In the orderly ladderlike progression of space exploration, the next logical rung is Spacelab. In the early 1970s when decisions for the post-Apollo future of the U.S. space program reached their crucial phase, an emerging need was apparent:
Once the reusable, heavy-lift American space transportation system called the Space Shuttle entered full service in the 1980s, it would drastically alter the ways American satellites are launched. Most one-time-use-only rockets would disappear. Taking their plates, the Shuttle would carry the satellites into space and launch them into orbit. But the changes in scientific space research would be even more drastic. Research could be vastly increased because of the Shuttle's ability to carry heavy loads into space. Moreover, the Shuttle would be able to bring heavy cargoes back to Earth. Heretofore this was impossible. What would be needed for taking full advantage of these new opportunities was a versatile facility that would permit scientists themselves to engage in observations and conduct experiments of increasing scope and complexity aboard the Shuttle in space. That envisioned new facility would permit them to do so easily, comfortably, and at low cost, because they could reuse their equipment again and again.
Scientific research in space, though spectacularly successful, had been extremely expensive, partly because of the need to build new research equipment for each flight. Also this was true because of the requirement to design experiments to meet stringent limitations of weight, size, electric power, and environmental conditions.
At the beginning of the 1970s Western European space officials were considering strategies to involve their continent in manned space flight without having to start an extremely expensive program of their own. They accepted an American invitation to participate in the NASA manned space program. They agreed to design, build, and finance the needed research facility for the Space Shuttle. The facility, later to be called Spacelab, would be financed and built jointly by 10 European nations through the European Space Agency (ESA) in close cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA would assist with design concepts and provide all needed ground facilities, Shuttle interfaces, and crew training. From the point of view of NASA, with its own resources strained by Shuttle development costs, the European partnership held the promise of a much-sought contribution to the American space transportation system.
After spending 10 years and $1 billion at their complex task, the 10 participating European nations completed Spacelab. The United States spent another half-billion dollars to purchase a second Spacelab from Europe and for the promised Shuttle interfaces, ground and operational support, and personnel training.
By coincidence, Spacelab's first flight late in 1983 comes only shortly after the 25th anniversary of NASA's founding on October 1, 1958. Conceived and built during the first 25 years of NASA's existence for service during the second 25 years, Spacelab marks a dividing line between the first and second quarters of a century of the U.S. space exploration program.
Spacelab was planned and constructed to serve as a suitable host for significant scientific research and technological development. As intended by its European builders and by its American operators, this new facility will serve scientists from many nations and in many scientific disciplines and technological specialties.
Spacelab is the outgrowth of steady evolution of space technology. It enables scientists and engineers to go into space for in-orbit research with their own hands and eyes-with instruments they have designed and built.
This publication summarizes what Spacelab is, what it does, how it came to be, and what its users expect from it.