The 1991 Plan to Turn Space Shuttle Columbia Into a Low-Cost Space Station

This NASA artwork from 1972 portrays the sheer volume of the Skylab Orbital Workshop, the first U.S. space station.
The first U.S. space station was Skylab, which NASA carefully dubbed an "Orbital Workshop" in order to distinguish it from the "real" space station it hoped to launch into low-Earth orbit by the mid-1970s. Skylab — a converted Saturn S-IVB rocket stage with a pressurized volume of more than 12,500 cubic feet — was launched on the last Saturn V heavy-lift rocket to fly. Three three-man crews lived and worked on board the 22-foot-diameter single-launch station for a total of 171 days between 26 May 1973 and 8 February 1974.

Nearly three years earlier, budget cuts had halted Saturn V production, so NASA had been forced to abandon plans for a single-launch, 33-foot-diameter core station. The Space Shuttle, originally intended as a cost-saving fully reusable space station crew and cargo transport, was subsequently tapped to serve also as the sole launch vehicle for a multi-modular space station built up over the course of many flights. This meant that the Shuttle Orbiter payload bay dimensions (15 feet in diameter by 60 feet long) and maximum payload mass (in theory, up to 32.5 tons) would dictate the size and mass of station modules and other components.

NASA's single-launch core station (left) would throughout its life receive independently maneuverable add-on modules delivered by fully reusable Shuttle Orbiters. This 1970 illustration depicts one such module outfitted to transport astronauts and cargo from the Shuttle payload bay to the core station main docking port and back. The modules would also be outfitted as special-purpose labs that would link up with round ports scattered over the station's hull. Image credit: McDonnell Douglas.
Launching the space station in the Shuttle payload bay meant also that NASA could not begin to assemble it until after Space Shuttle development and flight testing were completed. When the last crew left Skylab, the Shuttle's orbital maiden flight was officially set for early 1978. Operational flights were to start by 1980. Some hoped that an early Shuttle flight might boost Skylab to a higher orbit, postponing its eventual reentry and perhaps permitting it to be outfitted as a temporary interim space station in the early 1980s.

In the event, the first mission of the partially reusable Shuttle, STS-1, did not lift off until 12 April 1981, nearly two years after Skylab reentered and broke up over Australia (11 July 1979). The Orbiter Columbia remained aloft for two days before gliding to a landing on the dry lake-bed at Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB), California.

By then, engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center had been at work for more than two years on a design for a Shuttle-launched station they dubbed the Space Operations Center (SOC). The SOC included a laboratory for experiments in microgravity, but was conceived mainly as a construction site for large structures, a servicing center for satellites, and a home port for a small fleet of space tugs. It was intended, in fact, to serve as a space shipyard, where would be assembled spacecraft for voyages beyond low-Earth orbit and large space structures such as Solar Power Satellites.

The 1982 Space Operations Center design became the point of departure for NASA station studies after the creation of the Space Station Task Force. Visible is a skeletal "false Shuttle payload bay" for satellite servicing and a hexagonal space tug hangar. Image credit: NASA.
On 20 May 1982, a little more than a year after STS-1 and a little more than a month before STS-4 (27 June-4 July 1982), NASA Administrator James Beggs established the NASA-wide Space Station Task Force. President Ronald Reagan was on hand at EAFB Runway 22 that U.S. Independence Day to welcome home the STS-4 crew. Some within NASA hoped that he would use the occasion to declare his support for a permanent Earth-orbiting space station, "the next logical step" after the Shuttle. Instead, Reagan declared that STS-4 was the final Shuttle test flight. With its next flight, STS-5, the Space Shuttle would be considered operational.

Reagan withheld his support for a further 18 months, until the beginning of the 1984 election year, when endorsing a space station — which was bound to create thousands of jobs — could provide maximum political advantage. During his 25 January 1984 State of the Union Address, he echoed President John F. Kennedy's May 1961 "Urgent National Needs" speech by calling on the U.S. civilian space agency "to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade." Reagan made mention only of the station's role as a laboratory. The station would, he said, "permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications and in metals and life-saving medicines that can only be manufactured in space."

