EP-165 Spacelab

two illustrations showing Spacelab being transported to the VAB and a shuttle launch.

"Shakespeare once wrote: 'Thoughts are but dreams 'til their effects be tried.' With Spacelab we have transformed the thoughts and dreams of thousands into reality."

James M. Beggs, NASA Administrator, at the ceremony for Spacelab's arrival from Europe at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, February 5, 1982.


CHAPTER SEVEN: Spacelab: Its Birth, Its Impact, Its Future


[69] The basic decisions were made early in the 1970s. Now, more than 10 years later, when the familiar countdown at the Kennedy Space Center culminates in liftoff, Spacelab is finally on its way to orbit aboard the Shuttle. The thoughts that were but dreams a decade ago will be ready for "their effects [to] be tried."

Spacelab's work is not as dramatic or spectacular as the Moon flights were. Yet together the Shuttle and Spacelab comprise the foundation for the U.S. manned space programs for the remainder of the 1980s and very likely deep into the 1990s.

Experience from Shuttle and Spacelab operations and research is hound to influence the design, direction, and extent of future space projects, particularly of manned space activities, for the next decade or two. Moreover, the success of Spacelab's performance and the research carried out on board will undoubtedly have a significant impact on future international cooperation in space ventures.

The first seeds of the Spacelab concept were sown in the late 1960s. Dr. Thomas O. Paine, then NASA Administrator, traveled to 19 countries to assess their interest in cooperating with the United States in space. The first U.S. Apollo manned Moon landings were high priority aspects of the American space effort. U.S. space planners were looking at possibilities for post-Apollo programs. They were appraising projects to succeed the manned Moon landing missions.

All Apollo follow-on programs seriously considered were necessarily expensive. Most of them implied worldwide efforts. Thus they were candidates for international sharing.


Task Group Considers Options

Evolution of the Spacelab concept had its beginnings in a task group appointed during the Nixon Administration. With the work on the Apollo series of spacecraft completed, personnel were directed to investigate how NASA might best conduct scientific investigations in space during the closing decades of the 1900s.

Options they considered included (a) a reusable Space Shuttle vehicle; (b) a manned planetary expedition to Mars; and (c) design and construction of a permanent orbiting space station.

President Nixon decided that only one of these options at a time would be supported. Space Shuttle was the one chosen.

Supporting studies for the post-Apollo effort in space had focused on modular space....


Inside Spacelab Vice President George Bush (center) talks with two crew members- Mission Specialist Dr. Owen K. Gariott (left) and Payload Specialist Dr. Ulf Merbold.

Inside Spacelab Vice President George Bush (center) talks with two crew members- Mission Specialist Dr. Owen K. Gariott (left) and Payload Specialist Dr. Ulf Merbold. Photo was made in the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida shortly after the flight model of Spacelab, arrived there in February 1982.


[70] ....stations, assembled in orbit from units of a sufficiently small size for delivery in the Shuttle's cargo bay. In their discussions of a space station, engineers often referred to research and applications modules (RAMS). These unmanned units would be designed to carry research instruments into orbit, stay for a year or two, and then be returned to Earth and exchanged for other units with new experiments.

When the President's decision deferred an early start for a space station, NASA immediately modified the RAM concept to modules that would enter orbit in the Shuttle, perform their functions as a short-stay "sortie laboratory," and return to Earth at the end of the Shuttle mission.

During the American space station studies in the early 1970s, some European firms worked as subcontractors to American companies in formulating these new concepts. Through the years the United States entered nearly 1,000 agreements with almost 100 nations on space cooperation. But most covered only a single project or other joint effort, such as the United States launching another nation's satellite or carrying another nation's research instrument aboard an orbiting U.S. spacecraft. Until Spacelab, no agreement called for such a largescale joint development.


Europe Studies Proposals

When NASA offered Europe an opportunity to become a partner in one of the upcoming ventures, European nations responded with enthusiasm Discussions began between representatives of NASA and the two European space agencies of that time- the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organization (ESRO). Both later merged into the present European Space Agency (ESA).

Discussions over several years culminated in agreement that, rather than Europe contributing some component of America's newest delivery vehicle- the Shuttle- the United States would relinquish and European nations would accept responsibility for developing a discrete entity- a space laboratory to enhance the Shuttle's capacity for carrying out important scientific research. Furthermore, both the technology and funding required for such a sortie laboratory were well within ESA's means.


