Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future

Would you ever spend months or years of your time on board a space station?
Donovan Alexander

Did you know that, to date, 240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the International Space Station (ISS)? Or the fact that the ISS makes 16 orbits around the Earth every 24 hours? Or that you can look up in the sky at dawn or dusk and catch a glimpse of the space station flying past your home even if you live in a big city. The International Space Station is a symbol of human ingenuity and the aspirational goal to live beyond our own planet eventually. However, the spacecraft serves a much bigger purpose than a home for the astronauts.

Doubling as a floating science lab, in the more than 18 years of crewed operation, thousands of researchers on the ground in more than 100 countries have conducted more than 2,500 experiments in microgravity. That number continues to grow. These experiments directly impact our lives here on planet Earth. There are manufacturing, medical, biological, and technological innovations taking place there that would not be possible here on Earth

Space stations make our lives better here on Earth 

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: NASA

Scientific research has played an important role in shaping the ISS's purpose and expansion. The ISS' days are numbered though. NASA is currently planning to end its support of the ISS by 2024, transitioning the aging space lab to the private sector and for-profit activities, like manufacturing, marketing, advertising, and space tourism. After 2024, we can expect to see the space station reducing its operations significantly. 

Whether it is in 2030 or 2050, the ISS will eventually make its way back down to Earth. Though some parts of the space station will be kept in orbit, NASA plans to bring it down safely, rather than leaving it to plummet SkyLab-style. But this won't be easy or cheap. The space agency has estimated that it will take $950 million and two years to bring the station down to Earth. Where? Currently, the expected resting place of the ISS will be in the most remote spot on the planet, Point Nemo, in the Pacific Ocean.

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: NASA

NASA estimates that somewhere between 53,500 and 173,250 pounds (24,250-78,500kg) of the space station will drop into the ocean. So, what's next? The coming end of the ISS will probably see the development of the next generation of space stations from both the public and private sectors. Space stations will move beyond acting primarily as laboratories and will play a much larger role in space exploration, economic development, commerce, and even your tourism. However, to understand the space stations of the future, you should understand the space stations of the past.  

Space Stations go back to the 19th century

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Noordung Space Station Source: Herman Potočnik/Wikimedia

Space stations, or at least the concept of space station, is not that new of an idea. The term space station was coined by Hermann Oberth, a Romanian Rocket pioneer, which would eventually be blueprinted and modeled by the Austrian Herman Noordung in 1928. The platform the team envisioned would serve as a starting point for missions to the Moon and Mars. Noordung and Oberth's visions saw large rockets taking their craft into orbit. 

However, references to space stations go back even further in history. Some of the earliest concepts of a space station appeared as the early 19th century in our favorite genre, science fiction.

Readers of the Atlantic Monthly in 1869 were presented with descriptions of a 200-foot (60 mt) diameter brick sphere, designed to orbit the Earth as a navigational aid to ships, in Edward Everett Hale's "The Brick Moon." Interestingly, unlike our ISS, this brick moon was sent into orbit by accident, with Hale exploring what life on this space station would like in his tales. 

Disney and Wernher von Braun designed a space station concept

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: NASA

Wernher von Braun has been widely described as the father of rocket science, and his work directly shaped both warfare and our modern space program. Post-WWII, Braun would be described as a "spaceflight popularizer" in the United States for more than just his powerful rockets. In an unlikely collaboration with Collier's Magazine and Walt Disney on the Tomorrowland TV series, Braun would share his vision of a wheel-shaped space station to the public.

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
2019 conceptual rendering of the proposed Von Braun Space Station Source: Timothy Alatorre/Wikimedia

Looking like something out of a modern-day science fiction film, his wheel-shaped orbital was ambitious, to say the least. The toroidal space station would act as an Earth observation post, a microgravity laboratory, and a starting point for missions to the Moon and Mars. 

