Site map

Site update log

About this site

About the author



Searching for details:

The author of this page will appreciate comments, corrections and imagery related to the subject. Please contact Anatoly Zak.

Related page:

ACTS development history

Origin of the ACTS Program

ATV cargo ship


Columbus design

The final configuration of the Columbus laboratory module for the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

The cornerstone of Europe's space program, the 1.3-billion-euro Columbus laboratory module embodied many great hopes and saw bitter disappointments, as other human missions beyond Earth faced at the turn of the 21st century. Conceived in the 1980s, as a European path to independence in space, the Columbus program made it to the launch pad years behind schedule and a mere shadow of its original scope. Still, its launch in 2008 marked a spectacular achievement of human ingenuity, perseverance and cooperation.

Uneven partnership

In early 1980s, the European Space Agency, ESA, considered a manned orbiting station to succeed and expand the capabilities of the Spacelab complex, which could only fly short missions inside the cargo bay of the US Space Shuttle.

With the launch of the NASA Space Station project in January 1984, which was accompanied by an American invitation to international partners to join the effort, Europe had to make a choice about its plans in space. At the beginning of March 1984, NASA Administrator James Beggs visited Europe and Japan to discuss possible cooperation on the space station with their respective agencies.

In January 1985, in Rome, a meeting of science ministers representing countries of the European Space Agency, ESA, approved the Columbus program, the most ambitious effort in space undertaken by the organization to date. The plan spearheaded by Germany and Italy envisioned a manned orbital module, which would be attached to the American space station, and with the capability to evolve into a full-fledged European orbital outpost before the end of the century. (269) However the first elements of the Columbus program were expected to fly as early as 1992, to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to America.

As in previous space projects, European countries pulled resources to pay the continent's expected $2.5 billion contribution into the Space Station program, with the largest powers within the agency doing the financial "heavy lifting":

  • Germany: 38 percent
  • Italy: 25 percent
  • France: 15 percent
  • United Kingdom: 15 percent

In June 1985, Germany's MBB-ERNO took the role of prime contractor in the Columbus program, while Aeritalia was given the responsibility for building habitable sections, derived from Spacelab modules.

Under the original proposal, French aerospace giant Aerospatiale received a contract for the development of a payload servicing module. However due to disagreements with NASA and resulting re-design of the Columbus complex, the module was dropped from the program. It was one of the first, but not the last conflict with NASA, which used its dominant position as provider of the Space Shuttle system to pressure its partners. (268)

NASA was reluctant to transfer crucial information on the project to its European allies, while ESA struggled to ensure equal access for Europeans to the various facilities of the future station. After some wrangling, on June 3, 1985, NASA and ESA signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Space Station cooperation. Still, the technology transfer issue remained unresolved and it was postponed until the conclusion of the Phase B definition and preliminary design work, which at the time was expected to take two years. The document at least provided Europeans with basic information about the American design that enabled them to do some minimal work.

At the beginning of 1986, ESA and NASA clashed over the very concept of the Columbus program. NASA objected to ESA's original plan to design Columbus as building block of a future European space station. The Americans were concerned that they would facilitate the creation of a potential competitor if the manned space outpost fulfilled its promise as supplier of commercially viable products, such as new materials and pharmaceuticals.

The Europeans and the Americans also clashed over the military potential of the Space Station. The partners eventually agreed to limit research onboard the outpost to peaceful purposes, "as determined by each partner for its own space station module." (139) Despite objections from Pentagon and difficult negotiations, NASA did need European partners. The international status of the project promised to prop up shaky political support for the Space Station program in the US Congress and "spread out" the development cost.

The preliminary design and technology preparation phase of the Columbus program lasted until the end of 1987. A ten-year development phase of the project was expected to take place during 1988-1998. Only on September 29, 1988, NASA, ESA, Japan and Canada signed a final agreement on the Space Station cooperation.


Yielding to American pressure, ESA ultimately decided to split the Columbus program into two inter-dependent parts: the Attached Pressurized Module, APM, which would be permanently docked to the US space station and a smaller orbital facility, designated the Manned-Tended Free Flyer, MTFF, which would be built and launched exclusively by Europe.

