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25 years of Spacelab, Europe’s passport to space

When the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded the contract to build a research laboratory for conducting experiments in microgravity to a European consortium in 1973, nobody at the time could have imagined that this heralded a new era of European human spaceflight.

After completing its successful series of expeditions to the moon under the Apollo programme, NASA proposed in 1972 that Europe should take part in future crewed space missions. The Americans set to work on the development of the reusable space shuttle and, in August 1973, a meeting of European science and research ministers voted in favour of embarking on the parallel project of building the Spacelab space laboratory. In June 1974, the European Space Agency (ESA) awarded the contract to build the laboratory to an industrial consortium led by the then ERNO Raumfahrttechnik GmbH, one of the predecessor firms of today’s Astrium. More than 40 major European companies worked together on the project under ERNO’s leadership. Ten European nations helped to finance the Spacelab programme, including West Germany (53.3%), Italy (18%), France (10%) and the United Kingdom (6.3%).

The first complete flight module was delivered to NASA through the intermediary of ESA in 1981. Spacelab made its maiden flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia on 28 November 1983. The physicist and ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold from Stuttgart was on board the flight as a payload specialist.

Two missions flown in 1985 and 1993, code-named D-1 and D-2, were almost exclusively German in origin, with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in charge of mission control and of monitoring the research flights from its control centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich. The members of the team included Dutch ESA astronaut Wubbo Ockels and German astronauts Reinhard Furrer and Ernst Messerschmidt (Spacelab D-1) and Ulrich Walter and Hans-Wilhelm Schlegel (Spacelab D-2).

Meanwhile, NASA had placed a direct order with the Spacelab consortium led by Astrium for a second Spacelab flight module and the supply of spare parts. In addition to the total of six flights in a pallet-only configuration – i.e. without the pressurised laboratory module for crew – Spacelab platforms were occasionally introduced which still today form part of many shuttle flights, anchored in the orbiter’s payload bay and carrying equipment and instruments.

The Spacelab era came to an end after 22 flights, the last being the Neurolab mission launched in April 1998 – once again aboard Columbia. As for the majority of earlier missions, Astrium contributed many of the important experiments and other equipment, which it had developed and built on behalf of ESA and the national space agencies.

The challenge of developing Spacelab and the space shuttle in parallel meant dealing with a multitude of continuously arising new requirements and coordinating the work of 40 major companies in 10 European countries, plus several hundred suppliers. Obviously, this called for perfectly tuned management. The resulting quality of this extremely complex hardware forged Astrium’s reputation as a trusted partner to the international space community.

The design of the European Columbus laboratory, which has been operating as an integral part of the International Space Station (ISS) since February 2008, is based on the experience gained during the development and construction of Spacelab.

Astrium was the industrial prime contractor commissioned by ESA to develop and build the Columbus laboratory, which weighs nearly 13 metric tons. The company’s spaceflight engineers in Bremen spent 10 years working on this key module for the ISS. Astrium is now the internationally recognised specialist in orbital systems, space transportation and re-entry systems, operations management and mission systems. This can be credited in large measure to Spacelab – Europe’s passport to the universe of human spaceflight.

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