Skipping "The Next Logical Step"


[269] The reason some of us wanted EOR was not just to go to the moon but to have something afterwards: orbital operations, a space station, a springboard. LOR was a one-shot deal, very limited, very inflexible.

- Jesco von Puttkamer, NASA Marshall engineer


By 1969, it was apparent that there was no logical sequel to the lunar landing, and that the agency would have to redeploy its resources in a radically different direction. Had NASA selected earth-orbit rendezvous instead, the lunar landing could still have been achieved and NASA would have had at least a ten-year start on deploying an orbiting space station, rather than waiting until 1982 to let contracts for its design.

- Hans Mark and Arnold Levine, The Management of Research Institutions


No decision in NASA history had a greater impact on the course of the American space program than the selection of LOR as the mission mode for Apollo. The LOR decision led to a total of six successful lunar landing missions by 1972, thus enabling the United States to win the most important leg of the space race. Whether the United States reaped the many anticipated advantages of winning that race, given the critical national and international problems plaguing the country during the Vietnam era, is another matter altogether. The LOR decision, however, had other ramifications for the U.S. space program; it meant that the country would skip the well-laid plans for a manned space station.

[270] Excited NASA researchers had been studying space station concepts seriously for at least four years when NASA chose the LOR mode for Apollo; in truth, many researchers had been planning for a space station from the moment of NASA's beginning as an organization. Although the LOR decision did not stop all space station planning, it decisively changed space station studies by de-emphasizing the immediate importance of earth-orbital capabilities. Moreover, the goal of landing humans on the moon by the end of the decade became all-consuming, and researchers who did space station work in the wake of the mission-mode decision had to compete with Apollo for support. After Apollo, the situation did not improve; space station advocates then had to justify a return to the development of something that the country had once decided it did not need. NASA Marshall engineer Jesco von Puttkamer explains this predicament:


After the close down of Apollo, we began to pay the price. We are trying to fill that gap, which we jumped over, and are having a tough time with a convincing justification to do it. Sometimes I wish we had done EOR. Then we would probably have a space station already. Then we wouldn't have to go back and rejustify something that looks to many people like a step backwards And in a certain sense it is. We've been to the moon already, history knows, and now all of a sudden we're trying to fill this empty space.1

This was a major psychological and political obstacle for the champions of any space station concept to overcome. It explains why now, on the eve of the twenty-first century, "the next logical step" in space exploration after orbiting a human has not yet been taken.

In the mid-1970s, the United States did launch an orbital space station, Skylab. The technology for this station was a direct outgrowth of the Apollo Extension System, a spin-off of the LOR-determined Apollo program. Skylab, as successful as it proved to be, was not the versatile and longlasting station that NASA had planned since the late 1950s. Designed to satisfy the institutional need to do something after Apollo and to keep the NASA team together long enough to finish the lunar landing missions, Skylab was makeshift and temporary. NASA's space station engineers, in fact, deliberately built the station without the thrusters necessary to keep it in orbit for any significant amount of time. By limiting Skylab's "lifetime," they hoped to ensure the construction of a more permanent and sophisticated station one more in keeping with their original plans. When Skylab came down, they would replace it with the station they had always wanted-that was the idea. In 1979, Skylab did fall to earth and made more news as a burning hunk of metal than it ever did as an operating space laboratory. The public feared that falling pieces of the spacecraft might destroy homes or kill children at play in school yards. Most of the orbital workshop landed in Western Australia, and none of it did any serious damage. Although Skylab came down, by the 1990s, NASA still had not [271] been able to replace it as hoped. Once skipped over, "the next logical step" proved increasingly difficult to justify.2


"As Inevitable as the Rising Sun"


In imagining how humans would voyage to the moon and the planets, all rocket pioneers envisioned the value of a staging base in earth orbit. The Russian theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovskii recommended such an outpost in 1911 in his pioneering Investigation of Universal Space by Means of Reactive Devices, and the German scientist Hermann Oberth suggested likewise in his 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen. Austria's Guido von Pirquet envisioned the use of an earth-orbit station in his series of provocative articles on "Interplanetary Travel Routes" appearing in Die Rakete ( The Rocket), which was published by the German Society for Space Travel in 1928 and 1929. Despite these early ideas for a station, rocket enthusiasts did not seriously consider building one until several years after the end of World War II and the appearance of the first practical jet and rocket engines.3

One of the first to offer a station design was the master designer of the V-2 rocket, Wernher von Braun. In 1952, having quickly acclimated himself to the American scene and recognizing the need to make spaceflight a respectable topic for public discussion, von Braun wrote an article for a special issue of the popular American magazine Colliers. This issue was devoted to the idea of space exploration. Von Braun called his contribution "Crossing the Last Frontier" and made its focus the imaginative design of a manned space station in permanent earth orbit.4

In the article von Braun wrote, "Development of the space station is as inevitable as the rising sun." "Man has already poked his nose into space" with sounding rockets, and "he is not likely to pull it back." "Within the next 10 to 15 years," von Braun predicted, "the earth will have a new companion in the skies." An "artificial moon," an earth-orbiting base "from which a trip to the moon itself will be just a step," will be "carried into space, piece by piece, by rocket ships." From there, the human civilization of deep space would begin.5

The space station conceived by von Braun was no crude affair; it was an elaborate and beautiful object, a huge 250-foot-wide wheel. The enormous torus rotated slowly as it orbited the earth to provide artificial or "synthetic gravity", for pressurized living spaces situated about the wheel's center. Writer Arthur C. Clarke and moviemaker Stanley Kubrick would borrow the torus design for their exhilarating (and baffling) 1968 movie epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film, the space wheel turns majestically to the waltz of Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube," while a space shuttle vehicle with passengers aboard leisurely approaches the station.

[272] The hub of von Braun's wheel served as a stationary zero-gravity module for earth and space observations with an assembly of equipment and instruments useful for a host of scientific and applied industrial experiments. On-board apparatuses would include "powerful telescopes attached to large optical screens, radarscopes, and cameras to keep under constant inspection every ocean, continent, country, and city." At short distances from the station, there would be unmanned stationary platforms for remotely controlled telescopic observation of the heavens. While helping to uncover the secrets of the universe, the space station would also work to disclose the evil ambitions of humankind. With its telescopic and camera eyes, von Braun claimed, the station would make it virtually "impossible for any nation to hide warlike preparations for any length of time." Such would be the novel and unprecedented benefits of a permanent manned base in earth orbit. Von Braun predicted that the station would become a reality in a few decades.6

At NACA Langley in the 1950s, the prospects of an orbiting space station did not pass unnoticed. Several researchers speculated about the technology that would be needed someday to develop an operational space station such as the one von Braun had described. Suddenly, in 1958, interest in a space station exploded. While the ink was still drying on the Space Act, preliminary working groups concerned with space station concepts and technology came alive both within NASA and around the aerospace industry. NASA's intercenter Goett Committee was one of these early groups.

At the first meeting of the Goett Committee on 25-26 May 1959, each member addressed the group for 10 to 15 minutes to propose ideas for the next manned spaceflight objective after Project Mercury. Of all the speakers at the meeting, no one sounded more enthusiastic about the potential of an orbiting space station than Langley representative Larry Loftin. In his presentation for what he called Project AMIS, or Advanced Man In Space, Loftin recommended that "NASA undertake research directed toward the following type of system: a permanent space station with a 'transport satellite' capable of rendezvous with the space station." According to Loftin, the space station should possess the following general characteristics: It should be "large enough to accommodate two or more persons for an extended period of time"; it should be "stabilized and oriented in some prescribed manner"; it should be "capable of changing its orientation, and perhaps its orbit, under control of the crew"; and it should be able to attach to the transport satellite for supply and change of personnel. In addition, Loftin argued that the satellite transport or "rendezvous machine" should be able to alter, "through appropriate guidance and control systems, its initial orbit so as to rendezvous with the space station." It should possess a navigation system "which will ensure that that pilot can find and intercept the space station." The transport vehicle should be able to dock with the station "in such a way as to permit transfer of payloads between vehicles," and, importantly, it should be able to return from space and land, under control of the pilot, "at a preselected spot on the earth."7



75-foot-diameter rotating hexagon.

