Space Stations – Our Outposts In Space!

"Any section through any diameter looked like an immense rose-window, of six circles grouped round a seventh. In truth, each of these sections would reveal the existence of seven chambers in the moon,—each a sphere itself,—whose arches gave solidity to the whole; while yet, of the whole moon, the greater part was air. In all there were thirteen of these moonlets, if I am so to call them; though no one section, of course, would reveal so many. Sustained on each side by their groined arches, the surface of the whole moon was built over them and under them,—simply two domes connected at the bases. The chambers themselves were made lighter by leaving large, round windows or open circles in the parts of their vaults farthest from their points of contact, so that each of them looked not unlike the outer sphere of a Japanese ivory nest of concentric balls. You see the object was to make a moon, which, when left to its own gravity, should be fitly supported or braced within. Dear George was sure that, by this constant repetition of arches, we should with the least weight unite the greatest strength."

In 1869, Edward Everett Hale, the American science fiction author wrote a short story named The Brick Moon, which described the construction and launch into orbit of a large hollow sphere built entirely of bricks. While describing the 200-feet diameter sphere, Hale was creating history, as it is generally considered as the first known portrayal of a man made Earth satellite. In the story, the brick moon gets unexpectedly launched into the orbit with people onboard, but the marooned inhabitants successfully adapt to the conditions of the life in space, and this can be seen as the first depictions of the concept of a space colony or a space station.

Edward Everett Hale, who first described the concept of a space station.

A string of Victorian era science fiction novels ignited the desire for space exploration in the minds of general public and they became the inspiration for scientists like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard to come up with treatises, ideas and inventions that paved the way for the modern space age. Tsiolkovsky, in a series of essays, presented the idea of an artificial satellite that functions as a 'way station' for space missions and the concept of a rocket that can accommodate astronauts and allow them to reside in space.

In the 1920s the German physicist, Hermann Oberth came up with a more organized concept of a space station in his books. In 1928, Slovene rocket engineer Herman Potočnik published the book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums - der Raketen-Motor or The Problem of Space Travel - The Rocket Motor, which has the first detailed architectural design for a space station.

One of the many detailed diagrams describing the Noordung space station from The Problem of Space Travel by Potočnik

The wheel like design concept and the rotation of the station for creating artificial gravity by Potočnik were so path breaking. The book also discussed the various civilian and military uses of such an orbit station in great detail.

In 1951, the German (and later American) aerospace scientist, Wernher von Braun, the inventor of the V-2 and Saturn V rockets, came up with a rotating wheel design for a space station based on the ideas presented by Potočnik. By then the rocket technology, that was going to be a major part of the space exploration programs, was developing in leaps and bounds. Early 1950s saw a series of successful rocket missions and in 1957, world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was successfully launched in to orbit. The race to the space has earnestly begun.

What is a space station?

A space station is essentially a spacecraft that orbits around the Earth in a low Earth orbit - an orbit altitude between 160 km and 2000 km above the Earth’s surface - and which act as a habitat and laboratory for humans to reside and conduct prolonged space research. Manned space stations enable us to stay for longer durations in space and conduct lengthy space missions. These spacecrafts are designed to stay in space and have docking facilities, which is used by other reusable spacecrafts for transporting crew and supplies to the station.

Space stations are primarily used for conducting research studies like analyzing the effects of prolonged space exposure on humans, conducting observations on Earth and for conducting experiments related to low gravity atmosphere. Since these space platforms allow crew members to stay aboard for months, they are perfectly suited for conducting lengthy research studies.

Salyut 1 – The first space station

The first space station was Salyut 1, launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union, on April 19, 1971. This 18,900 kg spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome - the world's first and largest operational spaceport - located in Kazakhstan.

Cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev.

On 7 June, 1971 the Soyuz 11 spacecraft docked with the space station and it was the only manned mission to board Salyut 1. The three crew members Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev became the world's first space station crew. The mission, which lasted 24 days, ended in disaster, as during their return journey back to Earth, a depressurization of the crew capsule resulted in the death of all the three crew members.

Salyut 1 orbited the earth for 175 days and then it was intentionally destroyed through atmospheric re-entry. There were a series of other Salyut programs intended for both civilian and military purposes. Salyut 2 and Salyut 3 were failures while Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 met their mission objectives successfully.


Launched on May 14, 1973 the Skylab was the first space station mission by United States. This 77,000 kg spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center using an unmanned Saturn V rocket. The space station suffered some initial damages to the thermal shield and solar panel during the mission launch, but they were successfully repaired by manned missions.

An overhead view of the Skylab.

There were a total of three manned missions to the space station and it was occupied for 171 days. The space station was deorbited on July 11, 1979.

Mir Space Station

Mir with its modular design was the first space station to be assembled while in space orbit. The first module was launched on February 7, 1986 and six additional modules were added to the station in the next ten years. The station remained in orbit for 15 years and was occupied for 4,592 days.

A view of the Mir Space Station viewed from Space Shuttle Endeavour, February 1998

Mir was mainly used for conducting research on micro gravity and its main focus was to study and develop technologies required for the permanent occupation of space. The Mir was deorbited in March 2001.

International Space Station

The International Space Station is a joint space project by five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos (Russia's Federal Space Agency), ESA (European Space Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). The initial module of this massive and complex engineering project in our history was launched on 20 November, 1998.

The International Space Station

The station has been continuously occupied from November 2000 and is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit. International space station is now the largest man-made object in the low Earth orbit and every so often can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye from Earth.

Onboard for more than an year!

Despite the fact that a space station allows crew members to stay for months onboard, only a few people have remained aboard a station for more than a year. The former Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the record for the longest single stay in space. He stayed aboard the Mir space station for 437.7 days from 9th January 1994 to 22nd March 1995, conducting experiments and research related to the prolonged effects of micro gravity on human bodies.

Cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov, looks out of Mir space station's window.

Sergei Avdeyev (379.6 days), Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov (both 365 days) – all from Russia - are other cosmonauts who have conducted single missions of over a year and all these records were set onboard the Mir space station.