Evolution of Spacelab Missions, with Eventual Cooperation with Mir

A Facinating Footnote in History is How the International Astronauts Were Able to Fly on Both US and Soviet/Russian Missions

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COMMENTARY | A fascinating part of space history is how the Spacelab missions evolved, and how they prepared many countries to operate the International Space Station. A quick summary of Spacelab is that the space shuttle flew complex science experiments in the payload bay, with hardware built by a consortium of European companies led by VFW-Fokker and ERNO based in Bremen, Germany. Spacelab had both a big pressurized module and had pallets that equipment could be mounted on. These pallets were installed in the space shuttle payload bay.

Possibly some of the interest in Spacelab came due to the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States - the Soviet flew their Salyut 1 space station in 1971, after the US had sent missions to the Moon and they had not. The US followed with the Skylab station in 1973, and the cooperative Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.

Apollo-Soyuz could have been a temporary truce in the competition, as the Soviets launched the first Eastern European, a citizen of Czechoslovakia, in 1978. Later that year they launched an East German, Sigmund Jahn, to the Salyut space station. The US did not have the capability to launch people into space, and had to watch from the sidelines until 1981, when the space shuttle was first flown. The Soviets continued to expand their outreach, when they launched the first Western European, the French citizen Jean-Loup Chretien, in 1982. By then the West German government had announced their first two astronauts - this was before the ESA astronaut program absorbed the individual ones. The US got back into the game when Ulf Merbold flew on the first Spacelab mission in 1983 - flying as an ESA astronaut.

In the planning for Spacelab, the Germans were going to fly a series of missions and did fly Spacelab D-1 and D-2, and had paid NASA to reserve D-3 and D-4 as well. The Japanese flew (in 1992) Spacelab-J, a Japanese controlled mission, as well. During many of these years, I was a Spacelab person working in Houston, and worked on Spacelab Life Sciences 1 and 2, and we were feverishly working on 3 and 4 already.

But by then, the dedicated missions were going out of style, to be replaced by cooperative missions. After Spacelab D-1, Ulf Merbold flew again on International Microgravity Laboratory in 1992. Dirk Frimout of ESA flew on ATLAS-1 in 1992 before D-2 (with Hans Schlegel and Ulrich Walter of Germany flying as DLR astronauts) flew in 1993. Dedicated life sciences missions were replaced by missions such as the STS-78 Life and Microgravity Sciences mission in 1996, which had a Canadian and another ESA astronaut. Also, ESA and Japanese astronauts were flying on non-Spacelab space shuttle missions by then as well. At this time, European astronauts were still flying to the Soviet Mir space station for longer flights - though it was far more difficult to do research on Mir. And eventually, NASA and European astronauts began to meet on the Mir, while they also flew on the Shuttle. The European astronauts were in demand by both programs!

The Spacelab program was halted, as the International Space Station was being built, and the Mir space station was opened to International researchers. By then, I had transferred from the Spacelab team to the NASA/Mir team, and had found how difficult it was to get anything done on the Mir. On Spacelab, we commonly used many pieces of equipment simultaneously and had a very interactive relationships with the crew members on orbit. With Mir, that all crashed to a halt. Still, we were learning to work with the Russians.

Charles Phillips has had a long career in several areas: he has worked in space operations since 1978, he was an Air Force officer from 1978 until he retired in 2005 (working in space, communications, and maintenance), and he has been a writer all of that time. Now he finds the stories that people are interested in but might have been missed by other reporters.

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