Unloading Spacelab: Covered by protective shrouds with <<ESA>> and <<ERNO>> markings, components of the Spacelab engineering model arriving from Europe are unloaded from a C-5 transport airplane at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Unloading Spacelab: Covered by protective shrouds with "ESA" and "ERNO" markings, components of the Spacelab engineering model arriving from Europe are unloaded from a C-5 transport airplane at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


[71] International Agreement Signed

Europeans and the United States made their decision final by signing the intergovernmental agreement in August 1973. Nine of the European partners signed at that time; Austria joined the project later. This document establishes the responsibilities of each partner and assigned implementation of the project to NASA in the United States and ESRO in Europe.

More specific and detailed statements governing the execution of the Spacelab program appear m another agreement signed at the same time. This is the .Spacelab Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU was initialed on August 14, 1973, by NASA Administrator James Fletcher for the United States and by Alexander Hocker, ESRO Director-General, for the participating European nations.

Though the MOU concerned construction of a facility for research in the physical sciences in space, its signing marked the advent of a greatly expanded international technical cooperation. To work out the complex technical aspects and management procedures for this project required scores of joint meetings by American and European administrators, scientists, engineers, technicians, and other specialists- as well as by political leaders and eventually candidates for the flight crews.

A manager at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., recalls the cosmopolitan nature of the gatherings: "There were eleven of us with eight different mother tongues. From the outset we had all agreed that discussions and negotiations would be carried out in English. We soon discovered there were nine kinds of English- American English,'English' English, plus the seven distinctive English accents of the representatives of the other nations." Of course the American English included some very pronounced regional accents, which frequently intrigued the Europeans.


Close Relationships Develop

Many of the participants in the meetings recall that, in the give-and-take of negotiations, respect, understanding, and even admiration and personal friendships developed among delegates of the 10 participating European nations and

representatives of the United States. Europeans, accustomed to more formal relationships, adopted the practice of addressing Americans by their first names. Americans accustomed to fast cafeteria lunches came to appreciate the relaxed European midday meals.


ESA, NASA Approaches

Many potentially intractable problems arising from differing technological and administrative procedures were gradually overcome. Though Spacelab had to fit precisely into the Orbiter's cargo hay, and power distribution and environmental control systems had to match perfectly, the Europeans retained their metric system and the United States worked with the traditional English system of measurements throughout the project. Changing would have been prohibitively costly and would have required replacement of vast quantities of expensive measuring tools and equipment.

The MOU clearly established that the European nations would jointly design and build Spacelab and provide the first unit to NASA. NASA would have free use of it, but would supply system and operational requirements and Shuttle interfaces for the Spacelab system. NASA also was to provide technical and management advice, and, later in the project, buy a second complete Spacelab unit from the ESA consortium. The U.S. space agency also would manage all Shuttle- Spacelab flights and operate the spaceborne laboratory units. This meant providing buildings and workstands for assembling and checking out Spacelab components for each flight, furnishing crew training and simulators, handling payload logistics, and operating the control centers.

The first Spacelab flight was to be a cooperative mission. NASA and ESA would each be allowed to fly experiments of equal total weight and electric power needs. There would be a European scientist in the crew. Thereafter Spacelab would be available to all users on cooperative or cost-reimbursable bases.

Ordinarily ESA assigns funding quotas to each member nation based on relative gross national products. In the Spacelab project West Germany took the lead and contributed more than half of the funds. Each participating nation expects to receive industrial contracts closely matching its contributions to a project.


[72] ESA Participation Apportioned

West Germany provided 53.3 percent of Spacelab's cost and fulfilled 52.6 percent of all Spacelab work contracts. The industrial firm ERNO VFW Fokker, after submitting the winning design, became the prime contractor for Spacelab. At that time the company was owned by both West German and Dutch interests. Since then ERNO has been taken over by the West German firm Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm. The ERNO plant in Bremen continued as the headquarters for Spacelab design, production management, component testing, and assembly.

West Germany's AEG-Telefunken provided Spacelab's electric power distribution system, and Dornier Systems built the life support equipment. With 18 percent of the contributions to Spacelab and 13.1 percent* of the work contracts, Italy is the second largest Spacelab participant. Italy's industrial firm Aeritalia built the Spacelab module, all the racks that fit inside, and the thermal control system.

France, with 10 percent of contributions and 12.2 percent of the contracts, was assigned the avionics systems, with the firm MATRA in charge. France also provided other components, including the three Spacelab computers, which operate independently from the five American-built computers in the Orbiter.

The United Kingdom, with 6.3 percent of the contributions and 7.1 percent of contracts, built the pallets, including those two that flew before SL-1. Belgium (4.2 percent of contributions, 5 percent of contracts) built the electrical ground support equipment and the Igloo structure. Spain (2.8 percent of contributions, 3.9 percent of contracts) provided mechanical ground support equipment. The Netherlands (2.1 percent of contributions, 2 percent of contracts) built the scientific airlock.

