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Oh, Werner von Braun had it all figured out. In six issues of Collier's magazine he laid out a plan to send men to Luna and Mars. First you build a space ferry as a surface to orbit cargo transport (which was the great-grandfather of the Space Shuttle). Then you use it to make a space station.
And it was going to be a beauty of a space station, too. Three decks, 250 feet in diameter, and a crew of fifty. Makes the ISS look like a tin can. This outpost in space was where the Lunar expedition fleet would be constructed.
It would pay for itself as well. Meteorologists could plot the path of storms and predict the weather with unprecedented accuracy. Radio and TV signals could be transmitted all over the globe. Not to mention observing the military activities of hostile nations.
In other words, it would be MacGuffinite.
Why was this marvel never constructed? Because some clown invented the printed circuit. Freed from the tyranny of fragile and short-lived vacuum tubes, technologists could make unmanned satellites for Meteorologists, radio and TV signals, and watching hostile militaries. Such satellites could be assembled and launched at a fraction the cost of a manned station. They also did not require constant resupply missions to keep the crew alive.
If we had followed von Braun's plan, we would have ended up with a fleet of space ferries, a titanic manned space station, a large lunar base, and men on Mars. Instead, we have four overly complicated space shuttles near the end of their operational life, a four man space station due to be de-orbited and destroyed in 2016, and a few bits of space trash on the Lunar surface. And we haven't been back to Luna since 1972. So it goes.
Why doesn't a space station fall down? A station is in "orbit," which is a clever way to constantly fall but never hit the ground. The ground curves away just enough so that the station never strikes it.
Actually, the International Space Station is in a low enough orbit that atmospheric drag decays its orbit. Periodically, Russian resupply rockets have to boost it higher. Otherwise it would de-orbit and burn up in re-entry. Many readers of this website are too young to remember when NASA's Skylab unexpectedly fell.
Many station designs are wheel shaped, and large wheels at that. They are wheel shaped so you can spin them for artificial gravity. They are large wheels so the rotation rate can be kept low enough so the crew does not experience nausea. This is conservatively 3 RPM, though studies suggest some can acclimate themselves to tolerate up to 10 RPM. The Collier space wheel is 250 feet in diameter and spins at 3 RPM, providing about one-third gee of artificial gravity at the rim.
Many early SF stories fret about the military advantage an armed space station confer upon the owning nation. Heinlein says trying to fight a space station (or orbiting spacecraft) from the ground is akin to a man at the bottom of a well conducting a rock-throwing fight with somebody at the top. One power-crazed dictator with a nuclear bomb armed station could rule the world! Space faring nations would need space scouts for defense.
But most experts nowadays say that turns out not to be the case. A nation can threaten another with nuclear annihilation far more cheaply with a few ICBMs, no station is required. And while ground launching sites can hide in rugged terrain, a space station can hide nowhere. Pretty much the entire facing hemisphere can attack the station with missiles, laser weapons, and propaganda.
Phil Shanton points out that you don't need a huge missile to destroy an orbiting space station, either. In 1979, the U.S. Air Force awarded a contract to the Vought company to develop an anti-satellite missile. It was not a huge missile from a large launch site. It was a relatively small missile launched by an F-15 Eagle interceptor in a zoom-climb. Vought developed the ASM-135 Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT), and on 13 September 1985 it successfully destroyed the solar observatory satellite "P78-1". This means that an evil-dictator world-dominator nuke-station not only has to worry about every ground launch site, but also every single fighter aircraft.
It has also been modeled that the U.S. Navy could take out a satellite with a Standard Missile 3.
This clever design solves the problem of how to quickly assemble a wheel space station, with one tiny little drawback. You see, there is a reason that wheel space stations are shaped like, well, wheels and not like hexagons.
The amount of centrifugal gravity experienced is determined by the distance from the axis of rotation (the greater the distance, the stronger the gravity). So if you want the amount of gravity to be the same, the station has to be a circle.
Now, look at the image below. The segment labeled "SPACE STATION RIGID MODULE" is one of the hexagonal sides. The green lines lead to the axis of rotation (i.e., that is the direction of "up". Note the little dark men figures, they feel like they are standing upright). And the red lines are lines of equal gravity. You will note that they do not align with the module.
In the module, centrifugal gravity will be weakest at the center of the module, and strongest at the ends where it joins with the neighbor modules. Even though the module is straight, the gravity will feel like it is a hill. If you place a marble on the deck in the center, it will roll "downhill" to one of the edges.
As you see, the designers tried to compensate for this by angling the decks, but it really doesn't work very well.
Somewhat more elaborate in conception is the 94 ft wheel-shaped satellite prepared by two design engineers of the Lockheed Missile Division. This celestial laboratory for a crew of 10 weighs 400 tons, and is intended to orbit at a height of 500 miles. Each pre-fabricated section is 10 ft in diameter and 20 ft long, fitted with airlocks, and weighs 10 tons delivered into orbit. Powerful 3-man "astro-tugs" would round up the orbiting packages and couple them up. The entire operation should not take more than a month. The whole design has been investigated in exceptional detail, and is complete with nuclear power reactor and propulsion unit for changing orbit, astronomical telescopes, computer room, space-medical laboratory, airlocks for access, etc. All gravitational worries would be relieved by rotating the vehicle about its hub, which would remain stationary for observational purposes.
The Lockheed space station made an apperance on the 1959 TV show Men into Space. I have not seen this show, but from what I've read it was astonishingly scientifically accurate. Certainly more accurate than most anything from TV or movies in the last couple of decades. Thanks to Drake Grey for bringing this to my attention.
This is from those innocent days before the discovery of nuclear power. The station uses solar power in the form of mercury boilers, since these were also the days before the discovery of the photoelectric effect.
Station desgined by R.A.Smith and H.E.Ross (circa 1940). Again, the station is powered by mercury boilers. The telescope uses a coelostat to counteract the spin of the station. The antenna support arm is de-spun to allow a spacecraft to dock, then is spun up to allow the air-lock module to mate with the station habitat module.
Apparently the artist who did the book cover had seen this old Soviet space station design. I have not been able to discover any details about the station, except that the model is apparently hanging in some Russian museum.