The Reagan White House disdained a space shipyard for two reasons. First, it was a relatively complicated design that could not be built for $8 billion spent over 10 years, the maximum price Administration budget watchdogs were willing to pay for a space station. The second reason was related to the first: a shipyard in space implied that things would be built there, and that in turn implied a commitment to new expenditures in the future.

Despite this clear message, NASA did not abandon its plans for a shipyard in orbit. In August 1984, the space agency released a "reference configuration" intended to guide aerospace companies bidding on Space Station Program contracts. Called the "Power Tower," it included a 400-foot-long single main truss where SOC-type space construction equipment might eventually be mounted. In NASA artwork depicting the station, featureless boxes stood in for unspecified large user payloads and hoped-for shipyard elements.

The August 1984 Power Tower station configuration was the Space Operations Center with trusses added. The small spacecraft with twin solar arrays at upper right is a self-propelled free-flyer bearing experiments likely to be interfered with by other station activities (for example, astronaut movement). Image credit: NASA.
NASA envisioned that spacewalking astronauts would bolt together the Power Tower truss in orbit piece by piece. During Shuttle mission STS-61B (26 November-3 December 1985), in fact, spacewalkers successfully tested two truss-assembly methods in the payload bay of the Orbiter Atlantis.

From the Power Tower evolved the "Dual Keel" in late 1985. In May 1986, NASA released its Space Station "Baseline Configuration," a Dual-Keel station measuring 503 feet wide and 361 feet tall. The new design included about twice as many truss elements as the Power Tower, providing ample room for both space-facing and Earth-facing user payloads and eventual addition of space construction facilities. Assembly in orbit was to begin in 1992 and to be completed by Reagan's 1994 deadline.

The Baseline Configuration was dead on arrival, however, because of the 28 January 1986 loss of the Shuttle Orbiter Challenger and its seven-member crew. By March 1986, NASA and its contractors had begun to scale back the station. At first it shrank but retained its Dual-Keel shape. After that, in the "revised baseline configuration" of 1987, it lost its keel trusses, becoming only a single truss with solar arrays at either end and laboratory and habitat modules at its center. NASA made sure, however, that the design included "hooks" and "scars" that would enable eventual expansion to the Dual-Keel design.

NASA's ambitious Dual-Keel Baseline Configuration of May 1986 was dead on arrival. Image credit: NASA.
President Reagan christened the Space Station Freedom in 1988; a gesture which for some rang hollow (they had hoped he might support a moon and Mars program that would give Freedom a long-term direction). The following year, with the Station expected to be over-budget, overweight, under-powered, and too demanding to build, NASA entirely abandoned the Dual Keel configuration. At the same time, planners proposed that NASA make plans to build an advanced "transportation node" space station in the early 21st century. This proposed separation of functions was an acknowledgment that the jolts and vibrations one could expect on board an orbital shipyard would wreak havoc on microgravity laboratory experiments.

The year 1990 saw new problems. Persistent hydrogen fuel leaks grounded the three-orbiter Shuttle fleet for nearly half the year, renewing doubts about the Shuttle's ability to reliably launch, assemble, resupply, and staff Freedom. Against this background, news emerged of a dispute within NASA over estimates of the number of spacewalks required to build and maintain the Space Station. The row triggered congressional hearings in May 1990.

In a report released on 20 July 1990, former astronaut and spacewalker William Fisher and JSC robotics engineer Charles Price, co-chairs of the Space Station Freedom External Maintenance Task Team, declared that Freedom would need four two-man spacewalks per week during its assembly and 6,000 hours of maintenance spacewalks per year after its completion. This amounted to 75% more spacewalks than the official NASA estimate, which was already considered excessive. Fisher called the spacewalk requirement "the greatest challenge facing the Space Station."

