Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spacelab 1, developed and funded in Europe at a cost of approximately one billion dollars, marked Europe’s entry into the manned spaceflight endeavor.

Summary of Event

In 1969, the United States invited the member nations of the European Space Conference to participate in the post-Apollo program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The ten nations that made up the conference (West Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria) responded with the idea of a space laboratory whose operators could be expert scientists rather than professional astronauts. This proposal was adopted by the European Space Conference ministers and became an official program of the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) in August, 1973. ESRO’s responsibilities were assumed later by the European Space Agency (ESA), which was created in 1975 through a merger of ESRO and another European space agency. ESA was responsible for funding, developing, and building Spacelab, and NASA was responsible for launch and operations. National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program Space shuttle program;Spacelab European Space Agency;Spacelab [kw]Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle (Nov. 28, 1983) [kw]Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle, Spacelab 1 Is (Nov. 28, 1983) [kw]Space Shuttle, Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the (Nov. 28, 1983) Spacelab National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program Space shuttle program;Spacelab European Space Agency;Spacelab [g]North America;Nov. 28, 1983: Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle[05300] [g]United States;Nov. 28, 1983: Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle[05300] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;Nov. 28, 1983: Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle[05300] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 28, 1983: Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle[05300] Young, John W. Garriott, Owen K. Shaw, Brewster H. Parker, Robert A. Lichtenberg, Byron K. Merbold, Ulf Lampton, Michael L. Ockels, Wubbo

Spacelab was a modular facility designed to ride into space in the payload bay of a space shuttle and remain there for periods of a week or more while a wide range of manned and unmanned research tasks were conducted. The principal elements of Spacelab were a pressurized module in which scientists worked and one or more U-shaped equipment platforms, called pallets, on which experiments requiring direct exposure to space could be mounted. The pressurized module consisted of two segments, each 4 meters (about 13 feet) in diameter, the maximum width the space shuttle’s payload bay can accommodate. The core segment, which is 4.26 meters (almost 14 feet) long, contained the data-processing and utilities support; the experiment segment, 2.74 meters (almost 9 feet) long, provided added work space and room for additional equipment racks if needed. The pressurized module could be flown as a core segment only, called the short module, or in combination with the experiment segment, called the long module. The configuration selected for Spacelab 1 consisted of the long module and one pallet. In this arrangement, Spacelab offered 22 cubic meters (about 777 cubic feet) of pressurized volume for research and had a mass of 11,539 kilograms (roughly 25,439 pounds).

Ulf Merbold (left), Owen K. Garriott (center), and Byron K. Lichtenberg work in the Spacelab.

(NASA CORE/Lorain County JVS)

More than four hundred responses were received when NASA and ESA issued a joint “announcement of opportunity” that invited proposals for research investigations for the first Spacelab mission. Narrowing the field down to the seventy-two (including the mission’s flight experiments) that were accepted involved judgments on both the scientific merit of the proposals and the suitability of the experiments for flight aboard the Spacelab and the shuttle. Scientists from eleven European nations plus Canada, the United States, and Japan were principal investigators of the flight experiments selected for the Spacelab 1 mission.

The experiments were grouped into five general categories that reflected the multidisciplinary nature of the mission. The Atmospheric Physics and Earth Observations experiments group examined in detail the composition, temperature, and motion of Earth’s atmospheric gases and tested a high-resolution mapping camera and an all-weather radar for gathering Earth surface data of scientific and commercial value. The Space Plasma Physics experiments group studied the character of Earth’s ionosphere a plasma envelope situated between the atmosphere and the magnetosphere where the Sun’s energy and Earth’s environment interface. The Solar Physics and Astronomy experiments group determined how constant the Sun’s energy output is and detected deep-sky objects visible only in the ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths. The Materials Sciences and Technology experiments group conducted pilot studies in crystal growth, fluid physics, chemistry, and metallurgy in a microgravity environment. The Life Sciences experiments group consisted of medial and biological experiments that assessed the influence of microgravity on various living systems and life functions as well as the adaptation of various organisms to the space environment.

The primary goal of the Spacelab 1 mission was to verify the spacecraft’s performance through a broad variety of scientific experiments that were chosen especially to test flight and ground support systems and personnel. A secondary goal was to demonstrate, through a program of actual experiments, the exciting capabilities of Spacelab’s instruments and methods for performing scientific research that would be impossible in any other setting. The final goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of cooperative space research projects undertaken by international teams of scientists.

