19 Apr 2021

World's First Space Station launched 50 years ago today

On 19 April 1971, 50 years ago, the world’s first space station – Salyut 1 – was launched.

Its debut success for the Soviet Salyut program paved the way for the future of space exploration, allowing astronauts to spend extended periods of time in space and conduct the scientific experiments and make the observations that have shaped human history, as well as breaking numerous space records, all ratified by the FAI.

About Salyut 1

Following the US success of the Apollo missions, the Salyut 1 space station program was born of a Soviet desire to advance space exploration. It was launched two years ahead of the US Skylab space station.

Launched on top of a Proton Booster rocket, Salyut 1 was a 20 metre (66 foot) long vessel with several sections, three of which were pressurised and two accessible to cosmonauts. The space station was comprised of a transfer compartment with docking system to allow internal crew transfer, a main compartment around 4 metres long with control stations, 20 portholes and coloured zones to aid orientation under weightlessness, and the Orion 1 Space Observatory to conduct ultraviolet spectroscopy of stars. Also included within the scientific equipment was an experimental vegetable garden. 

Following its launch and the unsuccessful docking of the Soyuz 10 spacecraft, the June 1971 Soyuz 11 mission sent cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Valdislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayez to spend time testing the station’s controls, studying the Earth’s surface geology, meteorology and snow and ice cover as well as observing the atmosphere and outer space. The three cosmonauts docked successfully and spent 23 days on Salyut 1, but all three tragically lost their lives following loss of cabin atmosphere during the return to Earth due to a fault.

The design of Salyut 1 formed the basis of all Soviet space stations up to Salyut 7, whose mission was make tests in preparation for the larger Mir station, launched in 1986. One of the greatest successes of the Salyut program was Salyut 6, which had two docking stations and enabled the first triple link-up in space history. The success of this mission also permitted fresh supplies of fuel and food to be brought to cosmonauts on board, thereby allowing longer stays in space, and more records to be broken.

Salyut 1 set the precedent for space stations, and has contributed to the ongoing history of human space exploration which continues to this day aboard the International Space Station (ISS), the international partnership program which launched in 2000 and has since hosted over 240 astronauts from around the world.

Space stations

Images courtesy of NASA
Header image - Soyuz docking with Salyut 1;
NASA/David S. F. Portree - Mir Hardware Heritage. NASA Reference Publication 1357 (March 1995)
International Space Station - artists' concept