One of Langley's early concepts for a manned space station: a self-inflating 75-foot-diameter rotating hexagon. L-62-8400


For emergency use, Loftin explained, the station could be outfitted with a "space parachute," some sort of "flexible, kite like" package that would deploy to make it possible for the station's occupants to survive atmospheric reentry. Otherwise, the space transport would make all trips to and from space. As for what this shuttle-like vehicle might be, Loftin indicated that the air force's X-20 Dyna-Soar manned boost-glider vehicle, "could be modified to perform the desired function." (The X-20 would not be built; Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara canceled the multimillion-dollar, Six-year-old program in 1963.) As an "initial step" to test the transport concept, Loftin suggested that a "proximity rendezvous of Dyna Soar" with some orbiting satellite might be undertaken.8

[274] In his talk Loftin emphasized the many uses of the space station. It could serve as "a medical laboratory for the study of man and his ability to function on long space missions." In the station, researchers could study "the effects of space environment on materials, equipment, and powerplants." NASA could use the station to develop new stabilization, orientation, and navigational techniques, as well as to learn how to accomplish rendezvous in space. With telescopes and cameras on board, the station could also serve as an orbiting astronomical observatory and as an "earth survey vehicle" for meteorological, geographical, and military reconnaissance. The minutes of the Goett Committee do not record the immediate reaction to Loftin's AMIS presentation specifically, but several members of the steering committee did come away from their two day meeting in Washington with a strong feeling that a manned space station should be the "target project" after Mercury.9

At NASA's First Anniversary Inspection a few months later, Loftin told a large audience at one of the major stops along the tour that NASA's long-range objectives included "manned exploration of the moon and planets and the provision of manned earth satellites for purposes of terrestrial and astronomical observation," and perhaps even for military surveillance. But "the next major step [author's emphasis] in the direction of accomplishing these long-range objectives of manned space exploration and use would appear to involve the establishment of a manned orbiting space laboratory capable of supporting two or more men in space for a period of several weeks." NASA Langley, Loftin told the crowd, was now focusing its research "with a view toward providing the technological background necessary to support the development of a manned orbiting laboratory.''10

Interestingly, in his original typed comments for the inspection, Loftin had written: "I would like to stress that we at Langley do not intend to develop, build, or contract for the construction of such a vehicle." The center's goal, according to Loftin, in keeping with its conservative NACA policy not to design aircraft, was to "seek out and solve the problems which lie in the way of the development of such a vehicle system." Loftin, however, had crossed through this first line. Perhaps he realized that the times were changing; Langley could "develop, build, or contract" for NASA's space station.11 This was NASA not the NACA, after all.


The First Space Station Task Force


When Larry Loftin spoke to the Goett Committee, he had already helped Floyd Thompson organize 15 of the center's brightest researchers into the Manned Space Laboratory Research Group. Thompson had made a surprising choice for the chair of the space station committee in veteran aeronautical engineer Mark R. Nichols, the longtime head of the Full-Scale Research Division. Nichols, a dedicated airplane man, had little interest....



Paul R. Hill, 1962.


Robert Osborne, 1962.




Two key members of Langley's early space station research were Paul R. Hill (left) and Robert Osborne (right).


....in making the transition to space. As mentioned in chapter 4, Thompson made the appointment as an example to the many other airplane buffs at the center. Langley research was still a team effort, and the team was now moving beyond the atmosphere. Aeronautics staff members would be expected to become involved in space projects. No one should expect a deferment-not even the head of a division.12

The Manned Space Laboratory Research Group consisted of six subcommittees responsible for the study of various essential aspects of space station design and operations: (1) Design and Uses of the Space Station, led by Paul R. Hill of PARD; (2) Stabilization and Orientation, led by the brilliant and mild-mannered head of the Guidance and Control Branch, W. Hewitt Phillips; (3) Life Support, headed by A. Wythe Sinclair, Jr., of the new Theoretical Mechanics Division; (4) Rendezvous Analysis, led by Houbolt, then the assistant chief of the Dynamic Loads Division; (5) Rendezvous Vehicle, led by Eugene S. Love, who was an extremely talented hypersonics specialist working in the Aero-Physics Division; and (6) Power Plant, led by Nichols himself.* According to handwritten comments by Thompson on the rough organization chart sketched by Loftin, the objective of the space station committee was to "develop technology and make pitch for doing it." The goal was to demonstrate that "this is possible and this is the way we can do it." As for how to organize and manage the work of the [276] committee, Thompson said only to "organize like WS 110," that is, similar to the support of the development of Weapons System 110, the air force's experimental B-70 strategic bomber. The organization would be informal so that it could cut across formal divisional lines, but its work would receive the highest priority in the shops.13

Thompson made one other revealing note at the bottom of the committee's organization chart: "Plan whole organization of getting man to moon." This footnote implies that in Thompson's mind the clear and accepted objective of NASA's manned space effort following Project Mercury was to send an astronaut to the moon and back. The way to achieve that objective was, as all the visionaries of space exploration had articulated, by moving out from an orbiting relay station. Langley's associate director was asking his in-house committee to study the entire enterprise involved not only in building and operating a space station but also in using it as a launchpad for the eventual manned lunar landing mission.14

Not everyone in NASA thought that the space station should be the target project. Dr. Adolf Busemann, the German pioneer of the swept wing who came to Langley in 1947, argued that the space environment would offer experimenters no vital scientific or technological knowledge that researchers with some ingenuity could not acquire on earth. But with the exception of Busemann and the small group of lunar landing advocates mostly clustered around Clint Brown and the Theoretical Mechanics Division, nearly everyone else at Langley in the summer of 1959, including senior management, threw their weight behind the space station. Members of Nichols' group immersed themselves in a centerwide effort to define and answer a host of major questions related to placing and operating a manned laboratory in earth orbit. Inquiries and suggestions were pouring into Langley from the aerospace industry, notably from the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation, Chance Vought Astronautics, and the Martin Company, whose representatives had heard what NASA Langley was up to and wanted to participate in the development of the manned station.15

By the fall of 1959, the work of the Nichols committee had progressed to the point where Loftin could make a simple three-point statement of purpose. Langley would (1) "study the psychological and physiological reactions of man in a space environment over extended periods of time," thereby determining "the capabilities and limitations of man in performing long space missions"; (2) "provide a means for studying materials, structures, control and orientation systems, auxiliary powerplants, etc., in a true space environment"; and (3) "study means of communication, orbit control, rendezvous," as well as techniques for earth and astronomical observations.16 in summary, Loftin told the committee that Langley was primed and ready to take on the role of the lead center in all NASA's space station work-quite an ambitious undertaking for the former NACA aeronautics laboratory.


[277] From the Inflatable Torus to the Rotating Hexagon


If Langley researchers favored any particular kind of space station as they set out to examine the feasibility of various configurations in 1960, their preference was definitely a self-deploying inflatable. The Langley space station office had eliminated one-by-one the concepts for noninflatable configurations, some of which came from industry. Notions for a simple orbiting "can," or cylinder, and for a cylinder attached to a terminal stage of a booster were rejected as dynamically unstable; they had a tendency to roll at the slightest disturbance. A version of Lockheed's sophisticated elongated modular concept was turned down because it was too futuristic and required the launch of several boosters to place all the components into earth orbit. Proposals for hub-and-spoke designs, big orbiting Ferris wheels in space, were turned down because of the Coriolis effects. Disturbances of the inner ear, such as nausea, vertigo, and dizziness, would debilitate crew members moving radially in any system that was rotating too rapidly.

Langley's space station team had sound technical reasons for doubting the feasibility of these proposals. However, the team possessed a strong institutional bias for an inflatable station. After all, the inflatable was developed at Langley. The concept also made good engineering sense. Hundreds of pounds of propellant were required to put one pound of payload into orbit. Any plan that involved lightening the payload meant simplifying rocket requirements. Because of their experience with the Echo balloon, Langley engineers also knew firsthand that a folded station packed snugly inside a rocket would be protected during the rough ride through the atmosphere.

The first idea for an inflatable station was the Erectable Torus Manned Space Laboratory. A Langley space station team led by Paul Hill and Emanuel "Manny" Schnitzer developed the concept with the help of the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation. Their idea called for a flat inflatable ring or torus 24 feet in diameter, or about one quarter the size of the Echo 1 sphere. 17

The inflatable torus had several major selling points. It was "unitized," meaning that all its elements were part of a single structure that could be carried to orbit by the launch of one booster, just as was the case with the Echo balloon. NASA would simply fold the station into a compact payload for an automatic deployment once the payload had reached altitude. The inner volume of the torus could be given a gravity capability of O to 1 G. The station could be designed for both natural and artificial stability, for rendezvous-dock-abort capability, and for variable demand power supply. The torus could also have regenerative life-support systems for a six-person crew To provide their space station with electric power, Hill and Schnitzer pursued the possibility of using a solar turboelectric system, which used an innovative umbrella-like solar collector then under development by TRW as part of the NASA-supported Sunflower Auxiliary Power Plant Project.



Langley researcher Rene Berglund


Early space station configurations.

Langley researcher Rene Berglund (left) used this figure (right) in 1962 to illustrate some of the earliest space station configurations investigated at the center: (a) a large cylinder, (b) a smaller cylinder attached to a terminal-stage booster, (c) a boom with multiple docking ports powered by a nuclear power plant at one end, (d) a spoke configuration, (e) a modified spoke configuration with vertical rather than horizontal modules, and (f) a wheel or torus.


