08 November 2015

A Bridge from Skylab to Station/Shuttle: Interim Space Station Program (1971)

Skylab liftoff on a two-stage Saturn V rocket, 14 May 1973. Had the ISS Program gone ahead as planned, its four station launches in 1976, 1978, 1981, and 1983 would have closely resembled this one. Image credit: NASA
On 6 April 1971, eight engineers in the Advanced Concepts & Missions Division, NASA Headquarters Office of Advanced Research and Technology (OART), completed a blueprint of NASA's future. Their detailed report was strictly internal and of limited circulation.

Had the OART team's plan become more widely known, it would surely have generated controversy. This was because it proposed to end U.S. lunar exploration with Apollo 15 so that the Saturn V rockets earmarked for missions 16, 17, 18, and 19 could be used to launch into Earth orbit a series of four "interim" space stations, each more capable than the last, between early 1976 and late 1983.

Although the OART plan sounds like an Apollo massacre, it would in fact have deprived the U.S. of two manned moon missions, not four. By the time the OART team proposed its program, NASA had already cancelled three Apollos. First was Apollo 20, nixed in January 1970 so that its Saturn V rocket could launch 85-ton Skylab, a temporary space station, into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Next to go were Apollo 15 and Apollo 19 in September 1970. NASA Administrator Thomas Paine scrapped the two lunar landing missions - an H-class walking mission and a J-class rover mission, respectively - to free up funds for NASA's hoped-for 12-man permanent Space Station and the fully reusable winged Space Shuttle intended to deliver its crews, supplies, and experiment equipment. NASA subsequently renumbered its remaining Apollo missions, so the cancelled missions are more commonly known today as Apollo 18 and Apollo 19.

The Interim Space Station (ISS) Program would have played much the same role for NASA in the mid-1970s/early 1980s as Gemini played in the 1960s. Soon after President John F. Kennedy's 21 May 1961 call for an American on the moon by the end of the 1960s decade, aerospace engineers realized that they needed an experience-building "bridge" program to link simple Mercury suborbital and LEO missions with complex Apollo lunar orbiter and landing missions. Gemini evolved from Mercury - it was initially called "Mercury Mark II" - to fulfill that role.

The Saturn IB stage served as the Apollo moon rocket's third stage, the Saturn IB rocket's second stage, and the structural basis of the Skylab station. Image credit: NASA
OART's ISS Program was envisioned as an evolutionary extension of the Skylab Program. Skylab A and its backup, Skylab B, employed 22-foot-diameter Saturn S-IVB rocket stages as their basic structure. The S-IVB was the third stage of the three-stage Saturn V moon rocket and the second stage of the two-stage Saturn IB rocket. From top to bottom, the stage comprised the ring-shaped Instrument Unit (the "electronic brain" of the Saturn V or Saturn IB rocket of which the S-IVB stage was part), a large tank for low-density liquid hydrogen fuel, a small tank for higher-density liquid oxygen oxidizer, and a restartable J-2 rocket engine.

Through the addition of metal-grid decks, life-support equipment and consumables, lights and air ducts, a film vault, living quarters, and experiment apparatus, the S-IVB hydrogen tank became the Orbital Workshop (OWS), Skylab A's main habitable volume. The empty S-IVB liquid oxygen tank served as a dumpster, and a radiator replaced its J-2 engine.

The OWS hydrogen tank had bolted to its top the Airlock Module (AM), which in turn linked to the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) at Skylab A's front. The AM included a surplus Gemini hatch for spacewalks. The MDA included a main axial (front) docking port and a back-up radial port.

Besides the OWS, MDA, and AM, Skylab A included the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), an unpressurized compartment containing instruments for viewing the Sun. The ATM, mounted on a truss attached to the side of the MDA, included four electricity-generating solar arrays arranged in "windmill" fashion. These augmented two large solar-array "wings" on Skylab A's sides.

The Skylab space station as envisioned in 1970. Image credit: NASA
Skylab A was commonly referred to simply as Skylab, since no firm plan existed to actually launch Skylab B. When the OART engineers completed their report, NASA planned to launch Skylab in late 1972; then, over a period of about nine months, the U.S. civilian space agency would launch to the station three crews in Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft atop Saturn IB rockets. The three-man crews would live and work on board Skylab for up to 56 days. While unoccupied - months might pass between one crew's departure and the next crew's arrival - Skylab would operate under ground control.