Denmark ( 1.5 percent of contributions, 2 percent of contracts) provided part of the computer software (programming). Austria (0.8 percent of contributions, 0.5 percent of contracts) built part of the mechanical ground support equipment, and Switzerland ( 1 percent of contributions, 1.6 percent of contracts) built part of the electrical ground support equipment. In addition, France,....

ESA members participation in percentage.

ESA members participation in percentage.


Main European Contractors









United Kingdom





Three stages in the assembly of the Spacelab engineering module at the ERNO plant in Bremen, West Germany.

Three stages in the assembly of the Spacelab engineering module at the ERNO plant in Bremen, West Germany.


[74] ....Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom all made valuable contributions to the development of the Instrument Pointing System (IPS) built by Germany's Dornier Systems as prime contractor. The IPS aims Spacelab telescopes and other instruments with great precision.


More Than 2,000 Employed

At the height of manufacturing activities more than 2,000 Europeans employed by more than 40 contractors and subcontractors in Europe were working on Spacelab or its component and support equipment.

The first Spacelab components to arrive in the United States were three "engineering model" pallets. These arrived in 1979 after they had been used in European ground tests. They were intended for use by NASA to train technicians and give them practice in mounting instruments on pallets. They were not intended for flight. However, two of them became the first Spacelab units to go into space when one was used on the second Shuttle flight (STS-2) in November 1981, and another on the third Shuttle flight (STS-3) in April 1982.

A variety of Earth observation instruments were mounted on that first pallet. Instruments to measure the space environment surrounding the Orbiter were on the second pallet. They proved that excellent scientific work could be performed on pallets.


Module Delivered

Next to arrive in the United States was the engineering model of the habitable module. As in the case of the pallets, this engineering model worked almost identically to a flight element. But it was not required to pass the tests to which flight hardware is subjected. This model was delivered from Bremen to....


Spacelab's engineering module- a unit nearly identical with the later flight units- arrives in the United States from Europe   and after unloading is shipped by truck to assembly, and testing facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Spacelab's engineering module- a unit nearly identical with the later flight units- arrives in the United States from Europe in a large transatlantic cargo plane, and after unloading is shipped by truck to assembly, and testing facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The engineering module was used for training ground -service personnel and for testing.


[75] ....the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November 1980 and was used to train ground crews in the handling and installation of Spacelab components.

On February 5, 1982, in formal ceremonies at the Kennedy Space Center, the module and two pallets of the first flight unit of Spacelab were delivered by ESA. Acceptance of these flight articles by NASA as flight qualified had been completed two months before in Bremen.

Echoing the thoughts and feelings of many of his fellow Europeans, ESA Director General Erik Quistgaard told the assembled dignitaries and Spacelab workers from Europe and the United States at the Florida ceremonies:

"It is indeed a proud day for us Europeans. For the first time we are offering NASA an essential part for one of its space programs. Europe has, for many years, either within the framework of ESA or in multilateral projects, contributed experiments and equipment to NASA programs, but never before have we developed and built, as a joint European venture, such a major element of a NASA program. It is a great pleasure for us to hand the first flight unit (of Spacelab) over to NASA today.

In reply, Vice President George Bush told the European and American audience:

"We are returning to space together, and that is no small achievement. Space Shuttle and Spacelab represent a bond, not just of transatlantic cooperation and friendship, but of a cooperation and friendship that will extend even beyond the Earth into space."


Working Groups Formed

The Memorandum of Understanding- the basic document for the NASA-ESA collaboration on the Spacelab project- called for establishment of a Joint Spacelab Working Group (JSLWG). Participants pronounced the acronym "Jizzlewig." The meetings of JSLWG for management coordination between ESA and NASA are cochaired by the Spacelab program directors at ESA in Paris and NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The meetings are also regularly attended by the Spacelab project manager of the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, and the NASA Spacelab program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Experts from participating countries were invited to attend JSLWG meetings for information exchanges and consultation while the Shuttle and Spacelab were being....


Spacelab arrives in the United States from Europe in a large transatlantic cargo plane

Spacelab arrives. In a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 5, 1982, Spacelab was turned over by the European Space Agency (ESA) to NASA for use aboard the Shuttle. Participating in the transfer ceremony were (from left) ESA Director-General Eric Quistgaard, Vice-President George Bush, NASA Administrator James M. Beggs, and Dr. Johannes Ortner, Chairman of ESA's Spacelab Program Board.

Spacelab arrives. In a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 5, 1982, Spacelab was turned over by the European Space Agency (ESA) to NASA for use aboard the Shuttle. Participating in the transfer ceremony were (from left) ESA Director-General Eric Quistgaard, Vice-President George Bush, NASA Administrator James M. Beggs, and Dr. Johannes Ortner, Chairman of ESA's Spacelab Program Board.