By April 1960, Schnitzer was so enthusiastic about the inflatable torus that he made a formal presentation on the design to a national meeting of the American Rocket Society. A revised and updated version of his talk appeared as the feature article in the January 1961 issue of Astronautics Magazine. (In late 1962, Schnitzer moved to the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA headquarters, where he would remain active in space station R&D and promote Langley's work in the field.)18

In the months following Schnitzer's presentation, Langley built and tested various models of the Erectable Torus Manned Space Laboratory, including a full-scale research model constructed by Goodyear. But researchers began to suspect that the design was lacking in certain key respects. The principal concern was the same one that had plagued the promoters of Echo: the danger of a meteorite puncturing the structure. Goodyear built the research....



Testing indicated that the inflatable torus could be packaged around the hub so that it occupied only 2 percent of its inflated volume.



Testing indicated that the inflatable torus could be packaged around the hub so that it occupied only 2 percent of its inflated volume.



Testing indicated that the inflatable torus could be packaged around the hub so that it occupied only 2 percent of its inflated volume.


Looking like a huge pneumatic tire sitting on a giant car jack, Langley's full-size test model of its 24-foot toroidal space station receives a visit from NASA Administrator James Webb in December 1961. Escorting Webb are Floyd Thompson (far left) and T. Melvin Butler, Langley's assistant director for administration



Looking like a huge pneumatic tire sitting on a giant car jack, Langley's full-size test model of its 24-foot toroidal space station receives a visit from NASA Administrator James Webb in December 1961. Escorting Webb are Floyd Thompson (far left) and T. Melvin Butler, Langley's assistant director for administration. L-61-3693



Langley engineers check out the interior of the inflatable 24-foot space station in January 1962

Langley engineers check out the interior of the inflatable 24-foot space station in January 1962. L-62-312


....model out of a lightweight three-ply nylon cord held together firmly by a sticky rubber-like material known as butyl elastomer. Such a large rubberized surface would certainly be vulnerable during a meteoroid shower. This concern proved much harder to dismiss for a manned station than for the unpiloted satellite. In addition, while the condition of being "dead soft" was seen as an advantage for the Echo balloon, it was a disadvantage for a busy manned space station. Some engineers worried that if the flexible material was not strong enough, crew members moving around vigorously in the space station might somehow propel themselves so forcefully from one side of the station to the other that they would break through a wall and go shooting into outer space.

A more serious engineering concern arose that was related to the dynamics of the toroidal structure. When arriving crew members moved equipment from the central hub to a working area at the outside periphery of the ring, or when a ferry vehicle simply impacted with the station's docking port, Langley researchers believed that the station might become slightly unstable, thus upsetting its precisely established orbit. Less strenuous activities might also disturb the fragile dynamics of the torus. Knowing that the human occupants of the station would have no weight but would still have mass, the Langley space station group conducted analytical studies using [281] analog computers to calculate the effect of astronauts moving about in the station. The results showed that the mass distribution would be changed when crew members just walked from one part of the vehicle to another. This change produced a slight oscillation, or what the researchers called a "wobble," of the entire station.

To discover whether they could alleviate this wobble, the Langley space station group decided to build a 10-foot-diameter elastically scaled model of the torus. This model did not become operational until the summer of 1961, however, and by that time NASA had realized that it must either develop a more rigid inflatable or abandon the idea of an inflatable altogether.19

While still in pursuit of the best possible inflatable torus, the NASA Langley space station group did explore other ideas. Most notably, in the summer of 1961 it entered into a six-month contract with North American Aviation for a detailed feasibility study of an advanced space station concept.** Developed by Langley engineer Rene A. Berglund, the design called for a large modular manned space station, which although essentially rigid in structure, could still be automatically erected in space. In essence, Berglund's idea was to put together a series of six rigid modules that were connected by inflatable spokes or passageways to a central nonrotating hub. The 75-foot-diameter structure (initially planners thought it might be as large as 100 feet) would be assembled entirely on the ground, packaged into a small launch configuration, and boosted into space atop a Saturn rocket. One of Berglund's prerequisites for the design was that it provide protection against micrometeorites. To accomplish this, he gave the rigid sections of the rotating hexagon air-lock doors that could be sealed when any threat arose to the integrity of the interconnecting inflatable sections.20

This sophisticated modular assembly was to rotate slowly in space, thus making it possible for its occupants to enjoy the benefits of artificial gravity, which virtually all space station designers at the time believed was absolutely necessary for any long-term stay in space. In fact, the diameter of 75 feet was selected because it provided the minimal rotational radius needed to generate at low rotational velocities the 1 G desired for the station's living areas. Rotation was the only mechanism known at the time for artificially creating gravity conditions. The only part of the structure that would not rotate was the central hub; suspended by bearings, the hub wouId turn mechanically in the opposite direction of the hexagon at just the right rate to cancel all the effects of the rotation. Located in this nonrotating center of the space station would be a laboratory for various experiments' including comparative studies of the effects of zero and artificial gravity. The nonrotating hub would also contain the dock for the ferry vehicle Preliminary experience with Langley's earliest rendezvous and docking simulators indicated that a trained pilot could execute a docking....




10-foot-diameter scale model of torus.



With a 10-foot-diameter scale model (above), Langley researchers studied the attitude errors, wobbling motions, and other dynamic characteristics of a space station spinning in space. The effects of crew motion and cargo transfer within the station were simulated by an electrically driven mass moving around a track on the torus. To the right, a Langley engineer takes a walk in simulated zero gravity around a mock-up of a full-scale, 24-foot-diameter space station.


Zero gravity mock-up of the 24-foot-diameter torus.



[283] ....maneuver with surprising ease as long as the station docking hub was fixed. If the hub rotated along with a rotating station, the maneuvering operations would have to be much more complicated.

As engineers from North American and Langley probed more deeply into the possibilities of a rotating hexagon, they became increasingly confident that they were on the right track. The condition that the station be self-deploying or self-erecting (implying some means of mechanical erection or a combination of mechanical erection with inflation) was not negotiable, given the economic and technological benefits of being able to deliver the space station to its orbit via a single booster. Early on, the space station group talked with their fellow engineers in the Scout Project Office at Langley about using a Scout booster to launch the station, but Scout did not appear to be powerful enough to carry all 171,000 tons of the rotating hexagon to orbit altitude. The group also looked into using a Centaur, a liquid-fuel booster for which NASA had taken over the responsibility from the DOD. The Centaur promised higher thrust and bigger payloads for lunar and planetary missions; however, Langley learned in early 1961 that the Centaur was "out of the question" because "nothing in the [high priority] NASA manned space programs calls for it." Furthermore, the Centaur was not yet "man-rated," that is, approved for flights with astronauts aboard, and a man rating was "neither expected nor anticipated." Centaur would prove to be a troublesome launch vehicle even for its specified unmanned missions, and the rocket never would be authorized to fly humans.21

Soon space station advocates turned to von Braun's Saturn. With its 210,000-pound payload capacity, an advanced Saturn could easily lift the 171,000-pound hexagon into orbit. A team of Langley researchers led by Berglund did what they could to mate their space station to the top stage of a Saturn. Working with a dynamic scale model, they refined the system of mechanical hinges that enabled the six interconnected modules of the hexagon to fold into one compact mass. As a bonus, the hinges also eliminated the need for fabric connections between modules, which were more vulnerable to damage. Tests demonstrated that the arrangement could be carried aloft in one piece with the three retractable spokes stowed safely inside the cavity of the assimilated module cluster. Once orbit was achieved, a series of screwjack actuators located at the joints between the modules would kick in to deploy the folded structure. The Langley researchers also made sure that the nonrotating central hub of their hexagon would have a port that could accommodate ferry vehicles. Such vehicles were then being proposed for the Apollo circumlunar mission and, later, for a lunar landing via EOR.

The estimated cost for the entire space station project, for either the erectable torus or the rotating hexagon, was $100 million, a tidy sum upon which Langley and NASA headquarters agreed. This figure amounted to the lowest cost proposal for a space station submitted to the air force at its space station conference in early 1961. But, as George Low pointed out....



Drawing of winning rotating hexagonal configuration.


Model of rotating hexagon assembled and collapsed.



Model of rotating hexagon assembled and collapsed.

L 62-8732


North American selected this space station design in 1962 for final systems analysis (diagram shown at top, models at bottom, left and right). Incorporating all the advantages of a wheel configuration, it had rigid cylindrical modules arranged in a hexagonal shape with three rigid telescoping spokes. This configuration eliminated the need for exposed flexible fabric.


[285] .....at a space station meeting held at Langley on 18 April 1961, NASA did not have the money for a space station follow-on to Project Mercury; what funds NASA expected were "only enough to finish Mercury and $29 million for Apollo."22

For five more weeks, until President Kennedy's speech on 25 May, Apollo entailed only a circumlunar mission, with the possibility of building a space station as a by-product of the earth-orbital phase; however, as George Low observed, NASA had not guaranteed that such a phase would be part of Apollo. Low warned the assembled space station advocates that the chances were high that Apollo would not require a space station with artificial gravity. If that were the case, NASA would have neither the mandate nor the money to build a space station of any kind for some time to come.