In November 1990, with new budget cuts in the offing, NASA began yet another Freedom redesign. At about the same time, Space Industries Incorporated (SII), a small engineering firm for which Maxime Faget, co-designer of the Mercury capsule, worked as Technical Advisor, began to examine a radical new approach to solving Freedom's persistent problems. SII performed its Orbiter-Derived Station (ODS) study on contract to Rockwell International, prime contractor for the Shuttle Orbiter.

SII noted that the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology wanted a "permanently manned Space Station, that meets our International Agreements, retains a capability for evolution, and has minimum annual and aggregate cost." At the same time, it explained, scientists and engineers of the space technology development and microgravity and life sciences research communities wanted NASA to provide an orbiting laboratory "without spending the entire available budget on the laboratory rather than on the experiments."

To satisfy these needs, SII proposed to draw upon Space Shuttle design heritage and operational experience. Specifically, the company proposed that NASA launch in 1996 an unmanned "stripped-down" Orbiter — one without wings, tail, landing gear, body flap, forward reaction control thrusters, and reentry thermal protection — to serve as Freedom's largest single element.

Orbiter Derived Station in Man Tended Configuration after Mission Build-1. Image credit: SII/NASA.
Removing systems with a total mass of 45,600 pounds would boost the Orbiter's payload capacity to 81,930 pounds, permitting it to transport a 56.5-foot-long pressurized module permanently mounted in its payload bay and four pairs of rolled-up 120-foot-long solar arrays under streamlined housings along its sides. The pressurized module would include a single docking port on top and a short tunnel linking it to the stripped-down Orbiter's two-deck crew compartment. In effect, SII's ODS launch approach would briefly restore the heavy-lift capability lost when the U.S. abandoned the Saturn V rocket.

What follows is a synthesis of information from two SII documents concerning the ODS. The first, a set of presentation slides, is not dated, though individual slides in the presentation carry July 1991 dates. The second document is SII's final report to Rockwell International dated September 1991. When the documents differ in significant ways, this is noted.

Copying NASA parlance, SII referred to the launch of the stripped-down Orbiter as Mission Build-1 (MB-1). Upon achieving a 220-nautical-mile-high orbit inclined 28.5° relative to Earth's equator, the ODS would turn its payload bay doors toward Earth, open them to expose the pressurized module and door-mounted radiators, and unroll its solar arrays to generate up to 120 kilowatts of electricity. At that point, the ODS would achieve Man-Tended Configuration (MTC). MTC meant that the station could be staffed while a Shuttle Orbiter was docked with it. According to SII, NASA's Freedom would not achieve MTC until MB-6, and its solar arrays would not generate 120 kilowatts of electrical power until MB-10.

Orbiter Derived Station (top) and Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System propulsion pod design differences. Image credit: SII/NASA.
During a normal Space Shuttle mission, the twin 6,000-pound-thrust Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines would ignite twice to complete orbital insertion after the Orbiter's three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) shut down and and its External Tank separated. The OMS-1 burn would put the Orbiter into an elliptical orbit; then, at apogee (the high point of its orbit about the Earth), the OMS-2 burn would raise its perigee (the low point in its Earth orbit) to make its orbit circular. Subsequently, the OMS engines would be used to perform major maneuvers and would slow the Orbiter at the end of its mission so that it would reenter the atmosphere. The OMS engines would burn hypergolic (ignite-on-contact) hydrazine/nitric acid propellants.

SII proposed changes to the stripped-down Orbiter's OMS pods to increase reliability and enable long-duration use. A hydrazine monopropellant system would replace the baseline Orbiter bi-propellant system. The SSMEs would insert the stripped-down Orbiter directly into its initial elliptical orbit, then two sets of four 500-pound-thrust OMS engines — one set per OMS pod — would each draw on a pair of propellant tanks to perform the OMS-2 orbit-circularization burn at apogee. The roughly 13,000 pounds of propellant remaining after the OMS-2 burn would be sufficient to resist atmospheric drag and supply OMS pod attitude-control thrusters for two years.

