In less than a century in space, humankind has built only four inhabited outposts in orbit – Salyut, Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station. Since 31 October 2000, there has been a continuous human presence at the ISS, although Mir was permanently inhabited between September 1989 to August 1999. Given that the first person to leave the planet, Yuri Gagarin, did so on 12 April 1961 – nearly half a century ago – that’s a surprisingly short, and recent, period of time.
But then, not everyone has agreed that space stations are useful; and even now there are those who consider the ISS a waste of money better spent on other space-related projects. Yet a space station captures the imagination in a way that’s only been surpassed by the Apollo Moon landings. If you look up at the sky, there are people up there, some 340 kilometres above your head – that’s about the distance between London and Liverpool. As I write this, there are in fact thirteen people in orbit: six in ISS Expedition 23‘s crew and seven on STS-131 Space Shuttle Discovery.
Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars by former NASA chief historian Roger D Launius captures the appeal of the space station. In seven copiously-illustrated chapters, Launius presents a history of space stations, focusing chiefly on the US’s Skylab and Space Station Freedom, and the ISS. The opening chapters outline the origins of the concept and NASA’s various early plans, featuring a number of illustrations of space stations from the 1930s to the 1950s. An entire chapter is devoted to the political wrangling which killed Space Station Freedom. In truth, Space Stations is chiefly a political study of its subject. It’s the reasons for their existence, rather than the technical achievements they represent, which Launius documents. Certainly I agree that space stations are a vital first step in the move off-planet. And we need to eventually move off the Earth, if only to provide room for the planet’s ever-increasing population and to find the resources necessary to maintain that population.
But Launius’s books is not about the commercial or scientific development of our Solar system, and the role space stations will play in that development. As Space Stations‘ subtitle suggests, Launius is documenting further visions – missions to other stars. Those early visionaries – Tsiolkovski, Oberth, Noordung, von Braun – all looked to the stars. And space stations were a necessary component of their visions.
Although Space Stations was published in 2003, Launius foresaw the increase in space tourism following Dennis Tito‘s flight to the ISS in 2001 (there have been eight space tourists to the ISS to date), and concluded that the commercial sector would play an increasingly larger role in the development of space. While not an especially prophetic conclusion, President Obama’s recent cancellation of Project Constellation and directive for NASA to use private space companies can only mean more of the commercial sector in space. Which Launius sees as positive, especially in relation to the role of space stations in future interstellar exploration: “But this path into the future, although seemingly stalled, may already be in the process of becoming.”
Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius (2003, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 1-58834-120-8, 230pp + appendices, chapter notes and index)