The Spacelab program was developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of Europe’s participation to the Space Shuttle program. The concept was to create a small reusable space station that would be designed to fit in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay.
Developed by Europe but operated by the United States of America, it was the first program in U.S. space history which entrusted to a foreign entity the construction of a station intended to receive a crew in space.
The Spacelab program is one of the consequences of the space fever that gripped the West in the 1970s. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were a time of constant innovation in the conquest of space, a time when the limits were constantly being pushed back. Following the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, sending man into space was a technological feat, but a feat that only lasted a few days at most. This seemed insufficient, especially since the goal was to explore space and establish a human presence there. The idea then developed of creating a station for men in space.
The Spacelab program was the result of a reflection that matured over several years, both by American and European teams. Prior to the 1973 agreement, the reflection was indeed articulated around different station ideas, around the design of modules, around scientific experiments but also around cooperation between the two sides of the Atlantic. Germany was the first to give the impetus for Europe to take part in the program developing a space station.
The cooperation agreement between the two agencies, ESRO (now ESA) and NASA, was framed by two legal instruments. One the one hand, an agreement between the two space agencies and on the other hand a government agreement between the United States of America and European governments wishing to participate in the project, thus strengthening political cooperation. On the European side, the difficulty was for the participating countries to agree on the same terms of the agreement when all did not necessarily have the same interests. In the end the European countries smoothed out their disagreements and ended up agreeing on the position to adopt.
It was possible for the different states to sign the agreement between August 14 and September 24, 1973. It was on this date, September 24, that NASA and ESRO signed the Memorandum of Understanding as the final agreement. The construction of the first components of the station started in 1974 in Germany by the company ERNO-VFW Fokker.
For its time Spacelab was a very innovative concept and was considered as the first true scientific research station in orbit.
The station was developed on a modular basis and was composed of different elements: the pressurised modules, the unpressurised platforms and others such as pallet. The Spacelab pallet is a U-shaped platform which allowed different instruments to be installed on it and to be exposed to the vacuum of space. Indeed some experiments require direct exposure to space but also certain instruments such as telescopes which need the widest possible field of view. One of the main assets of this station was that we could assemble and disassemble the different modules and platforms in order to create a tailor-made laboratory for each specific mission. This versatile system in which different modules can be arranged almost as desired for unique purposes, gave incredible flexibility to the way space missions were organized.
The first Spacelab mission was on November 28, 1983 and flew on board of STS-9. The primary objective of this flight was to verify its system performance capability, its structures, command and electrical power distribution among many other. And the secondary objective was to obtain scientific and technology data in order to demonstrate the scientific utility of the station.
During the first Spacelab mission, seventy-two experiments were carried out over the course of ten days. For instance, the first protein crystals were grown in space, the energy output of the sun was measured and the effects of radiation and weightlessness were studied.
Fulfilling both its first objective of demonstrating the functioning of its systems and its second objective of proving its usefulness and effectiveness with regard to scientific experiments in space, Spacelab 1 was considered as a highly successful mission.
The program did not stop at a strictly American-European collaboration and the Spacelab research missions carried dozens of international experiments in various fields. It also flew different modules such as the International Microgravity Laboratory, the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, the U.S. Microgravity Laboratory and the Microgravity Science Laboratory among many others.
In total, at the end of the program in 1998, twenty-two missions were carried out. It was decided that the program should be stopped since the experiments it was conducting could be performed on the ISS.
The Spacelab program was beneficial in several ways: it has helped develop science experiments onboard of the Space Shuttle and therefore in space; it has strengthened international cooperation between Europe and the U.S. and it has improved Europe’s knowledge and ability to develop manned space flight.
Like the Salyut and Mir programs, the Spacelab program has contributed to the development of the International Space Station.