Such uncertainty put Langley in a difficult but not unfamiliar situation. Some sort of space station was possible for the Apollo era, and as long as that possibility existed, the basic technology needed for a station had to be ready, perhaps at short notice. To assure that Langley would be technologically prepared, exploratory research had to be ongoing.

Larry Loftin made this point clear on 19 May 1961, six days before President Kennedy's lunar landing speech, in his testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, chaired by Overton Brooks (Democrat from Louisiana). "We have not been developing a manned vehicle," Loftin reassured the congressmen and their staffs. "We have been studying what we would consider to be salient or pertinent problems which would have to be solved" if the country decided that a station was needed. Loftin described in some detail Langley's manned space station work. "In order to try to fix what the problem areas were," he explained, "it was necessary to arrive at some sort of a concept of what the vehicle might look like." He then passed around a series of pictures showing Langley's concepts for both the inflatable torus and the rotating hexagon, expressing no preference for either design.*** After reviewing the general characteristics of both designs, Loftin summarized Langley's assessment of the status of the space station:


So far as we know, so far as we have gone at the present time, we don't see that there are required any fundamental scientific breakthroughs ... in order to design one of these things. However, we have not undertaken at the Langley Research Center a detailed engineering design study. If such a study were undertaken, you might run into some problems that we haven't been smart enough to think about that are fundamental. I don't know if you would, but you could.


Moreover, Loftin concluded his testimony with a caution, "In such a careful engineering design, this is a long-term proposition. We are not really sure [286] when you got all done whether you would have something you really want or not."23

Whether the politicians understood Loftin's essential point is uncertain, for they had a difficult time even fathoming what a manned space station was all about and how someday it might be used. Chairman Overton Brooks, for example, asked, "You are just going to allow that [thing] to float around in space?" When asked by Minnesota congressman Joseph E. Karth what the "primary function of this so-called space station" would be, Loftin answered, "It could have many functions. We are not really proposing a space station. What we are doing here is saying if you want one, we would like to look into the problems of how you might make it." Encouraged to say what those functions were, Loftin explained how the experience of having humans in an orbiting space station would be helpful and perhaps even necessary in preparing for long-distance space flights, perhaps even for the two-week trip from the earth to the moon and back that the United States was now planning. Certainly, if the United States was to attempt any flights to places more distant than the moon, Loftin explained, "it would be desirable to have a space station in orbit where we could put men, materials, different kinds of mechanisms. We could put them up there for weeks at a time and see if there are any undesirable effects that we have not foreseen. If these effects crop up, then you bring the man back." An astronaut already on course to a distant planet was not so easily retrieved.24


Betwixt and Between


Six days after Loftin's appearance before the congressional committee, President Kennedy stunned NASA with his lunar landing speech. Apollo was no longer a manned circumlunar mission; it was now the project for landing a man on the moon by 1969. In one extraordinary political moment, step three of the space program had become step one. For 14 months following Kennedy's speech, NASA debated the advantages and disadvantages of various mission modes. For at least the first half of this period, many in NASA were quite sure that the country would be going to the moon via EOR. In this mode, the lunar spacecraft would actually be assembled from components put into orbit by two or more Saturn launch vehicles. This EOR plan would therefore involve the development of certain orbital capabilities and hardware that might easily translate into the country's first space station.

With this possibility in mind, Langley's space station team worked through the remainder of 1961 and into 1962 to identify and explore the essential problems facing the design and operation of a space station. The thrust of the center's research during this period of political and institutional limbo for the space station was divided among three major areas: (1) dynamics and control, or how to control a rotating structure in [287] orbit; (2) on-board power, or how to provide electrical power as well as store and use energy in the space station; and (3) life support, or how to ensure that the occupants of the station could best remain healthy and vigorous during (and after) long sojourns in space.

From the start, almost all space station designers presumed the need for artificial gravity. From this presumption came the notion of a rotating structure, be it a rotating cylinder, torus, or hexagon, or of a centrifuge mechanism within a nonrotating structure that could provide a force that substituted for the lack of gravity. Whether it was absolutely necessary to substitute centrifugal force for the effects of gravity, no one really knew. Perhaps a human in space would need 1 G; perhaps as little as 0.25 G would do. One thing the space station researchers did know with some certainty was that they needed to be careful about this matter of gravitational effects. If the rotational radius was too small, or the structure rotated at too high an rpm, the astronauts inside would suddenly become ill.

The rotation had to be controlled precisely, whatever the station's configuration. Thus, one set of problems that Langley researchers attempted to solve concerned a spinning space station's inherent vulnerability to disturbances in dynamic stability; this included compensating for the wobble motions that might occur when crew members moved about inside the station or when ferry vehicles pushed up against the outside structure during docking.

The Langley space station group found a solution for attitude control using a system of four pulse jets.**** These small pulse jets could be mounted at 90-degree intervals around the outside rim of the station to reorient the station when necessary. Then, to dampen the wobbles caused by crew movements and other disturbances in mass distribution, Langley found that a spinning flywheel could be rotated to produce the necessary countervailing torques; the same flywheel could produce the torque required to keep the station rotating around its predetermined axis. If the flywheel failed to steady the wobbles, the pulse jets could be fired as a backup. In late 1961 and early 1962, Langley researchers subjected full-scale models of both the rotating hexagon and the inflatable torus (the torus was then still being considered) to systematic tests involving these experimental control mechanisms.25

Langley researchers found little reason to disagree about what was needed for the dynamic control of the space station; however, bitter arguments arose over the power source for the station. Two main energy sources were considered solar and nuclear. (A third possibility, involving the use of chemical energy from a regenerative fuel cell, was considered briefly but was summarily dismissed as "futuristic" and "unfeasible.") To many at Langley, [288] the obvious choice was solar. The sun's energy was abundant and available. If solar power was used, the space station would not have to carry the weight of its own fuel into orbit; photovoltaic or solar cells (which existed in 1960 but not in a very advanced form) would simply convert the sunlight into the electrical energy needed to run the space station.

Outspoken critics, however, argued that the technology did not yet exist for a solar-powered system that could sustain a spacecraft over long missions. With the rotation necessary for artificial gravity, situating and realigning the solar panels so that they would always be facing the sun became problematic. Depending on the station's configuration, some solar panels would be shaded from the sun most of the time. Solar panels, especially large ones, would also have an undesirable orbital drag effect.

Some argued that the better choice was nuclear power. The problems of shielding living areas from the reactor's radiation and radioactive waste would have to be solved, of course, because humans would be on board, but once these problems were resolved, a small nuclear reactor could safely supply enough power (10 to 50 kilowatts) to sustain the operation of a station for a year or more. Yet engineers were not able to overcome the major logistical and safety problems of the proposed reactor systems. Particularly bothersome was the problem of replacing an operational reactor should it fail. Even the shielding problem proved more difficult to handle than imagined. In later space station designs, engineers tried to bypass the shielding problem by employing a large shadow shield and a long boom to separate the reactor from the habitation areas, but the boom required such a major reconfiguration of the proposed space station structure that the idea had to be abandoned.

Some researchers rejected both solar and conventional nuclear systems and advocated a radioisotope system. In this arrangement a radioactive element such as uranium 238 or polonium 210 would emit energy over a long period and at a specific and known rate. This power system was based on the so-called Brayton cycle (also called the "Joule cycle"), which was a well-known thermodynamic cycle named after American engineer and inventor George B. Brayton (b. 1873). The Brayton cycle consisted of an isentropic compression of a working substance, in this case a radioactive isotope, the addition of heat at a constant pressure, an isentropic expansion to an ambient pressure, and, finally, the production of an exhaust. Such a system required minimum shielding and did not require booms or large panels. The availability of high-quality waste heat could also be used in thermal control and in the life-support system, thereby reducing the overall power system requirements. On the other hand, the isotope Brayton cycle power system did require internal rotating machinery that still needed considerable development. It would also require an increased radiator area as well as doors on the skirt of the radiator that could open to allow the isotope to radiate directly into space when the power system was not functioning. Even [289] nuclear enthusiasts had to admit that this machinery and auxiliary hardware would probably not be available for at least 10 years. 26

In trying to choose between the various options for the on-board power supply, the "power plant" subcommittee of Langley's Manned Space Laboratory Research Group reviewed several pertinent R&D programs involving solar and nuclear power plants then under development by NASA, the air force, and the Atomic Energy Commission; however, after this review, the subcommittee was still undecided about the best power source. In a feasibility study of the rotating hexagon conducted by North American Aviation, solar power was the favored source. According to the company's proposed design, a group of solar cells and associated electrical batteries could be mounted successfully on the six main modules as well as on the hub of the space station. When Langley's power plant subcommittee evaluated the solar modular system, they judged it to be the most feasible in the near term because the system did not require the development of much technology but was still adequate to meet the projected station's electric power needs. 27

