By Jessica Eagan
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
Rewind to the year 1983. NASA astronaut Sally Ride is the first American woman to visit the depths of the universe. Guion Bluford is the first African-American astronaut in space. Microsoft Word is first released. Michael Jackson performs the popular dance move forever known as the “Moonwalk.” Also 30 years ago on Nov. 28: The launch of Spacelab-1, a reusable laboratory with a legacy that still lives on through the International Space Station.
The lab was the size of a medium house trailer and was flown in the space shuttle’s cargo bay. Spacelab consisted of an enclosed, pressurized laboratory module and open, U-shaped pallets that could be placed behind the module or flown alone. Equipment — including telescopes, antennas and sensors — was mounted on the pallets for direct exposure to space.
In the 17 years of Spacelab, with 36 missions flown and about 800 investigations completed, this program taught scientists how to operate experiments in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit.
“Spacelab served as a precursor to the space station because it taught scientists how to design, integrate and operate experiments in an orbiting laboratory,” said Rick Rodriguez, currently a payload operations manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who served as a simulation engineer during the Spacelab years. “It provided a plug-in structure for experiments, similar to what is available in ground laboratories, that provide power, communication, cooling, vacuum and other resources needed. Scientists learned how to design experiments that could be integrated into Spacelab. They also learned how to design experiments that could withstand being launched into space, operated in microgravity and returned to Earth.”
Built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and managed by Marshall, Spacelab-1 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard space shuttle Columbia on its STS-9 mission . It orbited Earth 166 times during 10 days before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Dec. 8, 1983. Liftoff came 10 years after NASA and ESA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to create the laboratory. ESA built the Spacelab module and other equipment in exchange for flying experiments and European astronauts in space, as well as Japanese and German space agency-supported research missions.
Crews worked around the clock in two shifts to staff this unique laboratory so that the maximum amount of science could be achieved. Spacelab-1 proved many experiments could be performed in multiple disciplines at the same time — a concept still used by station crews today. The Spacelab-1 crew completed more than 70 scientific investigations during the 10-day mission. From astronomy to Earth observation, life sciences to material science to technology, solar physics to space plasma physics, these studies included experiments from the Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Spacelab allowed NASA and scientists around the world to learn how to work together to operate investigations during a long-term mission. The NASA team learned what the scientists required and how to schedule the mission to meet those requirements. Scientists learned how to design experiments that would work in space and how to work with NASA during the mission to perform studies and react to changes when experiments or systems did not operate as expected.
“Spacelab was a versatile, extra-terrestrial laboratory,” said Didier Schmitt, scientific advisor and foresight coordinator for the Bureau of European Policy Advisers. Back then, he was a principal investigator and a scientific coordinator for all European Space Agency biology experiments aboard the International Microgravity Laboratory-2 (IML-2), a Spacelab mission flown in 1994. “A very original aspect was that scientists could fly as payload specialists. This gave great confidence to us who had to leave our experiments in the hands of others. Therefore, the operations could really be conceived without too complex of automations, giving scientists the opportunity to prepare their experiments relatively easily in their own labs. They actually had to be quite innovative for the realization of their investigations in microgravity. Specific instruments were invented by scientists, not by industry. As an example, ‘cassette-type’ experiments became very fashionable in many missions and are still used today on the space station.”
Cassette-type experiments are compact units for performing short-term studies involving activation of cells in liquid cultures aboard manned spacecraft.
“The entire crew, both the payload specialists and NASA mission specialist astronauts, were dedicated to research for the whole duration of the flight, and this led to an incredible concentration of scientific activity in a very small space of time,” Schmitt added. “It looked like a beehive watching from ground control.”
When NASA designed the space station, it started with the lessons learned from Spacelab. The space environment and general design of the laboratories use a similar module approach with racks for experiments and facilities, and with special mounting facilities for exposing experiments to space. The difference is that most station hardware had to be operational for years, rather than weeks. Also technology, primarily communications and computers, had greatly advanced.
In 1995, NASA astronaut and mission specialist Cady Coleman flew on the STS-73 Spacelab mission called the U.S. Microgravity Laboratory (USML-1), which focused on materials science, biotechnology, combustion science, fluid physics, and numerous scientific experiments housed in the Spacelab module.
“STS-73 was really a practice session for the station,” Coleman said. “I felt like I was part of the big steps toward space station science. We did investigations back then that have led to hugely successful studies today, including the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE). We did the very first iteration of that study on Spacelab, and we figured out what was practical and what was not. What we had were containers of liquid in a Ziploc bag attached in the Spacelab so they wouldn’t get bumped. We took pictures everyday of what form the liquid decided to take and we began to understand all the possible geometric solutions and what shapes liquids really tended to form. Now, the crew performs a similar, more sophisticated experiment almost everyday on station. CFE will help in the design of fluid transport systems on future spacecraft. It will give us an understanding how to have all the fuel in one place rather than spread over every surface in the tank, which is a problem when spacecraft operate in a microgravity environment.”
Other beneficial components that came out of Spacelab include a multiple-user rack system created by Marshall. Today’s station racks, called Expedite the Processing of Experiments to the Space Station (EXPRESS) racks, were successfully tested during the STS-94 Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL-1) mission in 1997. The mission bridged the gap between the relatively short-duration work done on Spacelab flights and the long-duration research to be performed on the station. These racks supported space studies by providing structural interfaces, power, data, cooling, water and other items needed to operate science experiments.
Spacelab’s legacy has helped space station research thrive, with crews conducting science experiments that provide powerful results in fields from astronomy to human health to telemedicine, to observations of our own planet. Continuing to seek answers to these scientific questions is benefiting our lives today and the lives of future generations, as well as helping human explorers travel safely as they journey even farther away from planet Earth.