ARE WE GOING TO BUILD A SPACE STATION?
BY WILLY LEY

(Originaly Published in a 1962 Issue of Galaxy Magazine)

THE QUESTION that has been asked most frequently of me after seminars and lectures during the last five months or so was "Are we going to build a space station?" Or: "Has the space-station project been given up?" or even, "Do we still need a space station?"

At first I merely answered the question, asserting that a space station is still considered useful and that it will be built when the time is ripe. After a while I be­gan to wonder why this question came up with such monotonous regularity and I began to ask back.

It turned out that not every­body who asked that question had the same reasons. One would be motivated by the belief that rocket engineers had changed their plans and wanted to do everything with direct takeoff from Earth. Somebody else had swallowed the statement, made by some people, that "instru­ments are much lighter than men and can do things no man could do, like detecting X-rays." And others just read a meaning into what might be called an absence of publicity; since the newspa­pers and magazines had talked about nothing but boosters, in­strumented satellites and Mer­cury capsules for more than a year, the space-station project had most likely been given up.

Of course it isn't so.

If NASA, and with it news­papers, magazines, radio and TV, is talking mainly about instru­mented satellites and boosters and so forth, it is talking merely about the things now at hand. Instrumented satellites are being sent up at fairly regular rate. By December 31, 1961 there had been a total of 74 successful satel­lite shots (USA 61, USSR 13) and 5 shots to and past the moon (USA 2, USSR 3.) Orbital flights have been made by both sides and the program to make the big Saturn booster operational is un­der way. The space station is still a few years in the future. And before we can go ahead and build it a few other things have to be done first.

THERE are mainly two things that must be done before the space station project can become active. One is to have a large reliable booster, namely the Sat­urn. On its first test flight the Saturn, since all the upper stages were merely dummies, carried 190,000 pounds of water ballast —which gives a fine indication of what it can lift. As now planned, the Saturn will be able to put 20,000 pounds into a 300-mile orbit. But if the upper stages which are now under develop­ment should turn out a little bet­ter than expected — let's say, if they turn out as well as hoped — that payload may turn out to be ten per cent higher. This will take care of the necessary load-carrying capacity.

The second thing that must be done before the space station can be tackled is the solution of the so-called rendezvous problem. The space station, once it exists, cannot survive unless the rendez­vous problem has been solved, even if the whole station was car­ried into orbit in one piece. A space station is, by definition, a manned satellite. The crew inside must be both relieved and supplied. Even if he had a rather small space station with a crew of only eight men in mind, these men must be relieved from time to time. Let us say that a stretch of duty would be six weeks; we need a supply ship which can carry four men plus supplies ev­ery three weeks.

The rendezvous problem, which is the physical contact be­tween two vessels both of which are orbiting the earth, is going to be attacked during 1963. (At the moment of writing no date has been set.) But it is very like­ly that the Gemini capsule for two astronauts will play a role in the rendezvous problem.

The two unfinished items — the big booster for carrying heavy loads, and the rendezvous program, for equipping, supplying and maintaining the space sta­tion — are the reason why the space station isn't much in the news right now.

But that does not mean that nobody is thinking about it.

In fact we are now in the fourth phase of the thinking about the space station.

The first phase was way back in 1923, when Professor Her­mann Oberth introduced the con­cept into scientific literature. He did not describe a specific space station, however; he only sug­gested how it might be done. His idea ran as follows: put a very large rocket ship equipped with a "landing boat" into an orbit around the earth. Have the man who put the ship into orbit re­turn to the ground with his land­ing boat. And then add to the space station with successive flights, until it has become an or­bital base.

The second phase followed five years later, when an Austrian re­tired officer, originally a captain in the Austrian army's Engineer Corps, published a book on space travel which was mainly devoted to a description of the space sta­tion as he conceived it. Captain Potocnik, who wrote under the pen name of Hermann Noordung, had a three-body space station in mind. There were two auxiliary bodies, the astronomical observa­tory and the power house, and the main one which he called the Wohnrad (Living Wheel). See Fig. 1. It was a circular structure with living quarters in its rim. Of course it was supposed to ro­tate so that the crew would be under pseudo-gravity (actually centrifugal force) and because it rotated the wheel was to be en­tered by the hub. Curved mirrors for catching the sun's rays were to provide power. "Hermann Noordung" did not think of every­thing, and he also made a num­ber of mistakes, but his was the first design for a permanent space station and his main suggestions have been in all subsequent de­signs.

One interesting fact which might be useful to mention is that some of Noordung's con­cepts appeared in subsequent de­signs although the originators of these designs did not even know that his book existed. It just proves that solutions to given problems are bound to turn out to be similar.

THE third phase came in 1952, when Collier's Weekly decid­ed to devote most of one issue to space travel.