This evaluation only temporarily resolved the controversy about which type of power plant to incorporate in the study configurations. Several Langley researchers who favored a small on-board nuclear reactor (and who were to be closely associated with subsequent space station planning at the center) were never convinced by the arguments in favor of solar power. This small group, whenever the opportunity arose, would argue that energy from a naturally decaying radioactive isotope ultimately offered the best means of powering a space station. However, this group never could overcome the fear that many researchers had about a nuclear accident, no matter how remote that possibility might be. If the small canister carrying the radioactive isotope ever happened to crash into the earth, because of a launch failure, for instance, the results of the contamination could be catastrophic.28

The issue of the power supply was critical to the design of the space station because of the "human factor." As everyone involved with space station research understood, the greatest single draw on the power supply would be the systems necessary to keep the crew inside the space station alive and in good physical and emotional condition. In fact, the human factor was central to all the elements of space station design: the gravity and energy requirements, the sources of wobble, the number and sizes of modules and ferry vehicles, the number and length of missions, and the types of internal furnishings and accommodations. Human occupancy established the central parameters for the entire research and design process. The job of the Langley space station group was not to build the actual hardware that would sustain human life in space; rather, it was to "evaluate and originate basic concepts of life support systems." This evaluation was to include exploration of a range of prototypes to generate the technological knowledge that could form the basis for an "optimum-system concept."29

The essential requirements for a human life-support system aboard a long-duration spacecraft in earth orbit were not hard to determine. The [290] system had to be lightweight and very dependable, and it had to consume as little energy as possible. It would have to provide oxygen for breathing; food for eating; accommodations for sleeping, exercising, washing, and taking care of other bodily functions; and it would have to somehow eliminate or recycle human and other waste products.

Either through in-house research or by contracting out to industry, all of these basic matters of life support and many others were thoroughly studied by the Langley space station group in 1961 and 1962. Several contractors became specialists in the development of experimental mechanisms for collecting, treating, reclaiming, and disposing of solid and liquid wastes. For its rotating hexagon, North American invented a method for carbon dioxide removal involving a regenerative molecular sieve. Small silica gel beds removed water vapor from the air and passed it into the molecular sieve, which then either vented the absorbed water and exhaled carbon dioxide to the outside or shunted it to an oxygen regeneration system.30

None of the solutions proposed during this period, however, were completely satisfactory. What Langley researchers wanted for their optimum space station was a totally closed water-oxygen system one that did not have to be resupplied from the ground. In the early years, many problems associated with such a closed life-support system appeared relatively easy to solve, but they proved troublesome. This was especially true for the water recovery and recycling system in which the astronauts' urine was to be converted into drinking water. In the early years, researchers tried such things as simply blowing air over the liquid waste, controlling the odor by using a bactericide, and evaporating the water on a cold plate. Unfortunately, a huge amount of power was needed to do that, and it was more power than any space station could afford. The astronauts' natural aversion to drinking water made in this manner also posed a problem. Psychological studies, however, showed that thirst would quickly overcome disgust. Today, after more than 30 years of space station research, effective technology for such a closed water recycling system still does not exist.31

Langley researchers went to great lengths to discover the unknowns of life in a spinning spacecraft. One fun-loving group made a trip to the amusement park at Buckroe Beach near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to ride the carousel. They took a bunch of tennis balls with them to throw back and forth while sitting atop their colorfully painted wooden ponies. The man attending the carousel soon threw the researchers off the ride because they were making children sick. But even this information was instructive about Coriolis effects on astronaut equilibrium and hand-eye coordination.32

Of course, the Langley researchers also carried out many less frivolous and more systematic simulations of human performance in space. To investigate how the effects of rotation might conceivably hamper astronaut performance, the space station group put several volunteers, including a few Langley test pilots, into simulators that mimicked the rotations of a space station. Some of these volunteers managed to stay in the simulator for several hours before [291] asking (or in some cases, demanding) to be let out. Data from other man-in-space simulations, some of them done to garner real-time data about how crews would do during 7-day and 14-day missions to the moon, also shed light on what to expect inside a space station.33

Overall, the early findings about the ability of humans to adapt to life in space were quite reassuring. Simple adjustments in sleep and work schedules alleviated astronaut fatigue and boredom. An on-board exercise program would forestall marked deterioration in muscle tone and other physiological functions at zero gravity. Most importantly, a week-long confinement of a three-person crew within the close quarters of a module had no detrimental effect on performance, nor did it trigger psychological stress. In short, the Langley simulations of 1961 and 1962 reinforced a growing body of evidence that humans could indeed live successfully in space, and could remain physically and mentally healthy and able to carry out complex tasks for extended periods.

Other critical matters, however, still demanded study. To see if a comfortable "shirt-sleeve" working environment could be provided for astronauts inside the space station, Langley researchers worked with a thermal vacuum chamber in which they put small, scale models of their inflatable torus and rotating hexagon designs. Built for Langley by Grumman, this chamber employed an arc that served as the "sun" and smaller electric heaters that served as analogues for heat-producing humans. After several weeks of tests with this thermal chamber, researchers found that the North American hexagon design, because of its insulated, protective walls, was superior to the torus.34

Protecting the occupants of the space station from the heat of the sun was one thing; protecting them from meteorite showers was still another. Into the early 1960s, according to a Langley study, NASA still faced "severe uncertainties regarding the basic structure of manned space stations." How should the walls of such a structure be built, and out of what materials? They had to be light because of launch-weight considerations and built of a material that would help in the control of internal temperatures. The walls also had to provide dependable and long-term protection from major meteoroid penetrations; some small chinks and dents in the sides of a space station might cause no trouble, but big hits, especially in the case of an inflatable torus, could prove disastrous. Thus, structures experts at both Langley and Ames looked for the type of wall structure that offered the greatest protection for the least weight. They turned to a sandwiched structure with an inner and an outer wall. Developed by North American for the rotating hexagon, the outer wall was a "meteoroid bumper" made of aluminum, backed by a polyurethane plastic filler that overlay a bonded aluminum honeycomb sandwich. Such a wall seemed to meet the design criteria, but no one could be sure because the actual velocities of meteoroid impacts were impossible to simulate in any ground facility. The only thing to do was to make further studies. For the inner wall, Langley's space [292] station office looked into the efficacy of nylon-neoprene, dacron-silicone, saran, Mylar (E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.), polypropylene, Teflon (E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.), and other flexible and heat-absorbing materials. These materials could not be toxic or leak gases (especially oxygen), and they had to be able to withstand a hard vacuum, electromagnetic and particle radiation, and temperatures ranging from -50° to 150°F.35

At a symposium held at Langley in late July 1962, the Langley staff assembled in the large auditorium in the center's main activities building to present summary progress reports on their exploratory space station research. By the time of this symposium, Langley's space station researchers had arrived at four key conclusions:


(1) The rotating hexagon was superior to the inflatable torus; a 15-foot scale model of the North American design had been undergoing tests at Langley for several months, whereas studies of the torus had virtually ceased. 36

(2) Although the hexagon was preferable to the torus, the Langley researchers knew that they had not yet discovered the optimum design and were committed to carrying out "the conceptual design of several space stations in order to uncover the problem areas in such vehicles."37

(3) A flight program, something akin to a Project Shotput, was needed to extend space station research. The space environment was difficult to impossible to simulate in a ground facility, thus making tests of station materials impossible as well. As early as May 1961, members of the Langley space station office had proposed using a Scout rocket to test the deployment of a 10-foot version of the inflatable torus at an orbit of 220 miles; however, the idea for the test had gone nowhere.38

(4) Whatever R&D was to be done on space stations in the future, the researchers wanted their work to be guided by the broad objectives of learning how to live in space, of making the station a place for scientific research, and of finding ways to make the station "a suitable facility for learning some of the fundamental operations necessary for launching space missions from orbit." Moreover, they wanted their space station efforts to be better integrated with the overall NASA effort.39


Langley researchers regarded a manned space station as more than a jumping-off point for Apollo or for some other specific mission. They thought of it as a versatile laboratory in space, a Langley research operation that happened to be located hundreds of miles above the earth rather than in Tidewater Virginia. Just as Langley had always explored the basic problems of flight with a view to their practical solution, the ultimate use of a space station was "for continuing to advance the technology of space flight."40 The objective was long-term, not just immediate.

How the space station would fare without any direct application to the Apollo lunar landing program was a question that loomed over the researchers at the symposium. With an expensive Apollo program in [293] progress and LOR the chosen strategy, Washington's support for an earth-orbiting space station might quickly plummet, no matter what Langley scientists and engineers had to say about the potential benefits of space station operations. If the space station was to be built in the near future, Langley would have to quickly reconcile the objectives of the station with those of the Apollo mission.


Manned Orbital Research Laboratory


In the months following the in-house symposium, Langley management initiated a revised program of space station studies that would better dovetail with the Apollo lunar landing program. In late 1962, this determination brought forth a more focused space station effort one that proved to be qualitatively quite different from the broader conceptual studies that had given birth to the inflatable torus and the rotating hexagon. As a result of this concentrated effort, Langley researchers in early 1963 conceived a smaller and more economical space station that would complement and make maximum use of the technological systems being developed for Apollo. They called it the Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory, or MORL, for short.