The OART engineers applied the term "interim" to their eight-and-half-year program because they intended that it should lead from the Skylab Program to a permanent Space Station through "evolutionary, gradual, and step-wise spacecraft systems development." Beginning about three years after the third and final Skylab crew returned to Earth, a new ISS would reach LEO every two and a half years. Each would be staffed continuously for from 360 to 420 days.

NASA planning was in flux at the time the OART team prepared its report, and would remain so even after President Richard Nixon approved development of a semi-reusable Space Shuttle in January 1972. The ISS Program would span most of a decade, and NASA had in its dozen-year history experienced program instability on the scale of months. These factors caused the OART engineers to avoid making assumptions about the nature of NASA's eventual permanent Space Station when they planned their ISS Program.

They went so far as to suggest, in fact, that the Station/Shuttle Program might be delayed or abandoned in favor of some new space goal before the ISS Program ran its course. For planning purposes, however, they adhered to a timeline which saw NASA's permanent Space Station become operational in late 1987, about six years after the date they gave for the Shuttle's maiden flight and a little more than three years after the last ISS crew returned to Earth.

In keeping with the $3.3-billion Fiscal Year 1972 NASA budget Nixon's Office and Management and Budget had sought from Congress in January 1971, the OART engineers optimistically assumed a steady NASA annual funding stream of $3.3 billion throughout the ISS Program. They estimated that each interim station would cost $2 billion, of which about $330 million would be spent on hardware development, $500 million on experiments, and $1.6 billion on spacecraft hardware. Their program would, they calculated, cost on average about $500 million per year, leaving $2.8 billion for other NASA projects, including Station/Shuttle development.

Interestingly, just 13 days after the OART team completed its report, the Soviet Union launched 20-ton Salyut 1, the world's first space station. The Soviets had during the 1969-1970 period made it known publicly - most prominently in an October 1969 speech by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev - that they intended to establish Earth-orbiting stations, so it is tempting to suppose that OART's study was at least in part motivated by Soviet statements.

In January 1970, in fact, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had completed a report, classified "SECRET," in which it suggested that the Soviets might construct a series of stations, each larger and more capable than the last, culminating, perhaps, in a $5-billion, 150-ton station between 1976 and 1980. The OART engineers did not, however, mention Soviet space plans in their report.

Interim Space Station design. Image credit: NASA
Like Skylab, the interim stations would reach LEO atop two-stage Saturn V rockets. The first station in the series, designated Interim Space Station-A (ISS-A), would be mainly outfitted for biotechnology research. It would operate in a a 245-nautical-mile (nm) orbit inclined 28.5° relative to Earth's equator. The OART team envisioned that ISS-A would be built from Skylab B. Like the other three stations in its series, ISS-A would lack an ATM.

Based on Skylab experience, the OART engineers calculated that ISS-A would at launch weigh at least 57.25 tons. To this would be added during development and assembly some or all of a 30-ton "growth allowance." This meant that ISS-A could weigh as much as 87.25 tons at launch.

NASA would launch the first three-man ISS-A crew - indeed, the first crew of the ISS Program - in a modified CSM within a day or two of the station's launch. No more than 16 hours after they reached LEO, the astronauts would pilot their spacecraft to a docking at one of ISS-A's two MDA docking ports.

The CSMs that delivered astronauts to the interim stations would differ significantly from their Apollo/Skylab predecessors. The most obvious change would be a new-design launch vehicle. The OART engineers considered using either the Saturn IB or the Titan-IIIM to launch ISS CSMs before they settled on a hybrid of the two.

Dubbed the SRM-S-IVB, the new rocket's first stage would comprise a cluster of three 10-foot-diameter, seven-segment Titan-IIIM solid-propellant rocket motors. The Titan-IIIM, never flown, had been meant to launch the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was cancelled in February 1969. As its name implies, the SRM-S-IVB launch vehicle's second stage would be a lightly modified Saturn S-IVB stage.