By 1987, the service module, which was to provide propulsion, attitude control, electric power, thermal control, communications and data processing for the entire "independent" European space station, was scaled down in size in comparison to the original proposals. The module's pressurized habitation section was eliminated. Germany's Dornier would build the service module.

Unlike the European Columbus module for the US Space Station, the MTFF station would not be permanently occupied, but only visited by astronauts every six months. As such, MTFF would be well-suited for then commercially promising microgravity research, which requires an environment free of even slightest disturbances, which astronauts onboard certainly cause. At the same time, such an arrangement would negate NASA objections to European microgravity research onboard the US space station.

The entire two-element MTFF station could be launched by the Ariane-5 rocket and serviced by then yet-to-be built Hermes reusable orbiter. Thus, if ever built, the facility would be totally immune from American dictates. At the same time, the "independent" station would be launched into orbit with an inclination 28 degrees toward the Equator, (the same as the US station's orbital parameters), which would make it possible for the Space Shuttle to access it, if necessary. In the wake of the Challenger accident, it looked to some optimists in Europe as though the MTFF could make it into orbit before the US space station.

Polar platform

In addition to the APM module and the MTFF, the Columbus program also envisioned an autonomous orbital platform in polar orbit. The spacecraft would be dedicated to Earth-observation and other remote-sensing experiments, as a polar orbit would provide global coverage of the Earth surface.

Design and development of the platform would be conducted by the Satcom International consortium with UK's British Aerospace and French company Matra leading the program. As of 1985, the cost of the program was estimated at $360 million and it was expected to climb to $560 million if another proposed platform flying near the main space station was added. (267)

Original plans called for the launch of the polar platform onboard the Space Shuttle, flying from Vandenberg Air Force base, however the mission was later switched to the European Ariane-5 rocket. The platform would carry up to one ton of science gear and would support a power supply system with a 4 kW output. It was expected that Space Shuttle and Hermes space plane would visit the platform on an annual basis delivering new payloads and servicing existing systems. It was expected that after the first visit, the mass of scientific payload could be increased to two tons and the solar panels enlarged to provide up to 7 kW of power. As of 1992, between 1,700 and 2,400 kilograms of international payloads would be hosted onboard the spacecraft.

Abbreviated dreams

As post-Cold War changes swept the world in the 1990s, neither the scope of the Columbus program, nor the size of its hardware could be sustained. The painful unification of Germany, took a high toll on that country's contribution into European Space Agency, ESA. In 1991, ESA announced that it would slash the length of the Columbus module by 20 percent. To make matters worse, the "independent" European space station, MTFF, was "deferred" to 2001 and ultimately killed. The unmanned platform shared a similar fate.

On October 18, 1995, ESA council slashed the length of the Columbus module to 6.7 meters, or half of its original size. To minimize the impact of the shrinking module's ability to house scientific payloads, European developers come up with an ingenious ergonomic design, which utilized walls and ceiling of the laboratory for placement of hardware. A total of 10 experiment racks were housed in the production version of the module. Two experiment platforms -- one facing the Earth and one pointing toward stars -- were available on the exterior of the module.

In addition, terrified by the disastrous maiden flight of the Ariane-5 rocket in 1996, ESA officials decided to launch the irreplaceable laboratory on the US Space Shuttle.

Still, delays in the construction of the International Space Station and the Columbia accident in 2003 pushed the launch of the Columbus module years behind schedule. High hopes circa 1980s about lucrative space ventures, producing miracle drugs, ultra-strong alloys and perfect optics were all but dashed by the turn of the 21st century, turning early quarrels between ESA and NASA into "much to do about nothing." By the time Columbus reached the launch pad in December 2007, the United States had already declared its intention to unilaterally abandon the ISS program in the following decade.

Chronology of the Columbus project:

1985 Jan. 31: In Rome, a meeting of science ministers representing countries of the European Space Agency, ESA, approved the Columbus program.

1985 June: Germany's MBB-ERNO took the role of prime contractor in the Columbus program, while Aeritalia was given the responsibility for building habitable sections, derived from Spacelab modules.