The original MORL concept evolved within Langley's space station group. The idea was for a "minimum size laboratory to conduct a national experimental program of biomedical, scientific, and engineering experiments," with the laboratory to be specifically designed for launch in one piece atop a Saturn I or IB. The goal of the MORL program was to have one crew member stay in space for one year, with three other crew members on board for shorter periods on a rotating schedule. Langley wanted to achieve this goal in 1965 or 1966, a few years before the anticipated first manned Apollo flight, and accomplish it in unison with Project Gemini, the NASA program that bridged Mercury and Apollo, whose basic purpose was to resolve the problems of rendezvous and docking and of long-duration manned spaceflights necessary for a successful lunar landing via LOR. The MORL would be launched unmanned by a Saturn booster into a circular orbit from Cape Canaveral, and after a short checkout period, two crew members in a Titan-mounted Gemini spacecraft (then under development) would "ascend to the laboratory's orbit and complete a rendezvous and docking maneuver " A few weeks later, two more crew members would join the laboratory by the same method, completing the four-person crew. One new astronaut would enter the laboratory at each crew change, thus providing a check on the cumulative effects of weightlessness on the total capability of the crew. Three of the astronauts would occupy the space station for only parts of a year; only one crew member would try to complete a full year's mission. Every 90 days or less, an unmanned resupply spacecraft launched by an Atlas Agena combination would be orbited and brought by radio control to a rendezvous with one of the laboratory's multiple docking ports. These ports would not only provide the means for the crew rotations and any [294] emergency evacuations but also would serve as attachment sites for cargo and experiment modules.41

By the spring of 1963, Langley management judged the MORL design ready for industry evaluation. A contractor was to look for ways of improving and refining the concept into what engineers called a "baseline system," that is, a detailed plan for an optimum MORL configuration. In late April, Langley asked the aerospace industry to submit brief proposals by 14 May for a contract study of "Manned Orbital Research Laboratory Systems" capable of sustaining such a rotating four-person crew in space for one year. The Request for Proposals outlined an industry competition in two phases: Phase I was to be an open competition for "comparative study of several alternative ways to obtain the orbital laboratory which is envisioned"; Phase II was to be a closed contest between the two winners of the first competition, for "preliminary design studies." If all progressed well and NASA approved continued work on MORL, Langley might propose a follow-on to the second phase (Phase II-A) in which "a single contractor would be requested to synthesize into a mature concept" the design study that had been judged by NASA as the most feasible and to furnish a baseline configuration for a complete orbital laboratory system. Yet another phase (Phase II-B) might involve a final design stage, including test mock-ups of the laboratory and resupply spacecraft.42

Phase I, the open competition, lasted only until mid-June 1963, when Langley Director Floyd Thompson announced that from the 11 proposals received, he had selected those from Boeing and Douglas as the winners. An 11-member in-house MORL Technology Steering Committee, chaired by Paul R. Hill of the Applied Materials and Physics Division space station office, had helped Thompson with the selection. At the same time that Thompson established this ad hoc steering committee, on 6 June, he also created a small MORL Studies Office, which comprised originally only six members and was to report directly to the director's office. Thompson chose someone new to space station research to head the new office. William N. Gardner, formerly head of the Flight Physics Branch of the Applied Materials and Physics Division, and his six-person staff were to implement the management of the study contracts soon to be awarded to Boeing and Douglas. Thompson also formalized the many R&D efforts relating to a space station that had popped up inside the Applied Materials and Physics Division. He did this on 10 June by establishing a new 19-member Space Station Research Group, with Robert S. Osborne, a veteran of the center's previous space station office, in charge.43

Langley's revised space station effort had not progressed without a hitch. Earlier in 1963, still in the immediate wake of the LOR decision, NASA headquarters had threatened the cancellation of all the MORL research at the research center. To have it reinstated even on a provisional basis, Langley Associate Director Charles J. Donlan, who from the start had lent strong support to space station research at Langley, traveled to Washington [295] with some of the most articulate members of the center's space station group for several meetings with old friends and other NASA officials. Donlan had always been a strong supporter of Langley's space station research, and together with associates he argued that a manned space station was still "the next logical step," after Apollo, and was thus likely to be a central part of the agency's post-Apollo planetary exploration. Donlan pointed out that a manned orbital laboratory offered perhaps the only way of making many necessary studies such as the effects of weightlessness.

Eventually, the lobbying paid off. In the spring of 1963, Bob Seamans issued MORL a reprieve, thus arranging for the authorization Langley needed to proceed with the first phase of the industry competition. At the start, that was the only permission Langley had. When Phase I started, NASA headquarters had not yet approved Phase II and had certainly not given the go ahead for any follow-on phases.44

Some of the ground rules for Phase I of the MORL competition conformed closely to the general specifications of the rotating hexagon, but others reflected some significant changes in the way Langley was now thinking about space stations. The major shift in thinking was the realization, gained by American and Soviet experiences with manned spaceflight, that humans could in fact function quite well in zero gravity, at least for several orbits, without serious ill effects. If a few days of weightlessness did not debilitate an astronaut, the same would most likely hold true for a couple of weeks. Further experimentation certainly had to be done to determine exactly how long humans could perform in zero gravity, but as reflected in MORL ground rules, researchers were growing confident that a person might be able to perform well in space for as long as a year. When Langley asked industry in April 1963 to design MORL with zero gravity as the primary operating mode, it was abandoning once and for all the long-held notion that a space station must continually rotate to provide artificial gravity.45

Douglas and Boeing took Phase II of the competition seriously, each assembling its MORL personnel into a team situated at a single plant (Santa Monica for Douglas and Seattle for Boeing). Douglas had shown interest in a space station for some time; in 1958, the company had won a $10,000 first prize in a contest for a design of "A Home in Space," which had been sponsored by the London Daily Mail.46 Douglas had also been a serious bidder for the NASA contract for a six-month study of Berglund's rotating hexagon concept which NASA had awarded to North American in the summer of 1961.47 Boeing, on the other hand, was something of a newcomer to the field of space exploration. However, as the reader shall learn in more detail in the next chapter, the well-known airplane manufacturer was at this time completing a solid performance in the Bomarc missile program and was keen to be involved with the civilian space program. Not only did Boeing want the space station study contract, it also wanted to become the prime contractor for the ambitious Lunar Orbiter project, the unmanned....



Douglas engineers incorporated the idea of a two-person centrifuge into their winning MORL baseline configuration proposal in 1963 (right). The centrifuge (bottom, second cutaway from left) was to serve as a possible remedial or therapeutic device for enhancing the astronauts' tolerance to weightless conditions and for preconditioning crew members for the stresses of reentry.


Douglas MORL baseline configuration.



Cross section of interior of Douglas MORL.


[297] ....photographic mission to the moon which NASA was planning in order to select the best landing sites for Apollo.

A NASA "technical assessment team" consisting of 43 engineers (36 of them from Langley) and organized into four review panels ( "Major Systems Configuration and Integration," "Subsystems Configuration and Integration," "Operations," and "Management and Planning") looked very carefully and fairly at both MORL studies in late September 1963 before recommending the Douglas study to the Langley director.48 Perhaps NASA was reluctant to give a company inexperienced in space exploration the responsibility for doing two big new jobs at one time. (Boeing had just been awarded the contract for Lunar Orbiter.) More likely, however, the Douglas proposal was simply superior. Members of the MORL Studies Office at Langley had spent many hours at the plants of the contractors assessing their space station work, and they knew firsthand the capabilities of their assembled teams.

For the next two months, NASA Langley negotiated with Douglas (and with NASA headquarters, where the approval for Phase II-A was still uncertain) over the details of what would come next: a six-to-nine-month study at the end of which Douglas would furnish a baseline system that would be so detailed and fully documented that a final design could be prepared from it, if NASA so chose. By mid-December all the parties involved reached an agreement, and on 20 December, as a nice little Christmas present, NASA awarded Douglas a Phase II-A nine-month study contract worth just over $1.4 million to refine its winning MORL concept.49

The baseline configuration fleshed out by the Douglas engineers between December 1963 and August 1964 proved, not surprisingly, to be a mixture of old and new ideas. As had been the case with Langley's former pet concept, the Berglund/North American rotating hexagon, Douglas's baseline facility would be carried into orbit as a unit aboard a Saturn launch vehicle. As had been proposed for the hexagon, the first generation MORL would be powered by solar cells, but with either a nuclear reactor or isotope Brayton cycle system phased in at an early date. The same life-support systems for meeting the physical needs of a small crew in a shirt-sleeve working environment would also be part of MORL. As before, many of MORL's design features, such as separate zero gravity and artificial-gravity operational modes, would in effect serve as experiments that would yield data applicable to other manned space programs.

Because Langley's thinking changed about what was best for a space station in the age of Apollo, Douglas's baseline system for MORL involved key differences from all the previous space station concepts. Unlike the earlier configurations, which had unitized structures, MORL would consist of a series of discrete modules. The modular approach would promote greater flexibility of function: MORL could grow with evolving space technology and over time serve multiple purposes for a varied constituency, including perhaps the DOD. The DOD had been carrying out its own manned space....