[76] ....built, and to help with resolution of problems that appeared during preparation for operations.

Sixteen experts from ESA and its contractors from six different countries have become members of a European Resident Team (ERT). They are living with their families near the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This team is supplemented by ESA specialists flown in for short stays for consultation on particular aspects of their expertise. The ERT members have been making their experience available to NASA through assisting with development of methods for assembling and checking out the Spacelab systems and by helping to solve some of the problems that invariably arise with complex new equipment. The ERT will stay at KSC at least through the first two Spacelab flights.

Meanwhile, another temporary resident team of 20 experts has been supporting the Kennedy Space Center with the installation of the European research instruments to be used on hoard the first Spacelab flight.


Pallet Concept Emerges

Looking to the future, the orbiting laboratory has introduced concepts which will undoubtedly influence the design of space activities in the decades ahead. For example, the use of pallets as a new, relatively simple, and inexpensive way to perform research in orbit may catch on and expand. Eventually a variety of pallets may emerge. Some of the new pallets may be developed for commercial ventures. Industrial firms might acquire pallets for development of profitable pharmaceutical products. There may also be free-flying pallets and platforms, released into orbit and later retrieved by the Shuttle, which may record data for later analysis or transmit research results immediately by radio.

These retrievable pallets and platforms could be delivered to orbit for either long or short exposures in space and returned to Earth for reuse with Shuttle. Eventually, a resuppliable space station designed for indefinite stay in orbit could be supplemented by experiment-laden manned modules and free-flying pallets resembling those of Spacelab.


Much New Data Expected

Analysis and interpretation of some Spacelab-generated scientific data may become available quickly after each flight. Some sorting, processing, and analysis may take many months or even several years.

The vast quantities of research information emanating from Spacelab will provide material for scientific papers which investigators will publish in scientific journals or present at scientific meetings. Scientific papers are a tangible cod product of scientific research, and Spacelab is expected to he the source of large quantities of them. Such papers are the means by which research results come into possession of scientists everywhere and through them become part of humankind's store of knowledge. It is from this ever-growing data base that we gain a better understanding of ourselves and our world, and greater control over our lives. As the story of Spacelab gradually fades into the flow of world events, it is the knowledge it generated that will give this modular laboratory its place in human history. Because knowledge lasts forever.

* All data on contributions and contracts furnished by NASA.


About the Author


Walter Froehlich is a veteran newspaper and magazine writer specializing in science and technology subjects. He operates his own news and feature service, International Science Writers, in Washington, D.C. He has covered the U.S. space program from its beginning 25 years ago. This is his fifth major NASA publication. He authored Man in Space, the first pamphlet in the NASA series on "Space in the Seventies," in 1971; Science at Fra Mauro, a pamphlet on Apollo 14, in 1971; Apollo 16 at Descartes, a pamphlet on the fifth manned Moon landing flight in 1972; and a 130-page book, Apollo Soyuz, in 1976.




Material for this publication was obtained through interviews and the comments and contributions of many people. Particular thanks for supplying information are due to:

James C. Harrington, Director; Robert L. Lohman, Chief Development; Alfred L. Ryan, Chief, Integration and Testing; John E. Moye, Manager, Avionics and Software Systems; and Edward James, Technical Support Manager, all of the Spacelab Division; and David W. Garrett, Public Affairs Officer, Office of Space Flight, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Michael J. Sander, Director; Richard E. Halpern, Deputy Director; Mary Jo Smith, Spacelab Program Manager; and Michael J. Wiskerchen, Spacelab-1 program scientist, all of the Spacelab Flight Division, Office of Space Science and Applications, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

U. John Sakss, Acting Chief, International Planning and Programs, and Debra J. Rahn, Public Affairs Officer, both of the International Affairs Division, Office of External Relations, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Mary G. Fitzpatrick, Media Services, and Miles Waggoner, Management Services, Public Affairs Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Douglas R Lord (retired), formerly Director, Spacelab Division, Office of Spaceflight, NASA Headquarters, Washington,

Robert J. Freitag, Deputy Director, and William J. O'Donnell, Public Affairs Officer, both of the Space Station Task Force, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Les Gaver, Chief, and Tony L. Ellington, Audio Visual Branch; Public Affairs Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

John E. Riley, Deputy Chief, Public Information Branch, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.

David B. Drachlis, Public Affairs Specialist and Linda Doherty both of the Public Information Branch, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

Ian Pryke, Deputy Manager, Washington, D.C., Office, European Space Agency.