What is the Reason for a Space Station?


The International Space Station from the Space Shuttle, STS-130, December 1, 2010.

Over the years there have been many reasons offered for the necessity of constructing a space station in Earth orbit. Here is a rundown of these various reasons from the 1980s to the present.

Here is what was conceived as the purposes of the space station in 1985 and stated in U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on HUD-Independent Agencies. Department of Housing and Urban Development — Independent Agencies Appropriations for 1985, Part 6, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, March 27, 1984 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), p. 8:

  1. “A laboratory in space, for the conduct of science and the development of new technologies;
  2. A permanent observatory, to look down upon the Earth and out at the universe;
  3. A manufacturing facility where human intelligence and the servicing capability of the station combine to enhance commercial opportunities in space;
  4. A transportation node where payloads and vehicles are stationed, processed and propelled to their destinations;
  5. A servicing facility, where these payloads and vehicles are maintained, and if necessary, repaired;
  6. An assembly facility where, due to ample time on orbit and the presence of appropriate equipment, large structures are put together and checked out;
  7. A storage depot where payloads and parts are kept on orbit for subsequent deployments; and
  8. A staging base for more ambitious future missions.”

As conceived in 1990-1993 stated in U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Space 7 Studies Board Position on Proposed Redesign of Space Station Freedom, Letter report to NASA Administrator Richard Truly, March 14, 1991. pp. 1-3:

  1. “A dedicated life sciences laboratory with adequate scientific crew to conduct research;
  2. A variable speed centrifuge of sufficient radius to accommodate small primates;
  3. Sufficient numbers of experimental subjects (humans, plants, and animals) to address the stated scientific goals; and
  4. Sufficient laboratory resources, i.e. power, equipment, space, and atmosphere, to support the above research requirements.”

As conceived in 1997 and stated by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin in Testimony before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, International Space Station. Hearing. September 18, 1997. S. Hrg. 105-792 (Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1997), pp. 12-13:

“We happen to be building a station in Earth orbit that has unique characteristics where we could do research in biomedicine, biotechnology, advanced materials, combustion research, advanced communications and advanced engineering and Earth science that we could do on no other platform….The key to it is time on orbit and the absence of gravity.”

As conceived in 2001 and stated in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science, Space Station Cost Overruns Hearing, April 25, 2001 (Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 2001), p. 74:

    1. Permanent human presence in space,
    2. Accommodation of all international partner elements; and
    3. World-class research in space.

Research aboard the International Space Station.

In 2000 the first crew occupied the International Space Station (ISS) and began operations on the facility. A common denominator in all of these discussions over time is the space station’s role as a research laboratory. NASA reports that more than 400 experiments have been completed on the ISS as so far. The space agency further reports that several recent patents have already resulted from that research and knowledge gained is being incorporated into the broader society. Let’s hope that space station utilization pays off beyond all expectations.

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6 Responses to What is the Reason for a Space Station?

  1. Ian Kluft says:

    I think history will also record that the International Space Station, and joint use of Russia’s Mir space station before it, has had a useful purpose in international relations. Undoubtedly that was a purpose of it as an international project. At the end of the Cold War and in the years since, it has probably been the most obvious example where Americans and Russians, as individuals and between our governments, can work together as part of one team. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, we were aware all life on Earth could be snuffed out by nuclear war at any time without warning. When the Cold War ended, it was the first time in Human history that an arms race didn’t end in a war. Coming back from that brink, unseen examples of private commerce between the former rivals have added up to a solid foundation. But even in rocky political circumstances, the space station has served as a positive and publicly-visible symbol. It’s hard to put a price on that. But it has to be considered in the total mix.

    Going forward, I think the space station will appear to many as just an expensive lab until it fulfills its vision of acting as a staging point for manned flights beyond Low Earth Orbit.

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    • launiusr says:

      I agree. I think the ISS will be remembered a century from now largely for the manner on which aided in the building of international coalitions to accomplish a massive, peaceful project in space.

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  2. john hawkes says:

    Well it is now 2015 and the candle has been
    replaced and we are back in the cold war
    With the new formations of groups that believe that the destruction of mankind and its earthly creatures is paramount strangely enough science is one of its greatest destroyers even after 3000 years. We as humans are no further in creating peace. So back to the basic question.
    What is the point to the international space station.

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  3. Mauro says:

    We will never leave this planet. The logistics are incalculable. To build a modul and be able to propel it to another planet with a food supply and specially trained astronauts and to fabricate accommodation , an oxygen supply and all the equipment is nigh on impossible . We should be controlling the greed of world companies who mass produce and cause the immense pollution for mercenary reasons. These people will not live long enough to see their selfish action destroy the planet. Human nature is of that ilk.

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  4. Richard nelmes says:

    The mind boggling cost of anything to do with space exploration is beyond belief and justification . There is nothing of any use that has been gained from it that wouldnt have been developed anyway . How sad then that we have again spent billions to send someone 250 miles into nowhere whilst many on the planet will spend winter in poverty . Perhaps the boffins think we will learn more from another planet than we have on earth since time began , somehow i sadly think they are mistaken

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