The central theme of the issue was Wernher von Braun's space-station concept. One interesting result of the circumstances was that every one of the participat­ing scientists was forced to think about things which he would nor­mally have postponed. The scien­tific conference which Collier's Weekly had called at my sugges­tion had the primary purpose of producing something that the magazine could publish ... which meant that many things that had been stated before in rather gen­eral terms had to be stated in definite terms for the purpose of being painted and described. I'll give just two examples: Wernher von Braun had stated earlier that the space station would de­rive the power needed by the concentration of solar radiation "fueling" a turbo-generator. Now he — or rather we, the confer­ence — had to think of the shape and arrangement of the mirror so that Chesley Bonestell could paint it, and von Braun also had to make calculations so that the overall weight of the mirror and turbo-generator could be men­tioned. I had stated (as had everybody else) that the crew of the space station would be re­lieved at intervals; now I had to think about a whole housekeep­ing schedule, from crew replace­ment to garbage removal, taking the assumed size of the station and the carrying capacity of von Braun's assumed cargo carriers as the starting point.

The final outcome of all the deliberations was a ring-shaped station with a circular trough-shaped mirror for collecting solar radiation. In these two respects it resembles Noordung's Wohnrad, but the concept contained many things that Noordung had never dreamed of. There was an automatic stabilizing system which operated by pumping wa­ter from one sector to another to offset the effects of crew mem­bers walking around. The skin of the station, automatically as­sumed to be metal by Noordung, had turned into a plastic, rein­forced by nylon threads or stain­less steel wires. This made it possible to collapse the sections for transporting them into orbit In addition to general refinement a sheet-metal "meteor bumper" had been added to absorb the im­pact of micro-meteorites.

The fourth phase is now.

Now big rockets no longer need to be assumed, they exist. While the date of the first experi­mental space station is still in the future it is now a near future of less than half a dozen years. And now industry is thinking about the problem. One might say that the thinkers are no longer people of a theoretical bent who point out what should be possible. The thinkers are people who hope for a contract.

Of course there are several designs around in the United States and there can be little doubt that there are similar de­signs around in the Soviet Union. Some of the current designs vis­ualize a structure similar to that of a Zeppelin-type airship, con­sisting of circular girder type rings for the end of each section, spaced apart by lightweight metal beams. The airtight plastic cover is then to be draped over this metallic skeleton. But Good­year Aircraft has evolved another design, one which seems an echo of the other type of lighter-than-airship we once had, the blimp.

I FEEL a rather remote personal interest in structures of this type, one which needs some backtracking in time to explain. One of my earliest memories is seeing one of the airships built by Count Ferdinand von Zeppel­in circling over Berlin. A few years later I was taken out to a remote suburb to see an airship on the ground. It was one that also bore the name of its design­er: Major Parseval. Many years later I was one of the men who founded the rocket-proving ground in a nearby suburb of Berlin.

It took me over a year to real­ize that the remote suburb of my childhood and the nearby suburb of my early manhood were one and the same, and that we were building our early liquid fuel rockets in a corner of the tract of fields and copses which had served Major Parseval. By that time I had also learned to what extremes Major Parseval had gone in his design.

In a desire to produce an air­ship which could be loaded on a truck (and the trucks of that period were not very large) he had not only done without a skeleton, he had not only de­signed and built a collapsible gondola, he had even produced collapsible propellers. His pro­pellers were strips of cloth at­tached to a hub. Their ends were curved pieces of steel, so that the propeller acquired its shape by the centrifugal force of these curved steel pieces, when the en­gine spun the propeller. (The only thing Major Parseval could not collapse, although he prob­ably tried, was the engine.)

I was reminded of all this by seeing that Goodyear's space sta­tion is not only completely col­lapsible — they call it "expand­able" — but that even their solar reflectors are not rigid!

The reason why these struc­tures are called "expandable" in­stead of collapsible is that, at least in one version, they cannot be collapsed again once they have been expanded. The design works with quick-setting plastic foam which will be injected into the space between an inner and outer skin. Or else there may be hose-like "stiffeners". Work on a model of this type is now going on.

Indubitably there will be changes as experimentation pro­gresses. There might even be changes in concept in some areas of the design. If, for example, during the next two years — while the Saturn is proved out as reliable and a rendezvous tech­nique is being evolved — an atomic reactor of high energy out­put, light overall weight and proven reliability is developed, the time-honored solar collector and turbo-generator system may be abandoned. But only if, kilo­watt-hour for kilowatt-hour, the atomic reactor is considerably lighter. If it is only a little lighter the consideration that solar radi­ation comes free of charge while heavy isotopes cost money will still win out.

The first experimental space station is likely to be rather small. But a larger one is in the future.

The concept of the space sta­tion has not been given up.

— WILLY LEY


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