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Space station Monday, 30 October, 2000, 16:51 GMT
Space exploration: Chapter four
Crew Nasa
First up: Sergei Krikalev, Yuri Gidzenko, and Bill Shepherd
BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse puts the launch of the first space station crew into context.

The launch of Expedition 1 to the International Space Station (ISS) is a landmark in space exploration.

In importance, you can put it alongside Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight, the first landing on the Moon, or the first space shuttle mission.

Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, marks "independence day" for spaceflight with the start of the permanent habitation of space. Scientists, visionaries and dreamers have waited a long time for this moment and finally it has come.

In the years before the first rockets were launched into orbit, visions of space stations attracted as much attention as plans for a flight to the Moon or Mars.

Now that we have turned away from the Moon and cannot muster the resolve to go to Mars, it is the ISS that leads the way.

Visions of the future

In 1944, space pioneer Willy Ley wrote: "The realisation of the station in space is the realisation of space travel in general." He added that trips to the Moon and beyond would no longer be difficult if they were made from such a station.

In the 1950s, Werner von Braun wrote the influential Crossing the Last Frontier and promoted his idea of a large, Earth-orbiting station. His concept was grand: a huge wheel in space where hundreds of astronauts lived and worked.

Perhaps the most famous space station is the huge wheel in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sadly, wheel-shaped stations are out of fashion as they destroy one of the reasons for building a station: the requirement for weightless conditions in which to do novel science.

The dream of a manned outpost in space was mostly forgotten during the heady days of the Moon race, although there was some interest in the 1960s when the US military wanted to use one as a military observation platform. But the idea never became reality as unmanned satellites were cheaper and more capable.

Polar comparisons

After the Moonshots, President Nixon gave Nasa a choice: the space shuttle or the space station - and they chose the shuttle. Nasa did launch Skylab, a space station built out of old rocket parts, but it was never meant to be more than a one-year wonder.

The space station was then put on hold and even a formal start to the project by President Reagan in 1984 did little to make the dream a reality. The programme moved only fitfully ahead.

However the Soviets were keen to establish a permanent presence in space. Beginning in the 1970s with their Salyut series of space stations, they led the way in living and working in space.

When the Mir space station was launched in 1986, Soviet officials said it would always be manned. For a while, it was. But the faltering Soviet space effort could not support such an undertaking.

It was not until 40 years after the South Pole was first conquered that a permanent base was established there.

A permanent space base has followed a similar timescale. Expedition 1 is just a beginning.

See also:

30 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
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