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Spacelab, science laboratory designed to fly into orbit inside the cargo bay of a space shuttle. The European Space Agency (ESA) designed and built Spacelab to fly aboard the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space shuttle. In the early 1970s the ESA was deciding on its strategy for space at the same time that NASA was beginning its space shuttle program. The ESA proposed a joint scientific program and in 1973 NASA accepted the ESA's offer to build Spacelab. The first Spacelab flew in 1983. Spacelab permitted the type of research that would occur aboard a space station while NASA was still working on plans to build a permanent space station in orbit. Using Spacelab, space shuttle astronauts studied the effects of weightlessness on materials and living things and observed stars, the Sun, and Earth's atmosphere. Spacelab missions lasting up to 17 days helped prepare NASA for planned research aboard the International Space Station, scheduled for completion in 2006. The last Spacelab mission occurred in 1998.

Scientific Results

During its 15-year career, Spacelab carried into space more than 400 experiments designed by about 500 scientists from 17 countries. Research involving humans, animals, and plants helped scientists learn more about the effects of space travel on living things. This research also brought new understanding of diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis, the gradual weakening of bones. Astronauts studied the behavior of fluids and flame in weightlessness to help engineers design future spacecraft, and also to help researchers better understand these phenomena on Earth. Astronomical missions charted ultraviolet, X-ray, and infrared radiation from the stars. Solar instruments mounted on Spacelab pallets collected some of the best photographs of the Sun ever taken, while atmospheric sensors gathered important data on ozone depletion and global warming on Earth.


Portree, David S. F., B.A., M.S.

Freelance writer and space historian. Author of "Walking to Olympus: An EVA Chronology".

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