The Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, announced in June that it plans to launch its own space station by 2030. Along with Russia, the United States, and China, this would make India the fourth country to launch a space station that is solely their own. It’s an ambitious goal, especially for a country that has yet to send a human being into space. They haven’t released any concrete plans on how they’ll build their station or what it will look like. So, what challenges did other nations face when they put their first space stations into orbit? The Soviet Union launched the first space station ever, Salyut 1, in 1971. It was in orbit for 175 days and occupied for 23 before the crew departed. Tragically, their return capsule depressurized, and all three crew members perished. The U.S.S.R.’s next two attempts, Salyut 2 and Kosmos 557, each were crippled after achieving orbit and neither were ever occupied. The U.S.’s first space station, Skylab launched three days after Kosmos 557 in 1973, and as you might have guessed, it was damaged during launch. Still, some improvised repairs made Skylab habitable, and it was occupied by three crews before reentering the atmosphere and breaking up in 1979. Ground controllers attempted to have the debris land in the Indian Ocean, but some of it landed in western Australia. While no one was hurt, the Shire of Esperance did fine NASA $400 for littering. Clearly, a crewed space station is a daunting task to get right on your first try.
The next country to launch an independent space station was China in 2011. The school-bus sized Tiangong-1 wasn’t meant to be a permanent facility, but a platform to test and master the technologies needed for more ambitious modular station in the future. Two crewed missions visited the station in 2012 and 2013, and at that point its mission was essentially done. But just in case something went wrong with its successor, Tiangong-2, the Chinese decided to put the station into hibernation rather than deorbit it. When they attempted to wake it up again in 2016, they found the station had lost power. That meant it was uncontrollable, and where it landed, was up to gravity. Fortunately, Tiangong-1 reentered harmlessly over the southern Pacific in April of 2018. Chinese officials bristle at the notion the reentry was uncontrolled, but honestly it just means they join the club of nations whose first space stations weren’t 100% flawless missions. So far, we’re 0 for 3. But we have also had stunning successes with space stations too. The International Space Station has been hosting astronauts and doing science since the year 2000. But the ISS is really something special and it’s not a project that any one country can undertake. It took the cooperation and funding of space agencies from Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada to assemble it in orbit over a decade. It took 5 Russian rocket launches plus more than 35 space shuttle missions to haul all its pieces into orbit. Today, NASA’s budget for their share of the operation, maintenance, and research costs total 1.45 billion dollars each year, which as it happens is reportedly the entire annual budget of ISRO. Clearly a space station that huge is out of the question for any one country. Which brings us back to India. Will they be the only nation to have a totally successful space station on their first go? Before they even attempt that, they have a lot of work ahead of them. They have yet to launch a human into space with a rocket of their own, though they’re inching closer. ISRO is reportedly on track to launch an uncrewed Gaganyaan spacecraft by December of 2020. After a second uncrewed mission, their goal is to launch three astronauts by December 2021. Once in low-Earth orbit, the three person crew will remain aloft for 5-7 days before returning safely to Earth. I make it sound so simple, but remember that space flight is never routine. There’s always a risk, especially when a space program is just getting its wings. And ISRO has been ambitious and achieved a lot with the resources it has, but they’re not immune to failure. Their first attempt at a moon lander crashed into the moon’s surface earlier this year. So when it comes to their first crewed missions, we’ve got our fingers and toes crossed that all goes well. If the Gaganyaan missions are successful, then ISRO can seriously start to consider building a permanent home above the Earth. If you want to more about what ISRO has been up to, check out our video on their Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon that we was made before it launched.