency sold seats on Mir to a variety of foreign astronauts and adventurers.
With the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991, a new era of cooperation was suddenly possible between Americans and Russians. Joint space missions once again became a way to meet the two superpowers’ political and scientific goals. As a way of discovering more about the business of constructing modular space stations, the U.S. became involved with the Mir project, sending both supplies and astronauts to the now-Russian space station. As part of the Shuttle-Mir program, a series of 11 Shuttle missions docked with Mir between 1994 and 1998.
Daily life on Mir involved a combination of work, play, and exercise. Cosmonauts wore lightweight flight suits while they moved between the different modules, which connected together via nodes. As with any space station, the cosmonauts floated rather than walked to work; they also had to keep a close grip on portable equipment as they moved about during the day.
When the first Americans arrived at Mir in 1995, the station had already been in orbit for nine years. The cosmonauts spent the vast majority of their time doing repair and maintenance tasks. The ageing station was plagued with computer crashes. In 1997 a fire broke out in a compartment. The men fought the flames with towels and a few working fire extinguishers. Russian mission control downplayed the fire to the public and American officials, telling them it was a minor and isolated event. In truth, there had been a similar occurrence several years before in which a candle had burst into flames.
After almost ten years of continual habitation, the last crews left Mir in mid-1999. A brief, privately funded mission returned to the Russian space station in 2000 to try to salvage it as a commercial enterprise of some sort, but to no avail. With the Russian Federal Space Agency turning its support to developing the new International Space Station, Mir’s long lifetime was officially over. Robotic supply ships used their engines to bring it into an orbit that would intersect with Earth’s atmosphere in a controlled way to ensure that most of the station burned up and the remnants fell harmlessly into the ocean.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NASA had the opportunity to form a partnership with Russia. NASA’s plan for a space habitat was merged with the proposals for a second Mir, and a more ambitious project began. It was called the International Space Station (ISS). When the space shuttle Endeavour brought the Unity module to space and connected it to the Russian-built Zarya module in December 1998, the ISS was born. Dozens of astronauts have lived there already. Other countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Italy, and Japan, have also joined the global effort.
Since 1998, a mix of Soyuz rockets, Proton rockets, and the Space Shuttle has launched various components of the ISS into orbit. Space Shuttle flights have been largely devoted to ISS construction since 2000, and the end of the Shuttle program in 2010 was arranged to coincide with the completion of the ISS in 2011. Afterward, the ISS was serviced by Russian Soyuz capsules and automated supply ships. The International Space Station (ISS) has been home to at least one crew (or expedition, as ISS crews are officially known) since 2000. The first crew consisted of Commander Bill Shepherd, Soyuz Commander Yuri Gidzenko, and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev. Due to the station’s current size, ISS crews consist of six people. The ISS is able to support more astronauts, but only for a short period of time.
The ISS is the most health conscious place in all of space. After all, the men and women aboard it must constantly check on and maintain the operational health of the station (as well as their own health). The ISS astronauts spend considerable time doing maintenance on their habitat.
The Hubble Space Telescope, the world’s biggest telescope in space, has not only made amazing discoveries about the nature of the universe but it has also greatly helped popularize astronomy.
First suggested in the 1940s by Lyman Spitzer, the Hubble Space Telescope took many years to reach fruition as the world’s biggest telescope in space. A deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) in the late 1970s resulted in the ESA supplying solar panels and one instrument for the telescope in return for a percentage of observing time. Work began on the telescope in 1978 with an initial planned launch date in 1983, but the launch was postponed due to construction delays. The telescope was launched in 1990.
Gamma rays are a very high-energy, short-wavelength form of electromagnetic radiation given off by some of the most energetic, and rarest, celestial phenomena such as supernovas (star explosions), black holes that are in the process of pulling in mass, solar flares, and pulsars (rapidly spinning stars). They’re also difficult to study from the ground, which is why NASA’s second Great Observatory, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), was launched into orbit by Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1991.
The third of the four Great Observatories is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, launched in 1999 by Space Shuttle Columbia. X-ray observations are particularly well-suited to space telescopes because they’re absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere almost completely. Chandra was designed to be able to detect X-ray emissions that were 100 times fainter than anything seen before by previous satellites.
Infrared telescopes, such as the Spitzer Space Telescope, are a great addition to the study of space because they detect and measure the heat (infrared energy) given off by objects within certain wavelengths. Spitzer was launched aboard a Delta II rocket in 2003 and was expected to function through mid-2009. It is still operating, although at a reduced capacity.
An infrared project that’s planned but not yet launched is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Scheduled for liftoff in 2018, the mission goals of JWST are to use infrared technology to help locate the oldest galaxies in the universe. Such information would help scientists connect the dots between the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang theory, and the Milky Way Galaxy. JWST will be capable of studying early to recent solar systems, and ultimately, it’ll be able to help demonstrate how solar systems like ours were formed.