The launch of Spacelab 1 aboard the STS-9 shuttle mission was originally scheduled for September 30, 1983, a date that would have ideally satisfied the requirements of the astronomy experiments for a new Moon (because the skies would be as dark as possible) and the metric camera’s requirement for a time of year when ground illumination would be well distributed over the entire globe (that is, an equinox). The first Tracking and Data-Relay Satellite (TDRS-1), a communications satellite (the first part of the new Tracking and Data-Relay Satellite System, Tracking and Data-Relay Satellite System[Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System] or TDRSS) considered essential for Spacelab’s high-data-rate communications needs, however, was delayed in getting into operation, forcing a one-month postponement of the launch. After the mission was rescheduled for late October, technicians discovered a problem with the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, and the launch had to be delayed an additional month.

Once the countdown finally got under way, it proceeded smoothly, and the space shuttle Columbia thundered into space from Launchpad 39-A on November 28, only milliseconds off the opening of the next available launch window at 11:00 a.m. eastern standard time. Columbia circled Earth every ninety minutes in an orbit 240 kilometers (about 149 miles) high and inclined 57 degrees to the equator. This “high-inclination orbit” was favored for the fact that it overflew a large percentage of the inhabited portions of Earth.

Spacelab 1 was activated two hours and thirty minutes after launch, and the crew entered the pressurized module one hour later. The heavy load of experimental work dictated a very regimented flight plan. The crew was divided into two teams designated Red Team and Blue Team that alternated in twelve-hour shifts so that Spacelab 1 could be operated around the clock for 231 hours. John W. Young, Robert A. Parker, and Ulf Merbold constituted the Red Team, and Brewster H. Shaw, Owen K. Garriott, and Byron K. Lichtenberg made up the Blue Team. Astronauts and cosmonauts

The first day of the mission was devoted to life science experiments, with particular attention to the crew’s physiological response to zero gravity. The focus of this research was on the causes of space adaptation syndrome, the troublesome “space sickness” that affects most astronauts during their first hours in space. Following up on research conducted ten years earlier aboard Skylab, the experiments revealed the nature of a suspected coupling between the eye and the vestibular system of the inner ear, leading to revisions in existing medical theories. Day two included a verification test of Spacelab’s ability to withstand prolonged exposure to space cold, and days three and four involved further heat and cold verification tests. Days five through eight were dedicated to Spacelab experiments. The mission was judged to be going so well, and the use of onboard consumables was so conservative, that by day four there was discussion of extending the mission one additional day. The “bonus day” option was approved by mission managers on day six, allowing the crew to catch up on a few experiments that had been missed.

Spacelab 1 performed with remarkably little mechanical trouble. On the first day, a remote acquisition unit (RAU) associated with collecting data from the pallet developed a malfunction and thereafter operated only when the shuttle’s payload bay was shaded from the Sun, but the problem was not serious. Of much greater concern was the high-data-rate recorder (HDRR), which malfunctioned on the fourth day, threatening to destroy the mission’s ability to save scientific data when the shuttle was out of range of TDRSS. The crew discovered, however, that one of the HDRR’s tape-drive capstans simply needed lubrication, after which the machine functioned normally for the remainder of the flight.

Crew egress from the Spacelab pressurized module came at nine days, seventeen hours, and five minutes into the mission. Columbia returned to the main runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 3:47 p.m. Pacific standard time after a flight of ten days, seven hours, and forty-seven minutes, during which it circled Earth 166 times.


Prior to Spacelab, the opportunities for an independent scientist to conduct complicated research involving access to the space environment were infrequent. Any experiment conducted in space had to be simple enough to be operated by astronauts who were not specialists in the research area and who had only very limited time to give to it, or it had to be automated so that it could operate without human attention. Neither approach allowed much opportunity for a researcher to interact with an experiment in progress or to modify the experiment in response to the data or any problems that might develop. The only alternative was for scientists to become astronauts, but the extraordinarily long training time involved in this process presented a serious obstacle. Spacelab

Spacelab 1 demonstrated the best solution yet to this dilemma. The powerful and flexible orbital laboratory was complemented by the new special crew category of payload specialist and by a unique management interface between NASA and ESA spaceflight professionals on one side and the many scientists involved in the mission on the other. It amounted to a user management team and was called the Investigator Working Group (IWG).