SII suggested that the OMS tanks be refilled in orbit after they exhausted their initial load of hydrazine, but provided no details as to how this might be accomplished. Alternately, the company suggested, a new propulsion module might be docked with the ODS after the modified OMS pods ran out of propellant.

With MB-1 complete, SII's ODS would provide 11,000 cubic feet of pressurized volume containing 58 standardized payload racks. NASA’s Freedom, by comparison, would have no pressurized volume at all until the addition of the U.S. Lab during MB-6, and would not exceed 10,000 cubic feet of pressurized volume until MB-13. The U.S. Hab and Lab modules would together hold only 48 racks.

In SII's July 1991 ODS design, the large module launched in the stripped-down Orbiter payload bay on MB-1 included only Hab module functions, and MB-2 in 1997 would see a piloted Shuttle Orbiter deliver the U.S. Lab module. In its September 1991 final report, SII combined Lab and Hab in the stripped-down Orbiter payload bay and substituted a 47.5-foot-long "core module" for the Lab on MB-2. The cylindrical core would include eight docking ports on its sides and one at either end.

One of the core module end ports would be docked permanently with the port on the Hab/Lab module. Visiting Shuttle Orbiters would dock with the Earth-facing port at the core module's other end. Addition of the core module would increase ODS pressurized volume to 15,000 cubic feet. NASA's Freedom station would not exceed 15,000 cubic feet of volume until MB-16.

SII envisioned that ODS assembly flights would be interspersed with utilization flights beginning immediately after MB-1. The first ODS utilization mission would occur in 1996, and three would take place in 1997.

In addition to permitting early research on board the ODS, some utilization flights after MB-2 would deliver supplies and equipment in a drum-shaped Logistics/Life Support Module (LLSM). Astronauts would dock the LLSM to a core module side port using the visiting Orbiter's Canada-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS). Spent LLSMs would be returned to Earth for refurbishment and reuse. SII placed the ODS toilet and shower in the LLSM, arguing that servicing waste and water systems on the ground would be preferable to doing so in orbit.

SII noted that its Station would need very few assembly and maintenance spacewalks. It would, nevertheless, include a modified Shuttle Orbiter airlock attached to one of its core module side ports. The airlock would reach the ODS during an unspecified utilization flight after MB-2. Because ODS assembly would be relatively simple and assembly spacewalks minimal, SII assumed that the Station could do without its own Canada-built RMS. The company did not address how deletion of the Station RMS would affect U.S.-Canada relations.

The second assembly mission of 1997, MB-3, would see arrival of an Orbiter bearing in its payload bay an eight-man Assured Crew Return Vehicle (ACRV), a space station lifeboat. With the docking of the ACRV at a core module side port, the ODS could be staffed by eight astronauts with no Orbiter present. NASA called the ability to maintain a full crew with no Orbiter present "Permanent Manned Configuration" (PMC). NASA's Freedom Station would not achieve PMC until MB-16.

Orbiter Derived Station in Assembly Complete configuration after Mission Build-6 in late 1998. The image displays an RMS robot arm, though SII stated that the stripped-down Orbiter would not carry one. Image credit: SII/NASA.
The year 1998 would see three assembly flights, all international in character. In his January 1984 State of the Union speech, Reagan had invited U.S. allies to lend a hand in building NASA's space station in exchange for opportunities to reap its rewards. In addition to Canada, Japan and Europe had answered the call.

MB-4 would see an Orbiter deliver the pressurized part of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). Astronauts would use the Orbiter's RMS to dock it to a core module side port. During MB-5, astronauts would use the visiting Orbiter RMS to add the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory module. With that, the SII's ODS would achieve its maximum pressurized volume: 24,000 cubic feet, or about 8,000 cubic feet more than planned for NASA's Freedom Station. MB-6 would add Logistics and unpressurized Exposure components to complete the JEM.

SII recommended that the core module's Earth-facing port be designed to rotate so that visiting Orbiters could optimally position themselves for assembly missions. During MB-5, for example, the visiting Orbiter's nose would face in the ODS's direction of flight so that its RMS could place the Columbus module at its designated core module side port. During MB-4 and MB-6, it would face in the opposite direction so that JEM components could be added.

