In 1971, Viktor Patsayez gazed out of the small windows on Salyut 1, and looked at the Earth below. The enormous area of the Soviet Union slowly drifted past, and he watched quietly, totally absorbed by the sight. He marveled at the fact that he was here at all. That his country was capable of producing a technological miracle such as Salyut 1 he had no doubt. However, without the succession of recent crew changes, his presence on this mission was most unlikely. He had certainly not thought that he would spend his 38th, and last, birthday in space.

In 1973, Owen Garriott spent a lot of his time looking at the Earth through Skylab’s huge wardroom window. This window was the only one of note on the station, and to begin with, the stations designers had resisted including it, finally giving in to pressure from the potential crews. Now the crew could not imagine life without it. The work schedule aboard Skylab was intense, but each crewmember of the three missions tried to find some time each day just to look.

Georgi Grechko loved being back in space. He had flown to Salyut 4 two years earlier, in 1975, but the Salyut 6 station that he was now aboard was a great improvement in many ways. For one thing, it had a bigger, clearer window, and Grechko never tired of gazing at his homeland, and the far reaches of space. Many things had changed on the surface of his home planet in the time between the launch of Salyut 1 and now. Relations with the United States were more open then ever since the Apollo-Soyuz docking mission in 1975, and it was possible that more joint missions would take place in the future.

Ulf Merbold had trained for five years for the opportunity to fly aboard America’s space shuttle, and now in 1983 he was here with his five crewmates aboard Columbia for the first flight of the European Spacelab. The schedule was unbelievably tight, but when he could steal a few moments, often before going to sleep, he would look at the Earth through the shuttle’s flight-deck overhead rendezvous windows. Eleven years later, he would look again, but not through the windows of a space shuttle, but the windows of a Russian space station, called Mir.

The period that Michael Foale most enjoyed was when he had finished exercising. Hot and sweaty, he would float to one of the windows in Mir’s Kristall module, this window was special because it had an air jet fitted that was originally used to cool a camera. The camera was long gone, but the jet remained and it was the ideal thing to cool down a steaming astronaut as he watched the world go by. Six years later Foale was looking through a much larger window than had ever been in space before. He floated in the U. S. Destiny laboratory module aboard the International Space Station (ISS) after exercising in the station’s node module, Unity, and looked through the 20- inch-wide window at the Earth below.

Sergei Krikalev had flown in space six times: twice on the Mir space station, twice on the U. S. space shuttle, and as a member of the very first crew of the ISS. Now he commanded that station’s eleventh expedition, and when this mission was complete, he would have flown over 800 days in space, more than any other human being. He had looked at the Earth from four different spacecraft, and once literally watched the world below change as the Soviet Union dissolved into the Confederation of Inde­pendent States before his very eyes. When he landed the communist state was no more, and he was a Russian citizen.

For Frank Culbertson it was the most painful experience of his life. Below him, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York lay in ruins, and every orbit allowed him to see the devastation from an unprecedented viewpoint on board the ISS. The Pentagon had been hit too, of course, and Frank was to learn that the pilot of that plane was a friend that he had been in flight school with. Tears don’t flow as easily in space, he would later observe.

The history of man’s space stations is a long one, and one that is necessary if we are to journey beyond the orbit of our own planet again. The glory days of Apollo are a long way behind us, many more manned hours aboard the ISS the space shuttles, and the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) lay ahead before we can fulfil our destiny to land human explorers on Mars. Here is the story of what has gone before, the human story, the technical story, and the sometimes tragic tale of “The Story of Manned Space Stations’’.