Hidden Histories: Space Station Freedom
Updated: Mar 24
Space Station Freedom was NASA's plan for a permanently crewed Earth-orbiting space station in the 1980s. It was announced in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan but was never completed or even constructed. It would eventually evolve into the International Space Station program.
One of Freedom's various conceptual designs from 1987 (NASA via Marc Lindroos)
As the Apollo program began to wind down in the late 1960s, there were a number of proposals on what should come next. One in particular was a crewed mission to Mars using systems derived from Apollo technology. Another was a permanently crewed space station primarily used to construct the large vehicles needed for interplanetary travel. A third was a space logistics vehicle that could cheaply carry crew and cargo to and from a space station. In the early 1970s, NASA as well as the entire federal government was facing a budget deficit and could only have one of these proposals fulfilled. The agency chose the space logistics vehicle, which later became the Space Shuttle, not only because it was the cheapest but also because the agency saw its potential for building that space station they wanted. In the early 1980s, after the Space Shuttles had begun flying, NASA proposed their space station idea again. Administrator James M. Beggs called it "the next logical step" in space and was also, to a lesser degree, seen as the United States's counterpart to the Soviet Union's Mir space station (which had not yet been space-borne). It was given the name Freedom, likely after the first American crewed spacecraft, and was going to function as an orbiting repair shop for satellites, an observation post for astronomers, a microgravity lab for scientists and factory for companies, and an assembly point for larger spacecraft. President Reagan announced plans to build Freedom at the 1984 State of the Union address. Other international contributors to the space station down the line were the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, and the National Space Development Agency of Japan.
NASA conducted further studies of the potential uses for the space station, including both domestic and international research and industry uses as well as support for planetary missions. Its first configuration was the "Power Tower". It was developed by the newly established Space Station Program Office at the Johnson Space Center and would serve as the baseline for further planning. It featured a long central keel with most mass located at either end. This would provide enough gravity gradient stability to keep the station aligned and the keel pointed toward Earth, which reduces the need for thruster firings. There would be a cluster of modules at the lower end and solar arrays at the upper supplying power, as well as a servicing bay somewhere between the two. In April 1985, the program selected contractors to carry out studies and preliminary designs.
Concept art of the "Power Tower" from 1984 with the Japanese Experimental Module attached
In late 1986, NASA carried out a study into new configuration options to reduce costs. One idea was a Skylab-type station. The agency went with a dual-keel configuration, which would split assembly into two phases. Phase I would provide the central modules and solar panels but no keels. The study concluded this new project was viable and it was designated the Revised Baseline Configuration, or Dual Keel. It would have cost $14.5 billion in 1984 dollars. This second design of Freedom was endorsed by the National Research Council in September of 1987 and it was recommended that the long-term national goals of such a project be studied before committing to a Phase II design. The Dual Keel Freedom would require 5 Space Shuttle flights per year for construction, operations, and logistics. The first launch would now take place in March of 1994 and be permanently crewed from April of 1995 onwards. After 17 flights, it would be completed in March 1997. A crew of four would stay on station for 180 days at a time before being rotated. A number of proposals as to what the station would look like were submitted.
Concept art of the Dual Keel space station from 1986 (NASA via Marc Lindroos)
In September 1988, NASA signed the final ten-year contracts for development of Freedom. It went through its hardware fabrication phase. The design of the station was slightly altered in late 1989 after the program's 1990 budget was reduced from $2.05 billion to $1.75 billion. The agency concluded that the Revised Baseline Configuration was 23% overweight and over budget. Congress demanded another redesign at the end of the year and further cost reductions after the 1991 budget was cut as well. The new space station Freedom was designed in March of 1991. It was mockingly referred to as "Fred" by critics due to being considerably smaller than its predecessors.
By the early 1990s, things were not looking good for Freedom. Congress found that NASA's cost estimates were not as expensive as the project really was and refused to increase its budget. The station went through 7 major redesigns between 1984 and 1993 and lost more capacity and capabilities every time. Repeated budget cuts had postponed the first launch of Freedom by a year to March of 1995. It would be permanently crewed from June 1997 onwards and completed in February 1998. By 1993, it was deemed politically unviable and questions came up over the need for Freedom. Redesigns had reduced the station's science capabilities and there was little political motivation for it since the Space Race had ended nearly 20 years prior and the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991. In June, an amendment to remove space station funding from NASA's appropriations bill failed by one vote.
In October, NASA and the Russian Space Agency agreed to the merger of Freedom and the Russian Mir-2 space station, which was facing problems of its own. Freedom and Mir-2, along with European and Japanese modules, were incorporated into one multi-agency space station, the International Space Station. The Freedom design was scaled back from 508 square feet to 353 square feet (47 to 33 m²) to accommodate the reduced budgets of both the American and Russian space programs. The crew capacity of the NASA modules was reduced from 7 to 3. The first component launched on STS-88 in 1998 and the first long-term astronauts arrived in November of 2000. The ISS has been permanently inhabited ever since.
Author's Note: This is a very, very brief and simplified history of Space Station Freedom. Much more information is available both online and in books and articles. I may revisit the subject and focus on one particular design in the future. Thanks for reading and remember to like and share!
Teitel, Amy Shira. “A Brief History of Space Stations before the ISS.” Popular Science, 23 Nov. 2015, www.popsci.com/brief-history-space-stations-before-iss/.
Wade, Mark. Space Station Freedom, 2019, www.astronautix.com/s/spacestationfreedom.html.
Zak, Anatoly. “Freedom Project.” US Roots of the ISS Project, www.russianspaceweb.com/iss_us_roots.html.