MB-6, which would take place near the end of 1998, would mark the end of ODS assembly. By then, SII's station would have hosted seven utilization flights. For comparison, NASA's Freedom Space Station would host no utilization flights until 1998, when three would take place. Freedom would not reach "Assembly Complete" until 2000.

SII proposed ways that the baseline ODS might be upgraded. The company noted that, beginning with MB-10, NASA's Freedom would provide experimenters with more electricity (180 kilowatts) than would the ODS. If this power level were judged to be necessary for ODS operations, then a 60-kilowatt "power kit" could be added during a utilization flight. The company suggested that the kit's rolled solar arrays be attached to a special port installed in the stripped-down Orbiter's nose behind a streamlined faring.

The ODS included no provision for space-facing experiments; all of its modules were expected to be mounted on its Earth-facing payload bay side. This reflected the science and technology community's desire for a microgravity lab and the fact that highly capable automated space-facing satellites (for example, the Hubble Space Telescope) were available. If, however, space-facing experiments were desired on board the ODS, then it could be launched with a docking port on the Orbiter's space-facing belly. A tunnel through the ODS payload bay floor would link the port to the Hab/Lab module.

Probably the company's most controversial proposal was to accelerate ODS assembly by stripping down Columbia, NASA's oldest Orbiter. SII noted that Columbia was the heaviest Orbiter, so had the least payload capacity. It assumed that NASA would want to replace Columbia with a new, less heavy Orbiter, thus increasing the Shuttle fleet's overall lift capacity. SII called this "disposing of the worst and and replacing it with the best." Some components stripped from Columbia could, it suggested, be reused in the new Orbiter to save money.

By the time SII submitted its final report, NASA's latest Freedom configuration had been public for three months. The new design included truss segments launched pre-assembled, smaller U.S. modules, and other changes meant to reduce the number of spacewalks and assembly flights required to build and maintain it. The station would, however, lose yet more capability (notably in the area of electrical power, which was reduced to about 60 kilowatts at PMC). The April 1991 redesign set the stage for Freedom's near-cancellation in June 1993 (it survived by a single vote in the U.S. House of Representatives) and, beginning later that year, its revival as the International Space Station.

This rendition of Space Station Freedom in its 1991 configuration contains several interesting features. The overall station design is obscured by shadows, denoting the uncertainty surrounding the station's future form. Only the international pressurized modules — the JEM and Columbus labs — are visible. Beginning with the the May 1986 Dual Keel, these modules changed very little in NASA artwork because the International Partners insisted that the U.S. adhere to its agreements. The U.S. modules, in the meantime, decreased in number and shrank to a fraction of their planned former size. A Shuttle Orbiter is displayed, but not attached to Freedom; placing it too close to the station would show plainly the 1991 station's small size relative to earlier designs. The moon and Mars are visible above Freedom; in 1991, NASA still paid lip-service to carrying out President George H. W. Bush's abortive Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which aimed to launch humans to those worlds. Freedom was meant to play a role in furthering SEI's goals, though the precise nature of that role was not clear. Image credit: NASA.

The Space Shuttle at Work, NASA SP-432/EP-156, H. Allaway, NASA, 1979, pp. 64-72.

Aboard the Space Shuttle, NASA EP-169, F. Steinberg, NASA, 1980.

Space Station, NASA EP-211, D. Anderton, NASA, no date (1984).

Space Station: The Next Logical Step, NASA EP-213, W. Froehlich, NASA, no date (1985).

Space Station: Leadership for the Future, NASA PAM-509, F. Martin & T. Finn, NASA, August 1987.

Space Station: A Step Into the Future, NASA PAM-510, A. Stofan, NASA, November 1987.

Space Station Freedom Reference Guide, Boeing, 1988.

Space Station Freedom: A Foothold on the Future, NASA NP-107, L. David, NASA, October 1988.