The SRM-S-IVB would be capable of launching a 28.7-ton payload from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, to a 245-nm orbit at 28.5° of inclination. For comparison, the Saturn IB could launch about 17.5 tons to the same orbit.

The ISS CSM, like its Apollo and Skylab predecessors, would be a two-part spacecraft. The smaller of the two parts was the conical Command Module (CM), a three-man crew capsule with a reentry heat shield on its broad aft end and an active probe docking unit on its nose. It would lower on parachutes to a splashdown at mission's end. The drum-shaped Service Module (SM) had a Service Propulsion System main engine bell protruding from its flat aft end.

The 6.3-ton ISS CM would closely resemble its Apollo and Skylab counterparts. The ISS SM, on the other hand, would undergo many changes. Because it would need to carry only enough propellants for Earth-orbital rendezvous and docking maneuvers plus an end-of-mission de-orbit burn, OART proposed to replace its propellant tanks, which were sized for a voyage to lunar orbit and back, with smaller tanks derived from those in the Apollo Lunar Module. Because the ISS CSM would fly independently for a total of less than a day, rechargeable batteries in the ISS SM would stand in for the Apollo SM's trio of fuel cells and tanks of fuel-cell reactants.

These changes would free up for conversion into cargo holds four of the six 175-cubic-foot bays clustered around the SM's cylindrical core bay. The four bays would transport a total of about 10 tons of supplies and equipment. Minus cargo, the ISS SM would weigh 8.6 tons.

The Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft would undergo considerable modification for the ISS Program. Image credit: NASA
Water, oxygen, and nitrogen stored in tanks in the ISS SM cargo bays would pass through umbilicals to nozzles in the ISS CM. The astronauts would attach hoses to the nozzles to transfer the water, oxygen, and nitrogen to storage tanks inside the ISS.

Solid cargo, on the other hand, could only be transferred from the ISS SM to the ISS by means of spacewalks. The OART team noted that the spacewalking astronauts would have to travel only about 15 feet to reach the ISS SM from the ISS AM.

The astronauts would hinge open panels in the ISS SM's sides and transfer cargo items to the open ISS AM hatch by attaching them to a clothesline-like "endless line" similar, perhaps, to that used on the moon to convey sample boxes and film from the base of the LM ladder to the LM ascent stage hatchway. Cargo items as large as 3.5 feet wide by 12 feet long could be removed from the ISS SM cargo bays and transferred through the Gemini-type hatch into the ISS AM, the OART team estimated.

Because it would be cast off to burn up in Earth's atmosphere after it performed the deorbit burn, the ISS SM could transport only "up" cargo. "Down" cargo - for example, biological samples and exposed film - would need to reach Earth within the relatively small volume of the ISS CM. The OART engineers estimated that, by removing all lunar mission equipment and supplies from the ISS CM, enough room would be freed up to enable it to convey to Earth all experiment cargo a three-man crew was likely to generate during a 90-day stint on board an ISS.

Converting the Apollo CSM into the ISS CSM would cost $100 million, the OART engineers estimated. This price-tag would not include the $80-million cost of developing the SRM-S-IVB launcher.

The Saturn S-IVB rocket stage would form the largest habitable component of Skylab and the ISS stations. Spacious with a Skylab or ISS-A crew of three, it would become increasingly crowded as the ISS Program evolved. Image credit: NASA
Astronauts would occupy ISS-A continuously for 360 days. Four three-man crews would live and work on board for 90 days each. During crew rotations, the replacement crew would dock at the vacant MDA port and six men would temporarily inhabit ISS-A.

OART made biotechnology ISS-A's main research emphasis because its crews would need to demonstrate that astronauts could remain fit and competent throughout a 90-day stay in space. In addition, it would seek to advance medicine on Earth through the study of the human organism in novel conditions. Most of the experiments performed in the ISS series would have a similar dual purpose: that is, to advance the cause of spaceflight and to provide tangible benefits to people on Earth.

