On Station Issue 13 © ESA
Spacelab’s 40th anniversary and its legacy in the On Station newsletter
Tue, 28/11/2023 - 08:30

This month marks 40 years since the launch of the first Spacelab mission in November 1983. We are celebrating Spacelab’s anniversary, and the beginning of ESA’s activities in human spaceflight, by opening the latest collection of ESA publications – On Station, the newsletter of ESA’s Directorate of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity – and delving into it for insights into the legacy of Spacelab for European participation in the International Space Station.

Plans for development of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s included a facility for scientists to conduct experiments on the Shuttle while in orbit. Under the Spacelab cooperation agreement, signed in 1973 with NASA, the newly conceived ESA would build a modular research laboratory that would fit inside the Shuttle's cargo bay. (In fact, the need for a common European framework for the Spacelab project was one of the concerns behind the creation of ESA in 1975.)

This European Spacelab was very much the forerunner of the ISS – a sort of small reusable space station built by a consortium of European companies. Instead of a single piece of hardware, it was a suite of elements: pressurised modules, unpressurised platforms (‘pallets’) and other hardware mixed to create a laboratory each time for a specific mission.

The first Spacelab mission, on STS-9, was launched on 28 November 1983, on Space Shuttle Columbia. Also on board was Ulf Merbold, who became ESA’s first astronaut in space. This 10-day Spacelab-1 mission therefore also marked ESA's entry into human spaceflight activities.

In all, 22 Spacelab missions had flown by the conclusion of the programme in 1998, making a major contribution to space science research, and to today's International Space Station programme.

And that is precisely where this collection of the On Station newsletters comes in. As the newsletter of ESA’s (then) Directorate of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity, it was published from 1999 to 2004, just one year after the Spacelab programme came to an end. It therefore covers the period of transition from Spacelab to its successor, the ISS. It celebrated milestones like the first European onboard the ISS (Umberto Guidoni in 2001) and the launch of the first European-built facility (the Microgravity Science Glovebox) in 2002. And it traced the run up to the launch of the Columbus laboratory in 2008 - ESA’s largest single contribution to the ISS and the first permanent European research facility in space. (On Station kept its readers updated on the delays to this launch, originally planned for 2004, in the wake of the tragic loss of Columbia in February 2003 and the subsequent suspension of Space Shuttle flights.)

We have searched through this fascinating collection to highlight just a few aspects of the immediate legacy of the Spacelab programme and the continuity of the research initiated under it, with a particular focus on the European contribution to the ISS:

  • Research
    While Number 3 outlines the boost to the quality of ESA research in the 1990s with Spacelab, Number 5 addresses microgravity research the interim between Spacelab and the ISS. Various subsequent issues introduce the ISS-based successors to medical or material science research first carried out under the spacelab programme, including an Advanced Respiratory Monitoring System on STS-107 (Issue 11), respiratory monitoring systems (Issue 15) and an Electomagnetic Levitator for the Material Science Laboratory (Issue 18).
  • Technical legacy
    On Station often details Spacelab’s technical legacy, from the continued use of Spacelab pallets (for the ISS Cupola in Number 4), or evolution of the Spacelab glovebox to the ISS Microgravity Science Glovebox (Number 7), to the continued development of the telescience and remote operations first established for Spacelab, in Number 10.
    In terms of ground segment, Number 7 reminds readers of the decision by ESA Council in 1998 that the that the Columbus Control Centre would be located at DLR/Oberpfaffenhofen, adapting the mission control building previously used for operations of the Spacelab—D2 mission. Number 12 explains the reuse of a Spacelab communications system for remote operations for the 2002 Odissea Mission, noting that its own successor would form the core of the Columbus ground segment communication system.
  • Growth of the European Astronaut Corps
    Number 3 charts the history of the European Astronaut Centre from the first four ESA astronauts - selected in 1977 to train for the Spacelab programme - to the creation of a unified European Astronaut Corps in 1998 and its 16 members at the time of publication in 2000.
  • Ongoing partnerships
    Many of the partnerships established for Spacelab, continued under the ISS programme: Number 6, a special edition on the 2001 ISS Forum features ongoing collaboration with both industry and other European partners like DLR. Number 13 instead highlights ESA’s continued collaboration with NASA on microgravity research.
  • Professional development
    Several issues (including numbers 1, 4 and 5) announce new heads of programmes, departments or sites, mapping the professional development of ESA colleagues who often began their careers with the Spacelab programme. Number 6 contains an article on ISS research by a certain Ulf Merbold, whose career was certainly launched by Spacelab!


More information

Find out more about On Station here.

To browse the collection of On Station, enter the SHIP database and search for ‘On Station’.or refer to our highlight on SHIP for additional details of its functionalities.