MORL illustration from Douglas manual.

According to the briefing manual submitted by Douglas to NASA Langley in August 1964, MORL "provides a flexible, expandable facility developed in a manner similar to current submarine concepts that permit redundancy of life-support equipment and evacuation from one compartment to another. " As shown in this illustration from the manual, MORL was to be launched by an Apollo Saturn SIB.


....station R&D since the Military Test Space Station (MTSS) project of the late 1950s and was currently involved in a study of what it called the National Orbiting Space Station (NOSS).50

Besides benefitting the military, the MORL could serve the progress of science, in general. This was a mission capability that had not been....



Test of space station portal air lock.

Two Langley engineers test an experimental air lock between an arriving spacecraft and a space station portal in January 1964. L-64-841.


...especially emphasized in the earlier space station studies. When considering the inflatable torus and rotating hexagon, Langley researchers and their contractors had envisioned only a limited role for general scientific experimentation aboard the station, but the Douglas engineers were beginning to see the MORL as a facility for research covering the spectrum of scientific disciplines. In addition to carrying one or more astronomical telescopes (a capability that proponents of a space station had in fact been pushing from the start), the MORL could be designed to have a self-contained module for biological studies involving animals, plants, and bacteria. Such research had potential applications not only in basic life sciences research but also in medicine and pharmaceuticals. For geologists, oceanographers, and meteorologists, Douglas provided a specialized nine lens camera system for multiband spectral reconnaissance of earth features and weather systems. A special radar system could be placed on board to garner the data necessary for large scale topographical mapping.

This was not all that the MORL could provide. The orbital station would also be the ideal place to study subsystems for interplanetary vehicles and their propulsion systems, technologies that could not be tested adequately on the ground. Douglas's integrated plan even included using the MORL in lunar orbit to provide surface observation and mapping, landing site selection, and LEM support. With such capabilities, NASA might not need....



William N. Gardner explains model of the MORL.

William N. Gardner, head of the MORL Studies Office, explains the interior design of the space station at the 1964 NASA inspection. L-544336


....the unmanned Lunar Orbiter program. If equipped with a state of-the-art landing stage, the MORL could land on the moon and become a long-term base for exploration. MORL could serve as the jumping off point for a manned mission to Mars and as a module of a planetary-mission vehicle in which a crew would investigate the physical environment and assess the habitability of a selected planet.51

In fact, as Douglas touted it, there was little that the MORL system could not do, if NASA wanted it done. Thus, while trying to stay within the political and economic framework of Apollo, the proponents of the MORL were actually demonstrating how a versatile space station could greatly expand U.S. capabilities in space and make new exploration possible. The MORL would have spin-off studies in areas such as biology, medicine, and possibly industrial manufacturing, which would ultimately benefit all sectors of society. The lunar landing program, by itself, would make few of those things possible. But in 1964 that was a point that neither the Langley space station advocates nor their counterparts in industry dared to make, given the national commitment to Apollo.


[301] Keeping the "R" Alive


All in all, Langley was happy with the baseline system that Douglas submitted to NASA in August 1964 and was interested in moving to Phase II-B in which full-scale mock-ups of the laboratory would be tested in preparation for a final MORL design. By 1964, however, MORL was facing stiff competition from other space station concepts, not to mention space projects proposed by other NASA centers.

As Phase II-A of the MORL began in early 1964, the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA headquarters was considering what to do next with several other space station designs. Most of these ideas came from either Houston or Huntsville. The most ambitious of these schemes called for a Large Orbiting Research Laboratory (LORL), a huge structure to be launched unmanned by a Saturn V, with a volume more than seven times that of MORL (67,300 cubic feet compared with MORL's 9000) and a weight more than 10 times greater (74,600 pounds versus 6800). According to the plan, LORL would be capable of holding a 24-person crew for five years; as such, it was the "Cadillac" of NASA's space station concepts at the time. At the other end of the design spectrum was a "Volkswagon" version known as "Apollo X." This space station (only 600 cubic feet in volume) was based entirely on Apollo technology; a modified Apollo command module would be used as a small orbital workshop. Manned from time of launch, Apollo X would thus be a small "limited-life" laboratory serving a crew of two for 30 to 120 days. Between these two extremes were various designs for some type of Apollo Orbital Research Laboratory (AORL), a medium-size station (5600 cubic feet in volume) that would have an extended life of two years, with a crew of three to six.52

Besides the NASA concepts, military space station ideas also had to be considered. Interagency agreements had been made related to the Gemini program requiring that all planning for manned earth-orbital missions and supporting technology be coordinated between NASA and the DOD. As mentioned earlier, the DOD, particularly the air force, was busy conducting its own space station studies. By late 1963, experts in the DOD were keenly interested in the potential military applications of MORL or of a revised MORL design for an air force Gemini-based Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) in which NASA's research component was left out. Even before the Phase II contract was awarded to Douglas, managers in the OART at NASA headquarters had been referring not to MORL studies, but simply to MOL, which Secretary of Defense McNamara and NASA Administrator Webb were coming to see as a way of combining DOD and NASA first-generation space station objectives.53

Surprisingly, Langley researchers seem to have accepted the shift from MORL to MOL without complaint. In the minutes of the 28 October 1963 meeting of the Langley MORL Technology Steering Committee, secretary.....



MORL-Saturn IB model in 8-Foot Transonic Tunnel.

The MORL-Saturn IB launch combination undergoes aerodynamic testing in the 8-Foot Transonic Tunnel in October 1965. L-65-7433


....John R. Dawson noted with emphasis that MORL was being "redesignated MOL" and that "MOL Phase IIA was now planned so as to fit with DOD coordination requirements." In all the committee minutes following that meeting, Dawson always referred to "MOL Phase II" rather than to MORL Phase II.54 So, too, would the Langley press release of 2 December 1963 refer to MOL Phase II. (In this release, NASA announced that Douglas had won the second round of competition over Boeing for a "follow-on study contract for refinement and evaluation of a NASA Manned Orbital Laboratory concept.") Somehow the "R" in the space station plan was being erased as Langley tried to justify a space station as part of the Apollo-driven national space program.

At Langley, researchers did what they could to keep the spirit of MORL alive. Looking beyond the industry study contracts, Langley engineers and managers invested thousands of hours in MORL/MOL research. In 1963 and 1964, basic studies continued on a broad front.

In the area of life-support systems, Langley researchers tried to stay particularly active. As outlined earlier in this chapter, Langley early on had taken the lead among the NASA centers in this vital field. In 1963, Langley researchers wanted to extend their efforts with a fully operational prototype of a space station life-support system. In such a prototype, they could....



Otto Trout, 1966.

Langley's Otto Trout suggested as early as 1963 that zero-gravity activities could be simulated by immersing astronauts in a large tank of water. Years later, Marshall Space Flight Center turned Trout's abortive idea into a major component of NASA's astronaut training program. L-66-7850


....test all the integrated mechanisms for water management and sanitation, oxygen regeneration, ridding the system of waste heat and gases, and all other required functions. They wanted a ground test facility-a wind tunnel of sorts but one equipped for the physiology of humans rather than for the physics of air molecules.

Langley explored several options before it found the right facility to meet these research needs. Engineers working with the MORL Studies Office built a small life-support test tank but found that the device could not be used in manned tests because of safety concerns. As William Gardner, head of the MORL Studies Office remembers, "Essentially, the medical profession killed it. The medical experts who came in as consultants would not endorse anything we were doing We couldn't get the medical people to say it would be safe to do the tests."55 Another bold idea came from Otto Trout, an ingenious engineer working in the Space Systems Division. Trout suggested that the space station group simulate zero gravity by immersing test subjects in a tank of water for long periods. Robert Osborne curtly dismissed Trout's novel idea, a hasty decision that Osborne came to regret when engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center took up the idea and turned it into a major component of NASA's astronaut training program.56

Osborne and others did not want Gardner's little tank or Trout's big tank of water but sought an enclosed, self-sustaining life-support system in which four human subjects could live for as long as six months. A rivalry existed....



The $2.3 million ILSS arrives at Langley by barge (right) from its manufacturer, the Convair Division of General Dynamics, in August 1965. Below is the home of the huge 30-ton life-support tank in Building 1250. Test subjects occupied this facility for as long as 28 days at a time.


Integrative Life Support System arrives at Langley.



Integrative Life Support System in Building 1250.



