A space station is an artificial structure designed for humans to live in outer space. A space station is distinguished from other manned spacecraft by its lack of major propulsion or landing facilities — instead, other vehicles are used as transport to and from the station. Space stations are designed for medium-term living in orbit, for periods of weeks, months, or even years.
Space stations are used to study the effects of long-term space flight on the human body as well as to provide platforms for greater number and length of scientific studies than available on other space vehicles. Since the ill-fated flight of Soyuz 11 to Salyut 1, all manned spaceflight duration records have been set aboard space stations. The duration record of 437.7 days was set by Valeri Polyakov aboard Mir from 1994 to 1995. As of 2005, 3 astronauts have completed single missions of over a year, all aboard Mir.
Past and present space stations
- Salyut stations: Salyut 1, Salyut 2 (failed on-orbit, never occupied), Salyut 3, Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6, Salyut 7
- International Space Station (ISS)
Following the controlled deorbiting of Mir in 2001, the International Space Station is the only one of these currently in orbit; it has been continuously manned since October 30, 2000.
A second Skylab unit (Skylab B) was manufactured, as a backup article; due to the high costs of providing launch vehicles, and a desire by NASA to cease Saturn & Apollo operations in time to prepare for the Space Shuttle coming into service, it was never flown. The hull can now be seen in the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington DC, where it is a popular tourist attraction. A number of additional Salyuts were also produced, as backups or as flight articles which were later cancelled.
The International Space Station evolved from the American Space Station Freedom program, which - despite being under development for ten years - was never launched; it incorporated elements of a Mir replacement station ("Mir 2") which was also never constructed. Other cancelled space station programs included the United States Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory project, cancelled in 1969 about a year before the first planned test flight; this was unusual in being an explicitly military project, as opposed to the Soviet Almaz program, which was heavily intertwined with - and concealed by - the contemporaneous Salyut program.
Currently, Bigelow Aerospace is commercially developing inflatable habitat modules, derived from the earlier Transhab concept, intended to be used for space station construction.
Types of space station
Broadly speaking, the space stations so far launched have been of two types; the earlier stations, Salyut and Skylab, have been "monolithic", intended to be constructed and launched in one piece, and then manned by a crew later. As such, they generally contained all their supplies and experimental equipment when launched, and were considered "expended", and then abandoned, when these were used up.
Starting with Salyut 6 and 7, a change was seen; these were built with two docking ports, which allowed a second crew to visit, bringing a new spacecraft (for technical reasons, a Soyuz capsule cannot spend more than a few months on orbit, even powered down, safely) with them. This allowed for a crew to man the station continually. The presence of a second port also allowed Progress supply vehicles to be docked to the station, meaning that fresh supplies could be brought to aid long-duration missions. This concept was expanded on Salyut 7, which "hard docked" with a TKS tug shortly before it was abandoned; this served as a proof-of-concept for the use of modular space stations. The later Salyuts may reasonably be seen as a transition between the two groups.
The second group, Mir and the ISS, have been modular; a core unit was launched, and additional modules, generally with a specific role, were later added to that. (On Mir they were usually launched independently, whereas on the ISS most are brought by the Shuttle). This method allows for greater flexibility in operation, as well as removing the need for a single immensely powerful launch vehicle. These stations are also designed from the outset to have their supplies provided by logistical support, which allows for a longer lifetime at the cost of requiring regular support launches.
These stations have various issues that limit their long-term habitability, such as very low recycling rates, high radiation levels and a lack of gravity. Some of these problems cause discomfort and long-term health effects. In the case of solar flares, most current habitats even have an acute danger of radiation poisoning. Some space habitats address these issues, and are intended for long-term occupation. Some designs might even accommodate large numbers of people, essentially "cities in space" where people would make their homes. No such design has yet been constructed, because even for a small station, the extra equipment is too expensive to place in orbit at current (2005) launch costs.
List of occupied space stations, with statistics
|Space station||Launched||Reentered||Days in use||Total crew
|Salyut 1||Apr 19, 1971
|Oct 11, 1971||175||24||3||2||0||18,425|
|Skylab||May 14, 1973
|Jul 11, 1979
|Salyut 3||Jun 25, 1974
|Jan 24, 1975||213||15||2||1||0||18,500|
|Salyut 4||Dec 26, 1974
|Feb 3, 1977||770||92||4||2||1||18,500|
|Salyut 5||Jun 22, 1976
|Aug 8, 1977||412||67||4||2||0||19,000|
|Salyut 6||Sep 29, 1977
|Jul 29, 1982||1,764||683||33||16||14||19,000|
|Salyut 7||Apr 19, 1982
|Feb 7, 1991||3,216||816||26||12||15||19,000|
|Mir||Feb 19, 1986
|Mar 23, 2001
|ISS||Nov 20, 1998
- **ISS stats as of August 28, 2005.
- ***ISS stats as of October 6, 2005.
A large amount of science fiction is set on space stations. A notable example is Babylon 5, a series set on a space station by that name far into the future. Similarly, Deep Space 9 is a prominent space station in the Star Trek story line. It was built by the Cardassians around Bajor and later staffed by Federation personnel.
The film (and novel) 2001: A Space Odyssey contains a large space station, built as a revolving ring; this has proven to be one of the iconic images of a space station in popular culture.
The James Bond film Moonraker featured a space station which serves as Hugo Drax's lair and a base to nerve-gas Earth.
The Star Wars films A New Hope (Star Wars) and Return of the Jedi each feature a heavily armored space station known as the Death Star, which is capable of destroying a planet. Some may dispute the usage of the term space station to describe the Death Stars because they are capable of traveling great distances.