On February 20, 1986, a Proton rose off its launchpad in Kazakstan bound for low Earth orbit. Its payload was a module designated 17KS, known better as the core stage of the Mir space station. In the 15 years that followed, modules were added and rearranged, prompting some to liken history’s first modular space station to a Tinker Toy. But however non-traditional it was at the time, a lot can be gleaned from its name. “Mir” roughly translates to “peace” or “world,” but a more nuanced is the translation of “village.” If the Americans and Soviets behind their space programs are a village, Mir brought everyone together for the sake of the mission.
Mir’s story begins in 1976 with a Soviet pledge to improve on the Salyut space station program. Like the American Skylab, Salyut was a single module station such that all experiments and systems had to be launched ready to go inside the monolithic structure. Once in orbit, there was no real way to resupply these stations or add additional modules to extend their capabilities in orbit. But both the Americans and the Soviets knew this would be a valuable capability, not to mention a means to build a bigger, more complete space station for a larger mission; Wernher von Braun was among the first proponents of constructing a space station in orbit as early as the 1950s. Mir became the first proof-of-concept of this novel idea.