[305] between Gardner's MORL group and Osborne's life-support studies group. In this case the Osborne group won. In late June 1963, he and his colleagues got their wish when NASA awarded a contract to the Astronautics Division of the General Dynamics Corporation for the design and construction of an Integrative Life Support System (ILSS). Funded by the OART's director of Biotechnology and Human Research, this facility was to be built by General Dynamics at its plant in San Diego and shipped to Langley at a total cost of $2.3 million.57

Two years passed before General Dynamics finished the ILSS unit. The unique structure stood 18 feet tall, weighed 30 tons, and was housed in a cylindrical tank 18 feet in diameter. When the big chamber arrived by barge at the dock of Langley AFB in August 1965, a more curious structure had not been delivered since the 85-ton pressure shell for the laboratory's historic Variable Density Tunnel had arrived atop a railcar from the Newport News Shipyard and Dry Dock Co. in February 1922.

The ILSS did not prove to be the landmark facility that the Variable Density Tunnel became, but it did contribute significant data. In the years following its long-anticipated arrival, manned and unmanned tests in the big test chamber provided a wealth of new information about how various life-support systems wouId work individually and together. The longest human occupancy experiment lasted 28 days. The ILSS test program even included microbiological experiments on possible toxic contaminants in space. Langley management heartily supported the ILSS program, thus allowing it to encompass the efforts of dozens of Langley staff members in the Space Systems and Instrument Research divisions. Associate Director Charles Donlan even worked personally on some aspects of the project. 58

By the time ILSS came on-line at Langley in August 1965, however, NASA knew that its space station research must, out of political and economic necessity, become more sharply defined. With costs for Gemini and Apollo rapidly outstripping early estimates and the nation in an increasingly expensive war in Vietnam, the space agency realized that if any manned orbiting facility was to obtain funding and become a reality, it would have to be a part of Apollo.


Understanding Why and Why Not


The economical Apollo Extension System became NASA's surrogate choice for its first orbiting space station. This crushed Langley researchers' dreams for MORL. Instead of a versatile laboratory with an extended life of five years in which all sorts of experiments could be done, NASA would settle, at least for the time being, for a small space station with a limited life. This station would be launched as soon as possible after Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon. For the Apollo Extension System, NASA headquarters asked Langley researchers to devise potential mission [306] experiments, tempting them with the responsibility of acting as principal investigators. Osborne's panel on space station experiments responded by collecting experiments in 11 categories ranging from regenerative life support systems to extravehicular activities, horizon sensing, and radiation effects.59

Two years would pass before a new president, Richard Nixon, and the Congress extinguished what remained of Langley's hopes for a multifaceted U.S. space program. In 1967 the Apollo Extension System became the Apollo Applications Program. NASA headquarters called upon Langley, Houston, and Marshall to carry out independent studies to "identify the most desirable Agency program for the Saturn workshop," noting "the constraints of projected funding limitation." The outcome at Langley was one of the research center's last major contributions to space station development: an "Intermediate Orbital Workshop System Study" issued by the MORL Studies Office on 28 June 1968.60

The concluding remarks of this 1968 in-house report encapsulate the years of hard work and intellectual energy Langley designers and researchers had devoted to the idea of a U.S. civilian space station. The report described a versatile facility that "should be and can be inherently capable of growth into the ultimate space station which will provide broad capability manned systems." True to the original Langley vision, it called for a two-phase program that would begin with a manned orbiting workshop, followed by a space station similar to MORL. The report emphasized that "definition of a real manned experiment program and supporting requirements is mandatory to the true understanding of spacecraft system needs and total flight system scope."61

Not even the economical first phase came to pass as conceived. In late 1968, a spending-weary Congress slashed the budget of the Apollo Applications Program to one-third of the NASA request. A down-scaled concept, the Skylab orbital workshop, would be launched in May 1973, carrying with it an experiment package developed by Langley researchers. By that time, however, with personnel reductions and program shifts resulting from severe budget cuts within NASA, Langley was largely out of the space station business. When so called Phase B Definition Studies for NASA's space station program began in 1969, they were managed by the Marshall and Johnson centers.62

Bigger ideas were stealing the thunder from the Langley concept. At Houston in 1968, engineers were working on plans for a huge "Space Base" weighing a million pounds, with room for thousands of pounds of experiments, and a crew of 75 to 100 people. According to the plan, the Space Base would provide 1 G by spinning at 3.5 rpm at the 240-foot radius of the living module and would operate "on a permanent basis to take advantage of the economics of size, centralization, and permanency." The base would be constructed in an orbital buildup of hardware delivered by no less than three Saturn launches.63

[307] Although everyone recognized that this large space station would have to come after the Apollo Applications workshop, Houston's grandiose idea nonetheless had "a significant effect on agency planning"-and one that in the end did not help the ultimate cause of the space station program.64 When Phase B Definition began in late 1969, with major contracts awarded to McDonnell Douglas and North American Rockwell, the notion of a large station held sway. The contractors were asked to explore the feasibility of a smaller but still rather large station, 33 feet in diameter, to be launched by a Saturn V and manned initially by a crew of 12. The NASA/industry space station teams were to do this "in concert with studies of future large space bases," involving crews of 100 people or more, as well as with manned missions to Mars. Crews for some of these space base concepts exceeded 100 and included plans for an advanced logistics system, which was soon to be named the "Space Shuttle."65

In 1971, when the decision was made to go forward with the development of the manned Space Shuttle, NASA redirected its space station contractors to consider a modular design, with the modules to be placed in orbit, not by Saturns, but by a totally reusable shuttle. The purpose of Phase B from that point on, into 1972, was to define the modular concepts. A large space station with the Space Shuttle to assemble and service it was now "the next logical step" in NASA's manned space program following the Apollo Applications Program and Skylab.

Politics and budget pressures, however, once again meant a missed step. The nation had neither the will nor the money for NASA's entire mission package. As Howard McCurdy points out in his 1990 analysis The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice, NASA officials, having failed to win the support of the Nixon administration for their internal long-range plan, decided to shift their strategy. "Rather than seek a comprehensive, Apollo-style commitment, they decided to pursue the steps in their plan one by one." 66 NASA would ask first for an economical Space Transportation System, the Shuttle, then they would ask for the space station The result, after Nixon accepted NASA's compromise, meant that "the next logical step" would be skipped once again.


Lost in Space?


The majority of Langley researchers involved in the pioneering space station studies of the early 1960s believe that the decision not to develop and deploy the MORL was a major national mistake. As many of them have asserted in retrospect, the Soviet's tremendously successful MIR space station of the 1980s (the spacious follow-on to the more primitive Salyuts first launched in 1971) "would prove to be almost exactly like what MORL would have been."67 W. Ray Hook, a member of Langley's MORL Studies Office, expresses the general sentiment of Langley researchers:



William N. Gardner, 1966.

Skipping over a space station for a second time left William N. Gardner, head of Langley's MORL office, with a bitter taste for his pioneering work of the 1960s and a judgment that NASA, unlike NACA, was too much the creature of presidential projects-or the lack of them. L-66-7229


Our goal was to get one man in space for one year. That was the simple objective. Of course, it has since gotten a lot more complicated. I have often thought that if we'd stuck with that simple minded objective, we would have, thirty years later, one man in space for one year, which we don't.68


If the modular MORL had been ready for deployment on the heels of Skylab, as MIR was ready to go after the Salyuts, the United States like the Soviets would have amassed countless man-hours in space and conducted numerous useful experiments. If the country had supported MORL, it might have been easier to design and justify Space Station Freedom, and instead of being in the present position of considering the purchase of a MIR from the former Soviet Union and proceeding toward an international space station, Alpha, the United States might today be operating its own station.

The most bitter among Langley space station enthusiasts feel that the decisions regarding the station were not only mistakes but also symptoms of a basic flaw in NASA's organizational character. "It finally dawned on me," explains William Gardner, the head of the MORL Studies Office, "that NASA wasn't intended to be a real federal agency." NASA did not enjoy a long-term goal like the former NACA-an agency designed "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution," or even like the FAA, whose job was to make air travel effective and safe. "NASA was just a project of the presidential administration," and under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, the project was "just to put a man on the moon." "We do spectacular things when the Administration wants spectacular things done," Gardner challenges, and when it does not, "we don't really have a mandate."69

[309] But Langley researchers, out of technological conviction or political naivete, or both, kept working on the space station as if they had such a mandate. The effort was not in vain. In persisting with their design and redesign of space stations and seeking to understand how humans could live and work in space, they contributed to the successes of Apollo, Skylab, and the Space Shuttle, and they laid a solid foundation upon which to build when NASA in the early 1980s created a new Space Station Task Force and once again began examining the program options for "the next logical step"-a step that may in its own time be skipped over for something else. In the wake of the spaceflight revolution, it would take all the running space station researchers could do, just to keep in the same place.


* Due to Nichols' ambivalence about the space project, Paul R. Hill actually took over much of the leadership role for the group.

** North American had been studying the logistics of a permanent satellite base and a global surveillance system for the air force, and the physics of meteoroid impact for NASA.

*** Two representatives of the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation, the primary contractor involved in Langley's study of the inflatable torus, were testifying the same day before the congressional committee.

**** A pulse jet is a simple jet engine, which does not involve a compressor, in which combustion takes place intermittently and produces thrust. In this case, 10 pounds of thrust per pulse jet is produced by a series of explosions.

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