No other company in Europe can offer such a high level of competence in the field of human spaceflight
Alan Shepard was the first American to fly into space; he lifted off on 5 May 1961, just three weeks after Yuri Gagarin. But it would be almost 17 years before citizens of other nationalities would be able to gaze down on Earth through the porthole of a space capsule.
First, the Soviet Union began to invite friendly nations to participate in its space missions as part of its Intercosmos programme. Shortly after, the US Space Shuttle also started to offer shared flight opportunities – not only for people, but also for technical equipment.
Left: Alan B. Shepard became the first US astronaut when he made a 15-minute suborbital flight on 5 May 1961. © NASA
Thus it was that on 28 November 1983, when German astronaut Ulf Merbold became the first non-American to take part in a NASA mission, hardware from Bremen was also on board the Space Shuttle Columbia. Spacelab, which was built in the assembly halls of Airbus Defence and Space’s predecessor ERNO GmbH, is a potent icon that marked the beginning of European manned spaceflight. It was designed specifically for use with the Space Shuttle and was integrated into its cargo bay. The ERNO-led consortium had been awarded the construction contract in June 1974, primarily because the modular design of its research laboratory was so persuasive a proposition.
Spacelab consisted of four elements that could be combined in different ways to produce a total of eight flight configurations. The tunnel, which came in two sizes, allowed the astronauts to access the cylindrical pressurised module, which likewise came in two sizes, from the Shuttle. There were also pallets for experiments that were to be placed directly in space. And finally, the Instrument Pointing System (IPS) ensured that all telescopes, radars and experimental equipment for which specific alignment was important were always kept in precisely the right direction, with two arc-second accuracy.
Right: Spacelab marked the beginning of European manned spaceflight. © NASA
Spacelab had completed over 20 missions by the time its two pressurised modules were decommissioned in April/May 1998. Its two pallets, by contrast, are still in service today, and are used primarily for transporting equipment and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).
Spacelab’s successor – the European Columbus laboratory – has been orbiting Earth attached to the ISS since 11 February 2008. Because it, too, had to fit inside the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, it is of similar size and shape to its predecessor’s large pressurised module. The cylindrical Columbus module is 6.87 metres long and 4.48 metres in diameter. Forty-one European companies were involved in manufacturing its various subsystems, which were eventually integrated into a complete and fully operational laboratory at Airbus Defence and Space’s Bremen site, in Germany.
Columbus affords sufficient space for up to three people to conduct scientific experiments. To this end, the laboratory is fitted out with 10 specially equipped International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs). The system was originally developed for Spacelab, in order to allow rapid changeover of experiments and enable the lab to be readied for a new Shuttle flight within 190 hours. Columbus, however, is not subject to such time constraints. Its experiments, which cover a very wide range of disciplines (biology, medicine and materials science, to name but a few), are no longer restricted to the maximum flight duration of the Space Shuttle (17 days), but can continue over a period of several months. Nor do they have to be constantly monitored by astronauts: many of the experiments can be run from the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich.
left: In the Columbus space laboratory, astronaut-scientists can carry out experiments across a variety of disciplines and experiments in applied technology projects that would not possible in Earth’s gravity. © NASA
Europe has meanwhile provided an alternative to the Space Shuttle for transporting new experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). In March 2008, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) developed and built by Airbus Defence and Space passed its maiden flight with flying colours. This space freighter, which is launched on board an Ariane 5 rocket, can carry a payload of up to 7.5 tonnes into low Earth orbit. What makes it really special is that it is able to approach and dock entirely autonomously with the space station. When the first ATV, dubbed ‘Jules Verne’, performed its docking manoeuvre, the final deviation from its target was a mere 1.7 centimetres – a perfect textbook result for European space industry’s first such mission. Wolfgang Paetsch, ATV Programme Manager at Airbus Defence and Space, is proud to state that the ATV is the “most sophisticated space vehicle ever designed and built in Europe”. Not only does the ATV carry equipment and supplies to the ISS, once docked it also becomes an integral part of the station for up to six months, during which time it uses its own engines to adjust the station’s orbital altitude, which has to be boosted regularly due to the effects of residual atmospheric drag. Occasionally it is also required to carry out evasive manoeuvres to avoid collisions with space debris. At the end of its mission, it is filled with waste from the ISS and allowed to burn up during a controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Right: Lifeline between ISS and Earth: The ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) is a cargo vehicle which supplies the ISS with scientific equipment, spares and fuel, together with supplies of food, air and water. © Airbus Defence and Space / Silicon Worlds
From Spacelab to Columbus and the ATV, Airbus Defence and Space has always played a significant role in the major successes associated with European manned spaceflight. And the future, too, is ripe with opportunity and challenge.
Find out more! A special dossier full of informative articles has been created about 50 years of manned spaceflight
Living in Space Dossier: Human beings beyond the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere