From Space Lab to Gateway: 40 Years of Modules for People in Space

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11/29/2023
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Today marks exactly 40 years since the launch of the European Space Agency’s first manned space mission. In collaboration with ESA’s first astronaut, Ulf Myerbold, the Spacelab module flew into the space shuttle’s cargo bay, transforming NASA’s “cargo spacecraft” into a small space station for scientific research. To this day, Europe remains very active in the field of manned units.

Integration of the European Space Agency’s Spacelab module into the Space Shuttle

Spacelab was followed by ESA’s Columbus Laboratory, among many other ISS modules such as Node 2, Node 3, the Earth Observation Dome, the ATV and the Spacecraft. Cygnus spaceshipEuropean Service Module for the Orion Lunar Orbiter, Special Units Axiom space station And now the critical elements of the Gateway station that will orbit the Moon.

The space lab’s industrial legacy speaks for itself. The companies involved have changed their names several times since the 1970s, but the aluminum-copper alloy 2219 pressure shells used in aviation and aerospace are still produced in Turin, Italy in buildings now owned and operated by Thales Alenia Space Being.

Poster from Aeritalia Spacelab

In some cases, these scales are integrated on-site in Turin, as in the ESA Gateway modules. As for other production lines, such as the electronic management devices for the Orion vehicle, they have been equipped in the integration halls in Bremen (Germany) with the necessary equipment to make them ready for use in space, as happened more than four decades ago at Spacelab. Nowadays these halls are part of commercial buildings Airbus Defense and Space.

Keep the vacuum under control

Pressure shells are an essential part of the unit’s design to keep external vacuum away. They are made of metal sheets a few millimeters thick, shaped like cylinders, with conical ends. The space laboratory was 6.7 meters long and 4.1 meters in diameter, determined by the dimensions of the shuttle’s cargo hold in which it was transported. Columbus and other European ISS modules have a slightly larger diameter for the same reason.

In comparison, ESA’s International Habitat module for the Gateway, I-Hab, is about 8 meters long but only 3 meters in diameter, the same width as the Turin-made pressure casing for the ISS Cygnus connector. ESA’s other gateway module, the ESPRIT refueling module, is 6.4 meters long and 4.6 meters in diameter, although most of the volume is taken up by fuel tanks and a pressurized tunnel with a window for astronauts to pass through, of the same length and diameter. As I-Hub.

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Cygnus spaceship

“The portal elements may be smaller than previous European modules, but they must also be stronger,” explains João Gandra, materials and processes engineer at ESA. “The big difference is that, as with the latest pressure shells from Axiom and Cygnus in Europe, they are now welded using ‘friction stir welding’, which softens the metals rather than melting them and applies friction to bond them together. Whereas traditional welding can cause “Better stresses in the joints, this technology produces stronger welds with better performance.”

“Today, all our modules are produced this way,” adds Walter Cugno, Vice President Exploration and Science at Thales Alenia Space who is involved as a product assurance engineer at Spacelab. “Our ability to deliver pressurized elements, initially built through ESA projects, is complemented by bilateral agreements between the Italian Space Agency and Asi And NASA The production of ISS modules is an important asset to all human exploration initiatives in low Earth orbit, on the Moon, and ultimately on Mars.

The I-Hab will serve as living space for four-person crews from the Gateway’s multiple units, for a maximum of 30 days each.

I-Hab on the portal

Mark Wagner, head of ESA’s Verification, Assembly, Integration and Test Team, ensures that the module is ready for launch, currently scheduled for 2028.

Cooperation with portal partners

“This is just one unit that forms part of a multi-unit station,” explains Mark. “So we need to check that the I-Hab is compatible with all interfaces agreed with our partner organizations such as NASA, Canadian Space Agency And the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Furthermore, our development schedules are out of sync: NASA flight Halo unitwhose printing scale also comes from Turin, and from Power supply and propulsion element Scheduled first. We need to ensure that all multi-module interfaces and features are compatible with the rest of the International Gateway software.

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“For example, the I-Hab climate control system and life support system, provided to us by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, must work with its equivalent in HALO. The I-Hab module’s thermal control system is linked via heat exchangers to other modules and ‘visiting vehicles. , so that it serves the entire portal and ensures the transfer of heat load to deep space via external radiators. These and other linked systems must work together flawlessly.”

Gate diagram

Small spaces

The I-Hab’s relatively small size was limited by launch mass limitations. The module’s designers faced the challenge of packing all the necessary systems into just 10 cubic meters of habitable volume, including scientific equipment, cooking facilities including an extendable galley table, supplies, life support facilities and even four private sleeping cabins.

“Previous ISS modules, like the previous Spacelab, were designed with top-down guidance because astronauts find that easier to operate. However, with the I-Hab, we don’t have that luxury, because we want to use everything available in space as much as possible.” “As efficient as possible while meeting all human factor and crew performance requirements.”

Virtual reality portal session

However, there is no toilet yet: the crew will have to return to Orion for that. The first missions will have to bring their own consumables. This is one reason, in addition to the high levels of radiation in deep space, that missions are limited to 30 days at a time. As a result, there will be no one on board the portal for most of each year, and thus monitoring will be required.

Tested by astronauts

To check whether the I-Hab was a suitable place to live and work, the module development team turned to experienced ESA astronauts, including Samantha Cristoferreti, Alexander Gerst, and Luca Parmitano, to conduct the first human evaluation of the design. Human test campaigns will also be carried out based on the representative I-Hab test platform installed at Thales Alenia in Turin. Virtual reality will also be used, and in the future they will be combined in the form of augmented reality applications.

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Portal with ESPRIT module on the right

“We really want to benefit from the experience they have gained from their work in orbit on the International Space Station,” Mark adds. “It helps our development team control a variety of variables, such as the quality of lighting, the clarity of labels, the design of emergency exits, and even the adequacy of crew compartments for privacy and sleeping.” The I-Hab aims to provide the same shirted work environment as in Spacelab and the International Space Station modules, with a temperature of 22 degrees Celsius and 50% humidity, although the atmospheric pressure will be 0.7 atm compared to the pressure at sea level. That prevail in the station to bring down the masses.

I-Hab Gateway unit under construction in Turin

Mark adds: “Although the I-Hab is smaller, it will be more inclusive, meaning the accommodation design will accommodate 99% of the astronauts. This means that the smallest female astronauts and the largest male astronauts will be able to operate the equipment.” . Easily and comfortably, such as opening hatches or quickly disconnecting fluid lines, compared to 95 percent on the International Space Station.

The I-Hab preliminary design review has been completed, and the project is currently in the detailed design phase. The contractual agreement for the second gateway module provided by ESA, the ERM module or the ESPRIT refueling module is currently being finalized. The preliminary design is expected to be evaluated soon.

This latest example of European crewed module development has a design life of 15 years, but judging by the example of the International Space Station, the module is likely to remain in operation for much longer.

Portal units are forming

Based on the current architecture of the Lunar Gateway, more than half of this inspiring space station will be European-made.

And it looks like the European prototype of Spacelab modules will go even further into space, as ASI and Thales Alenia Space recently signed a contract to design modules for the lunar surface, as part of a future lunar base.

Winton Frazier

 "Amateur web lover. Incurable travel nerd. Beer evangelist. Thinker. Internet expert. Explorer. Gamer."

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