ISS-A's mission, the OART team explained, would continue and expand the biomedical research program begun on board Skylab. In addition to copies of Skylab experiment apparatus, experiment equipment launched on board ISS-A would include a 1750-pound "Manned Onboard Centrifuge" - a centrifuge large enough to spin a human - and a 1300-pound Integrated Medical and Behavioral Laboratory Measurement System (IMBLMS). The IMBLMS would be linked to operational control systems throughout ISS-A to monitor crew performance. Centrifuge, IMBLMS, and "peripheral equipment" such as a bicycle ergometer, an experiment airlock, and a sound-proofed work area would together cost $72 million.

Astronauts on board the interim stations would work 10 hours per day, six days per week. At any one time, two-thirds of the crew on an ISS would be focused on its experiment programs, while the rest would maintain systems and perform housekeeping chores. For ISS-A, this meant that, during any particular working day, two of the three astronauts on board would focus on experiments while the third served as space handyman.

Forty-five man-hours per week would be spent on IMBLMS experiments and 55 man-hours per week on centrifuge experiments. Other experiments - for example, assessment of techniques for weightless maintenance of life-support equipment intended for more than a year of continuous use - would require a total of 30 man-hours per week.

The OART team estimated that Skylab's six solar arrays and the batteries it carried for storing electricity for the night part of its orbit would produce about six kilowatts of continuous power and have a total mass of 7.5 tons. The ATM arrays and OWS arrays would each produce about half of Skylab's electricity. The team assumed that ISS-A's arrays and batteries would weigh the same as Skylab's, but would produce between six and 10 kilowatts of continuous electricity.

In the absence of an ATM, the ISS-A solar array configuration would necessarily differ from that of Skylab. Of the stations in its series, ISS-A would most resemble Skylab. Beginning with ISS-B, larger crews and more complex experiment programs would drive evolutionary modifications to the ISS design, though all would retain the basic MDA-AM-OWS layout.

The AM would have undergone little modification from its first flight as part of Skylab to its last as part of ISS-D. Image credit: NASA
The first three-man ISS-B crew would arrive for a 90-day stint beginning in July 1978, one-and-a-half years after ISS-A's last crew returned to Earth. A second three-man crew would reach the station a month later. The resulting six-man crew would work together for 60 days, then the first three-man crew would return to Earth. A third three-man crew would arrive almost immediately to replace them. Thirty days later, the second ISS-B crew would return to Earth and a fourth crew would replace them. The seventh three-man ISS-B crew would return to Earth in July 1979 and not be replaced, and the eighth and last three-man crew would splash down a month later, about 390 days after ISS-B reached LEO.

ISS-B's main mission would be to perform experimental Earth surveys, which the OART team placed into five categories. These were: agriculture/forestry/geography; geology/mineralogy; hydrology/water resources; oceanography; and meteorology. The station would revolve around the Earth in an orbit inclined 50° relative to the equator, so that it would pass over the "most populace [sic] and agriculturally productive areas of the Earth."

ISS-B astronauts would spend 90 man-hours per week testing, calibrating, and modifying a $40-million, 4700-pound suite of 19 experiment sensors covering the spectrum from ultraviolet through visible light to infrared and microwave. They would also continue biotechnology experiments; for example, the OART team allotted 70 man-hours per week to continuation of the IMBLMS program begun on board ISS-A.

ISS-B solar arrays and batteries would produce between seven and 15 kilowatts of continuous electricity for experiments and station operations. As with ISS-A, the OART engineers did not specify ISS-B's solar array configuration, though they implied that it would have a collecting area larger than the ISS-A configuration.

The MDA flown as part of Skylab was more more cluttered than it appears in this NASA cutaway. Skylab crews did not feel comfortable within the MDA because it lacked an obvious "up-down" orientation; no doubt the ISS MDAs would be modified to take this into account. EREP = Earth Resources Experiment Package. ATM = Apollo Telescope Mount
ISS-C, scheduled for launch in January 1981, and ISS-D, scheduled for launch on NASA's last Saturn V rocket in July 1983, would have many similarities. Each would have a crew complement of nine, making NASA's reliance on the three-man ISS CSM for crew rotation and resupply somewhat problematic. Surprisingly, though the OART engineers acknowledged that, based on their own NASA flight schedule, the reusable Space Shuttle would begin flights in late 1981, they elected (for the sake of "simplicity") not to use it for ISS-C and ISS-D crew rotation and resupply.

