The lab was the size of a medium house trailer and was flown in the space shuttle's cargo bay. Spacelab consisted of an enclosed, pressurized laboratory module and open, U-shaped pallets that could be placed behind the module or flown alone. Equipment -- including telescopes, antennas and sensors -- was mounted on the pallets for direct exposure to space.
In the 17 years of Spacelab, with 36 missions flown and about 800 investigations completed, this program taught scientists how to operate experiments in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit.
“Spacelab served as a precursor to the space station because it taught scientists how to design, integrate and operate experiments in an orbiting laboratory,” said Rick Rodriguez, currently a payload operations manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who served as a simulation engineer during the Spacelab years. “It provided a plug-in structure for experiments, similar to what is available in ground laboratories, that provide power, communication, cooling, vacuum and other resources needed. Scientists learned how to design experiments that could be integrated into Spacelab. They also learned how to design experiments that could withstand being launched into space, operated in microgravity and returned to Earth.”
Built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and managed by Marshall, Spacelab-1 launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboardspace shuttle Columbia on its STS-9 mission . It orbited Earth 166 times during 10 days before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Dec. 8, 1983. Liftoff came 10 years after NASA and ESA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to create the laboratory. ESA built the Spacelab module and other equipment in exchange for flying experiments and European astronauts in space, as well as Japanese and German space agency-supported research missions.