"Freedom Spacewalks 'unacceptable': NASA," Flight International, 1-7 August 1990, p. 18.

"Freedom failure threatens NASA's future," T. Furniss, Flight International, 29 May-4 June 1991, p. 34.

"Operation Scale-Down," T. Furniss, Flight International, 29 May-4 June 1991, pp. 76-78.

Shuttle Derived Space Station Freedom, Space Industries International, Inc./Rockwell International Space Systems Division, presentation materials, n.d. (July 1991).

Expanded Orbiter Missions Final Report: Orbiter Derived Space Station Freedom Concept, prepared by Space Industries, Inc. (SII), Webster, Texas, for Rockwell International, Inc., Downey, California, September 1991.

"House Retains Space Station in a Close Vote," C. Krauss, International New York Times, 24 June 1993 ( - accessed 16 October 2015).

International Space Station, Boeing, May 1994.

More Information

McDonnell Douglas Phase B Space Station (1970)

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)

Skylab-Salyut Space Laboratory (1972)

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

NASA's 1992 Plan to Land Soyuz Space Station Lifeboats in Australia


  1. Thanks for this post David. It looks like the second illustration has changed since Saturday?
    I wonder why did the Reagan administration support the "research" station rather than the "orbital shipyard" station? Retrospectively, the second option looks so much more useful...

  2. Hi, Simon:

    The new image shows the McDonnell Douglas Phase B station - I wrote about it here: All the other images are related to specific studies (though I haven't written about all of them), so I felt that one should be, too.

    The Reagan White House balked at the "shipyard" station because it was a big foot in the door to lots of expensive things. The SOC had become linked to things like Solar Power Satellites, which were expected to be very costly. A shipyard station also implies lots of auxiliary vehicles, like tugs, which would add to cost.

    One mustn't assume that space decisions are made for space reasons. Station is a case in point. It seemed to the politicos that it had no purpose beyond job creation until the Russians became involved - then its purpose was geopolitical.


  3. Simon -

    I modified the post to make the lab vs shipyard issue more clear. Thanks for pointing out this ambiguity!


  4. I had never heard of this proposal to use a stripped down orbiter as the basis for the space station. This is why I love reading your articles about the nuggets of space history from the archives. Just when I think I have heard about every aspect of human spaceflight history, I keep discovering something new.

  5. Hi David
    Massive fan of your articles, especially this one. I find the concept fascinating, but I wasn't able to find the sources themselves. Can you direct me to them?

    1. A:

      I assume you mean the SII/Rockwell documents. I expect that they would tough to find - I got them from the library of the NASA JSC Exploration Program Office in the early 1990s. That library ended up as part of the JSC Tech Library in the mid-1990s; I've no idea what happened to it after that. I'm not aware that anything on this design was published in any publicly available journals or presented at any conferences (might have been, but I can't say).

      That's often the case with conceptual designs. Some designs don't get much circulation for a variety of reasons. This one was controversial; NASA would really have hated to see this scheme approved. The concept was floated internally as NASA JSC's option during the 1993 station redesign process and got shot down right quick.


    2. Dear David,

      Thank you for posting the primary sources, this article is incredible. I can't get over to Texas right now (nor anyone for that matter). Therefore if these documents are digitized would you be willing to share them? I've checked NTRS and come up empty. I would love to read about the SII and Rockwells plans in more detail.

      -Very Respectfully, E

      P.S. This article has helped me contextualize a lot of the NTRS documents on 1980s station design. Thanks again.

    3. Elliot:

      My files are all paper. I can understand your curiosity. I've been known to share paper copies of documents of my files with my Patreon supporters and with people who share useful documents with me. Similarly, I've helped people assess the estates of aerospace people in exchange for documents or copies of documents from the estate holdings. Perhaps we can work out some arrangement.


  6. David: Decided to toss a few AHdotCom links your way as relevant :)

    Introducing "Boldly Going: A History of an American Space Station"
    aka: Space Station Enterprise
    enjoy :)


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