ISS CSM launches in January, February, and March 1981 would boost ISS-C's population to nine. Only a month after its third crew arrived, its first crew would complete its 90-day stint on board the station and would return to Earth. NASA would immediately launch a fourth crew to replace them.

ISS-C and ISS-D would each receive 12 three-man crews. Each station would support nine men for 360 of the 420 days it was occupied. Flights to ISS-C and ISS-D would bring to 36 the total number of ISS CSMs and SRM-S-IVB boosters required for the program.

ISS-C astronauts would "evaluate in terms of direct Earth economic benefits the use of the space environment for materials processing and manufacture." Taking advantage of weightlessness and nearly pure vacuum, the astronauts would devote 95 man-hours per week to manufacturing large crystals, exotic composite materials, and biological compounds impossible (or at least very difficult) to create under terrestrial conditions. Manufactured materials and compounds would splash down with returning astronauts as "down" cargo in the ISS-C CMs.

The Saturn V S-IC second stage would have served as a counterweight for the ISS-C artificial-gravity experiment. Image credit: NASA
ISS-C would also see a 45-day artificial-gravity experiment that would preempt the space exploitation experiments. The OART engineers provided few details of the experiment, though they did explain that the spent S-II second stage of the Saturn V that launched ISS-C into orbit would serve as an artificial-gravity counterweight. Probably cables would have linked the interim station and the spent stage; as the cables were slowly reeled out, thrusters on ISS-C would have fired to spin the assemblage end-over-end and keep the cables under tension. As the cables reached maximum extension, thrusters would carefully trim the spin rate to ensure the desired acceleration - which the crew would feel as gravity - on board the ISS-C station.

The ISS-C/ISS-D solar array configuration would be identical to that of ISS-B; technological advancements would, however, enable their power systems to provide no less than 15 kilowatts of continuous electricity. The ISS-C and ISS-D astronauts would also evaluate Isotope Brayton nuclear power units for use on NASA's permanent Space Station.

The Isotope Brayton units would not reach space attached to ISS-C and ISS-D; rather, they would be launched separately, possibly atop Titan rockets. The OART engineers did not describe how they would rendezvous and dock with ISS-C and ISS-D. The five-ton ISS-C Isotope Brayton unit would generate six kilowatts of electricity; the more advanced six-and-a-half-ton ISS-D unit would produce 15 kilowatts, doubling that station's electrical supply.

Biotechnology experiments would continue during the ISS-C and ISS-D missions. The ISS-C biotechnology program would, of course, include assessment of the effects of spin-induced artificial gravity. With their nine-person crews, the third and fourth stations of the ISS program would be more crowded than their predecessors, offering an opportunity for study of complex human interactions aboard spacecraft.

ISS-D would include three free-flying astronomy modules in addition to asatronomy instruments on the station. How the free-flyers would reach LEO was not made clear. The $50-million Cosmic Ray Physics Laboratory would weigh in at a whopping 26,700 pounds. The $125-million, 6195-pound Solar Astronomy Module would include "larger versions" of the solar astronomy instruments in the Skylab ATM. The $130-million, 6000-pound Stellar Astronomy Module would carry a telescope with a three-meter mirror. For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope primary mirror is 2.4 meters across. Astronauts would regularly collect exposed film from the free-flying modules, though how they would reach them was not explained.

The OART engineers estimated that, by the time the last ISS-D crew returned to Earth, NASA would have accrued the equivalent of more than two years of permanent Space Station biomedical data and operations experience from its four interim stations. This would, they concluded, constitute the ISS Program's chief benefit to U.S. spaceflight; specifically, it would

enable the [permanent] Space Station to start its effective experimental usefulness almost at initial manning. . . [because] most of the human and operational uncertainties of long duration spaceflight would have been removed by. . .results [from the] four earlier interim space station flights. 

