MOSCOW (Reuters) -- The new International Space Station, the first module of which was launched November 20, is only the latest in a series of manned outposts which have kept humans in orbit on and off since 1971.
The U.S. space agency NASA dates the first proposal for a manned station to 1869, when a U.S. science fiction writer described a "Brick Moon" orbiting Earth to help ships navigate at sea.
In 1923, Romanian Hermann Oberth was the first to use the term "space station" for his wheel-like facility that would help launch astronauts to the moon and Mars.
After World War II, German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun helped popularize space stations, publishing his vision of a spinning wheel-shaped station, much like that used in the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey."
The Soviet Union launched the world's first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, a decade after Moscow put the first man into space. The first crew arrived several days later but could not get the hatch to open properly and returned home a few hours later.
The next crew of three succeeded in getting on board and spending 22 days in the cramped module, with Soviet television highlighting their adventures on the evening news. But tragedy struck after they entered their capsule to return home when air leaked out and they died.
Moscow sent up a series of subsequent Salyut stations in the 1970s and early 1980s, gradually increasing the amount of time cosmonauts spent on board.
"The most important thing about these flights is that they proved the overall possibility to increase the duration of flights progressively," said Oleg Gazenko, who worked in the program at the time as director of the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems.
"During the Soyuz-9 mission (in 1970) a flight of about 16 days, this crew did not feel very well, so there were doubts as to whether the unpleasant effects of weightlessness could be overcome," he said in an interview. "The orbital station showed that it was in fact possible."
The United States sent its first space station, the larger Skylab, into orbit in 1973, but it hosted just three crews before it was abandoned in 1974. It fell to Earth five years later, killing a cow in Australia upon landing.
As the United States moved its efforts to short-term shuttle flights, Russia continued to focus on long-duration missions, and in 1986 launched the first module of the Mir space station.
Since that time cosmonauts have continuously manned the station except for two brief periods, and from 1994-95 cosmonaut Valery Polyakov set the human space duration record with 438 days in orbit.
Russia continued adding modules to Mir until the arrival of the seventh component, Priroda, in 1996, and it hosted a series of American and other foreign astronauts. But a Russian-American crew nearly died in 1997 when Mir collided with a resupply ship.
Intensive repairs in the months following the collision nursed the station back to health, but NASA would like Russia to retire the record-breaking station so Moscow can focus its meager resources on the new station.
Russia has pledged to bring down the Mir station in June 1999, but in recent weeks officials, proud of their own station and saying Mir still has a few good years left, have stepped up efforts to keep it flying.
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