The normal Spacelab mission crew of six included two payload specialists, who were research scientists who had undergone enough NASA flight training to be able to live and work safely and productively aboard the space shuttle but not to operate it. Most of their preparation, called mission-dependent training, was associated with the experiments themselves and was provided by the mission experimenters rather than by NASA or ESA.

For Spacelab 1, after the selection of the flight experiments was decided, the principal investigators for all of the chosen experiments were invited to participate in the IWG. This committee had responsibilities for guiding the incorporation of the many individual experiments into a payload and for coordinating and communicating the needs of the user scientists to the mission manager. The IWG was also the body that selected the payload specialists and their backups; the backup American payload specialist was Michael L. Lampton, and the backup European payload specialist was Wubbo Ockels.

The ability to have highly trained scientists aboard Spacelab missions and strong involvement by the principal investigators in mission management decisions was important. These features allowed the on-the-ground experimenters to exercise an onboard presence during the mission, which was essential if they were to react appropriately and efficiently to new research opportunities and to problems that occurred.

The timely completion and very successful performance of the European-built Spacelab equipment, together with the high level of international scientific and management cooperation exhibited during all phases of the Spacelab 1 mission, provided substantial confidence in the ability of NASA and ESA to forge a strong partnership in future space exploration. Reflights of Spacelab became a periodic feature of the shuttle flight schedule, even as both ESA and NASA used what they had learned through the Spacelab program to plan more advanced orbiting laboratories to be incorporated in future space stations. The final Spacelab shuttle flight was mission STS-90 in 1998, but the Spacelab pallet system continued to be used on later shuttle missions and on the International Space Station, which was manned in November, 2000. Spacelab National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program Space shuttle program;Spacelab European Space Agency;Spacelab

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Wendy. NASA: America in Space. New York: Crescent Books, 1986. Chronicle of the technology, the people, and the events of almost three decades of U.S. space exploration includes a general description of Spacelab and capsule summaries of missions 1, 2, 3, and D-l. Useful reference source for young readers helps place the Spacelab program within the context of space research endeavors in general. Includes color photographs from NASA archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chappell, Charles R., and Karl Knott. “The Spacelab Experience: A Synopsis.” Science 225 (July 13, 1984): 163-165. Report by two of the Spacelab 1 project managers presents highlights of the mission. Gives an overview of the scientific results in language accessible to laypersons. Other articles in the same issue discuss Spacelab 1, but most are too technical for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dooling, Dave. “Getting Ready for Spacelab 1.” Space World 228 (December, 1982): 4-9. Article prepared a year before the mission actually flew discusses the integration of the hardware and the final training of the crew. Includes quotations from participants in a meeting of the IWG, providing interesting insight into the enthusiasm prevailing in the scientific community and at the two space agencies involved. Black-and-white photographs show Spacelab being assembled and tested.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Mission Report: STS-9.” Space World 242 (February, 1984): 16-17. Brief article has more to do with the performance of the space shuttle Columbia and the experimental equipment than with the actual findings from the mission. At the time the article went to press, the results of the experiments were not yet available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garriott, Owen K., Robert A. Parker, Byron K. Lichtenberg, and Ulf Merbold. “Payload Crew Members’ View of Spacelab Operations.” Science 225 (July 13, 1984): 165-167. Assesses the flight from the perspective of those who executed it. Written by the scientist-astronauts aboard Spacelab 1 and features their view of their role, an assessment of how it compared with the role of the Skylab astronauts, and their perception of what the future of scientists in space might be.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Launius, Roger D. Frontiers of Space Exploration. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Comprehensive resource provides information on all aspects of human beings’ moves into space, including the space shuttle program and Spacelab. Features chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longdon, Norman. Spacelab Data Book. Paris: European Space Agency, 1983. Presents a thorough overview of the Spacelab program for the general reader, including historical background, management structure, crew selection and training, and technical details of the spacecraft. Abundantly illustrated with color photographs and high-quality technical art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldrop, M. Mitchell. “Spacelab: Science on the Shuttle.” Science 222 (October 28, 1983): 405-407. Offers a fresh and fascinating discussion of how the Spacelab program evolved and how it fits into the context of the overall space shuttle program. Avoids the tone of public relations pieces and press releases about Spacelab and presents frank quotations from the individuals involved. Clearly conveys both the hopes and the frustrations associated with the project.

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