Study of an Evolutionary Interim Earth Orbit Program, Memorandum Report MS-1, J. Anderson, L. Alton, R. Arno, J. Deerwester, L. Edsinger, K. Sinclair, W. Tindle, and R. Wood, Advanced Concepts and Missions Division, Office of Advanced Research and Technology, NASA Headquarters, 6 April 1971

"Intelligence Report: Aims and Costs of the Soviet Space Station Program," SR IR 70-1-S, Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, January 1970

More Information

An Alternate Station Shuttle Evolution: The Spirit of '76 (1970)

Evolution vs. Revolution: The 1970s Battle for NASA's Future 

Skylab-Salyut Space Laboratory (1972)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One


  1. In fact, the HST mirror is 2.4 m diameter, not 1 m.

  2. My apologies! I'm glad you caught that. I really have to stop relying on my memory for numbers. Seems like when I do, I nearly always include at least one error.

    I've been reading about a 1970s moon base scheme - they spend a lot of time describing their one-meter telescope. I probably got the one-meter diameter for HST from there.

    Again, thanks for the correction -


  3. Hello,
    This is a fascinating blueprint for a lost future - one without the space shuttle. Skylab well into 1987, just as Salyuts did.
    I have adapted this blog entry for my space TL (and mentionned it was YOUR work with YOUR name) you can read it here

    Nota Bene: this is adapted from David Portree WIRED blog entry here

    1. The Shuttle and the Station it was meant to serve would still have flown - the Interim Stations would have helped them to succeed and kept Americans in space without a protracted gap. Oddly enough, even though we didn't fly the ISS stations, Shuttle flew in the same year as it would have flown if we had flown the ISS stations (1981).

      Glad you mention the WIRED thing - I'm rescuing posts from my old WIRED blog Beyond Apollo. Their new format shrinks the images to the point that they are useless.

      I don't know if "adapted" is the right word - I've not altered them for a new format (video or print) or anything like that. All posts undergo periodic review, correction, and augmentation; in a few cases I've merged two or more posts into one. Some of the WIRED Beyond Apollo posts originated as articles on my old Romance to Reality website in the 1990s. I see that as a bonus of writing online.

      One thing about history is it remains relevant if one monitors and edits what one writes; hence we have history books first written in the 1950s still in print on their 10th or 11th edition. Compare their contents, and they are often quite different, though the original topic is still there.

      My post on Lunar Flying Vehicles, for example, started as one Romance to Reality article on the NAR design; then I wrote a second post for Beyond Apollo on several Bell designs based on a journal article; then I rewrote the Bell post based on primary source documents; then I combined the Bell and NAR posts into one post. The current iteration is superior to any of the earlier iterations, in my view.


  4. Interesting reading.

    I find myself wondering if ISS-B's main mission was completely superfluous; such surveys could be (and were at the time, and still are today) carried out quite effectively by (relatively) low-cost automated satellites.

  5. I think one can say that today, though one might also argue that astronauts could capture short-lived phenomena. I don't think anyone would advocate putting astronauts on a solar obs satellite today, but the Skylab ATM sensors captured things no one had seen up to that time because humans operated them in real-time. Perhaps in our changing world an astronaut at the Earth survey controls could still capture things that would be missed otherwise.

    One justification for flying instruments that might have been automated was that the astronauts could modify the experiment apparatus and repair touchy new-design experiments. Skylab astronauts repaired the ATM a couple of times through spacewalks.

    There's a political side to this, too - the Skylab Earth resource experiments would likely not have found a carrier had it not been for the availability of Skylab and the relatively deep pockets of human spaceflight. Same with the ATM sensors.

    So, what you say is correct, but probably wasn't quite as correct in the planned time period of ISS-B operations.


  6. An article about lunar telescopes would be interesting, like the ISE, ZVEZDA, LAVOCHKIN and KHRUNITSEV plans to deploy telescopes to the Moon using the ISELA 600 and 1500 vehicles, which never came to fruition.

  7. I don't read Russian, except in bits and pieces. I'd like to write about plans written and published in languages other than English, but the only one I can read well enough is Spanish. A great language, but not a big one for space planning. There's also the challenge of access to primary documents, which is what I use as the "core" for almost all my posts. Even if I could read them, I'd find it difficult to locate documents in Russian.

    That said, I do have some Russian docs in English translation from Shuttle-Mir and a few other programs, including a piloted Mars plan. I'll add them to the list of posts to be written.



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