A Look Back at Spacelab-1: Celebrating 40 Years in Space

Forty years ago this month, European-built Spacelab made its historic debut in space, marking the European Space Agency’s (ESA) entry into human spaceflight activities. On November 28, 1983, the Spacelab-1 mission was launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board Space Shuttle Columbia, carrying ESA’s first astronaut, Ulf Merbold. This mission was significant in many ways, including being the first mission to carry non-career astronauts and the first operational use of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system.

Spacelab was a purpose-built space laboratory developed by ESA in cooperation with NASA. As the Space Shuttle was being developed in the 1970s, NASA recognized the need for a facility that would enable scientists to conduct experiments while in orbit. Under a collaboration agreement, Europe took on the responsibility of funding, designing, and building this modular research laboratory that would fit inside the Shuttle’s cargo bay. The construction of Spacelab was led by a consortium of European companies, with VFW-Fokker/ERNO (later MBB/ERNO, then Airbus Space) based in Bremen taking the lead.

During the Spacelab-1 mission, which lasted 10 days, 7 hours, and 47 minutes, a total of 70 scientific experiments were conducted in various fields such as astronomy, solar physics, space plasma physics, Earth observation, materials science, technology, and life sciences. The crew of six astronauts, including Ulf Merbold as the first non-American astronaut to fly on the Space Shuttle, worked in two teams of three on 12-hour shifts to allow for 24-hour operations.

The success of Spacelab led to its utilization on a total of 22 Space Shuttle missions between 1983 and 1998. Not only did these missions contribute significantly to space science research, but the knowledge and expertise gained from them also played an important role in the development of the International Space Station (ISS) program. Many features of Spacelab, such as the pressure shell design, were reused in the construction of modules like Harmony and Tranquility on the ISS. Additionally, supply spacecraft like ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicles and the commercial Cygnus adopted Spacelab’s exterior structure.

The legacy of Spacelab lives on in Europe’s Columbus laboratory, which is a part of the ISS. The interior of Spacelab featured standardized science racks that proved to be successful and were adopted for all of the Station’s laboratory modules. Similarly, just as Spacelab was operated by international teams of astronauts, today’s European experiments and laboratories on the ISS are maintained and operated by multinational Expedition crews, including European astronauts.

The impact of the Spacelab missions goes beyond its scientific contributions. It represents a significant milestone in Europe’s journey into human spaceflight and showcases the successful collaboration between ESA and NASA. As we commemorate this historic event, we can appreciate the role Spacelab played in shaping our understanding of space and its lasting influence on our current space exploration endeavors.