1985 June 3: NASA and ESA signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Space Station cooperation.

1986 April: Aeritalia proposes to develop a second habitation module, which could become a core of Europe's independent space station, MTFF, in addition to a European module within an American space station.

1987: NASA and ESA agreed that MTFF could periodically dock to the US space station for servicing.

1987 November: In Hague, Ministerial council of ESA members approved the development of an Ariane-5 rocket, the Hermes mini-shuttle, and a three-element Columbus program:

  • An Attached Pressurized Module, APM, to be launched at the end of 1996;
  • An Autonomous Man-Tended Free Flyer, MTFF, including a second pressurized module, to be launched in the first quarter of 1998;
  • A polar remote-sensing platform, to be launched in the first quarter of 1997;

1988 February: British government makes a decision to withdraw from the Columbus program and other related projects.

1988 Sept. 29: NASA, ESA, Japan and Canada signed a final agreement on the Space Station cooperation.

1991: ESA announces that it would slash the length of the Columbus module by 20 percent.

1995 Oct. 18: ESA council slashed the length of the Columbus module to 6.7 meters, or half of its original size.

2003: Columbia disaster and resulting grounding of the Shuttle fleet pushes the launch of the Columbus laboratory to the end of 2007.

2007 December: On-pad technical problems with the Space Shuttle push the launch of the Columbus laboratory to the beginning of 2008.

2008 Feb. 7: Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Columbus laboratory in the STS-122/1E mission.

2008 Feb. 9: Space Shuttle Atlantis, carrying the Columbus laboratory, successfully docks to the International Space Station, ISS.

Evolution of characteristics of the Columbus module, attached to the US Space Station:

Total mass in kg.:
Total length in meters:
Main diameter in meters:
4.06 meters
4.47 meters

Total internal volume as 1986

  • Service and support equipment:
  • Habitable volume:
  • Payload racks with science instruments:

145 cubic meters, including:

  • 62 cubic meters
  • 56 cubic meters
  • 27 cubic meters

75 cubic meters, including:

  • 25 cubic meters

* Total mass of the module would grow up to 21,000 kilograms after all its payloads are added in orbit

Characteristics of the MTFF space station, as of 1986:

Total mass: 15 tons (17.6 tons as of 1992)
Total length: 11.5 meters
Main diameter: 3.7 meters (4.4 meters as of 1992)

Characteristics of the polar platform, as of 1992:

Total mass: 5.6 tons
Total length: 10.5 meters, 26 meters, when fully deployed
Main diameter: 4.6 meters

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 12, 2008

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: February 6, 2008

All rights reserved




A concept of the Man-Tended Free Flyer, MTFF, and its future upgrades were considered by European Space Agency, ESA, within the Columbus program. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA


The Hermes space plane docks to the MTFF space station. Click to enlarge. Credit: Aerospatiale


Continuous redesigns of the Hermes space plane once led to this bizarre configuration, which was needed to dock the vehicle with the Columbus MTFF station. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA


The European space station as it was envisioned in 1992. Credit: NASA

MTFF in 1993

The European space station as it was envisioned in 1993. Credit: Deutsche Aerospace

Columbus polar platform

Click to enlarge

Columbus polar

A concept of the polar orbiting platform within the Columbus program, which also had gone through several reincarnations before being dropped altogether. Note the use of the cargo pallets from the Spacelab program and solar panels from the Hubble Space Telescope on the early version of the platform. Credit: ESA

Columbus exterior

Click to enlarge


Click to enlarge


A concept of the Columbus module, which would be permanently attached to Space Station Freedom. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA

Columbus mockup

Columbus interior

The European space station module was conceived on a truly grand scale, as this mockup of exterior and interior shows. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA

Ariane 5

Europe's Ariane-5 was meant to be the carrier of the Columbus laboratory, however the rocket's shaky beginning prompted a switch to the Space Shuttle. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak

Clumbus assembly

The final assembly of the Columbus module. Credit: ESA


Space Shuttle Atlantis, carrying the Columbus laboratory module approaches the ISS Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008. Credit: NASA TV

Columbus attached

Columbus is finally attached to the station. Credit: NASA