The 100-Man Space Base from the 1960s almost came into fruition 

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: NASA/Spaceflight History

Real steps towards an actual space station would not start appearing until the late 1950s. Rushing to get a man to the moon, NASA was then considering building a working space station as a follow-up. America wanted technological dominance in space. However, this interest in orbital living quarters above the Earth waned as the journey to the moon became a top priority. Still, in 1969, NASA proposed a 100-man space station called Space Base.

The space agency wanted to create a place that could double as a homeport for nuclear-powered space tugs. However, the expected cost and maintenance of such an engineering project was no easy feat. NASA would also need a shuttle from Earth that would ferry supplies to the Space Base. In the future, this part of the plan would emerge as the Space Shuttle.

Salyut 1 was the first very first space station

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: Mir Hardware Heritage/NASA/Wikimedia

In the meantime, NASA decided to pursue a more temporary idea of an orbiting space station. But the Soviet Union would launch the first space station on April 19, 1971. Dubbed the Salyut 1, it orbited around the Earth almost 3,000 times during its 175 days in space. The 65 feet (20 mt) long, 13 feet (4 mt) wide station was cylindrical in shape and consisted of three pressurized compartments for astronauts, and one unpressurized area containing the engines and control equipment.


Though the station was plagued with a host of problems, the mistakes made by the Soviet Union informed the rest of the world about how to properly approach orbital space stations. A little over a decade later, the Soviet Union launched the first part of their much larger space station, Mir. This space station could only have three operators at once.

Taking ten years to assemble fully, Mir would grow in size and orbit the Earth more than 86,000 times over the course of fifteen years. Mir retired in 2001, crashing into the South Pacific Ocean, two years after the first pieces of the ISS were launched into space. 

NASA's Skylab was never intended to be a long-term space station

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Astronaut Charles Conrad Jr in the interior of the Skylab. Source: NASA

Skylab is considered to be NASA's first official long-term space station. However, this was never originally the plan. Skylab was born out of excess Apollo hardware from three canceled lunar missions.

NASA then took these parts and turned them into the space station, repurposing an S-IVB upper stage and launched it on the last Saturn V in May of 1973. The space station would go on to host three crews. Eventually, it reentered the Earth's atmosphere and scattered debris over the Indian Ocean and parts of Western Australia in July of 1979. However, the station had demonstrated the feasibility of living and conducting research in space. 

The ISS is a historic accomplishment 

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
1998 American-built International Space Station Module Launches Source: NASA

The first pieces of the ISS were launched in 1998 as a joint project between the United States, Japan, Canada, Russia, and the European Space Agency (ESA); astronauts from more than 15 countries have since visited the station. The first crew for the space station arrived on November 2, 2000. Continually expanding, the ISS has the volume of a five-bedroom house, or two Boeing 747 jetliners. It can support a crew of six people, plus visitors, and includes laboratory modules from the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe.

These laboratory modules have conducted a variety of very important scientific studies. The ISS experiments are helping us back home by supporting water purification efforts worldwide, developing improved vaccines, providing students opportunities to conduct their science in space, and monitoring natural disasters from space, just to name a few.

Future space stations will have spider robots and 3D printers

Space Stations of the Past, Present, and Future
Source: NASA

Space Stations post-2030 could serve a host of purposes. They might be important laboratories, checkpoints for astronauts headed to the moon and Mars, places of business, tourist spots, and potentially even factories. We could well see space stations from the private sector, too. There are currently five privately-funded, space-station projects in development, the most prominent coming from Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space.

Aside from shuttling the super-rich to space, nations who do not have the resources to build and maintain their own space station could rent facilities in these to conduct their own research. This is likely to be just the beginning

Technologies like 3D-printing, robotics, and AI could very literally take over space stations, requiring fewer people to crew the orbiting spacecraft. 3D-printers could churn out cheap, functional satellites from the station and launch them into deep space. Spider-like robots could help build and repair the floating habitats in real-time. Smaller laboratory modules may not even need humans at all.

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