Skylab: More Than a Punch Line

October 20th, 2008

It’s 1979 and the sky is falling. Well actually, standing out on the playground during recess, I’m watching and waiting for the United States’ first space station to come streaking into the atmosphere. Long the butt jokes, the reality is Skylab provided a wealth of scientific knowledge. Skylab’s birth can be traced all the way back to the late ‘50s when Wernher von Braun floated the idea of reusing rocket boosters as space stations. The concept involved filling a rocket’s upper stage with propellant and once it reached orbit, any remaining fuel would be vented into space leaving a (theoretically) habitable interior. But NASA didn’t really become interested in von Braun’s idea until they found out the Air Force was designing their own space station, the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), in the mid ‘60s. The MOL was a strange and highly classified beast based around the Gemini space capsule and Titan II rocket. Compared to von Braun’s elegantly engineered design, the MOL looked hacked together. Air Force astronauts would have to awkwardly squeeze themselves through a small airlock at the back of the Gemini capsule into the slender MOL cylinder that would serve as the living and workspace for the duration of a surveillance mission.

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The MOL program ended up on the chopping block in 1969 when high quality spy satellites imagery made a manned orbital spy station redundant. But with the election of Richard Nixon and the elimination of the last couple of Apollo moon missions, von Braun’s space station idea was fast tracked. NASA now had surplus Apollo and Saturn equipment on hand, so designing and implementing a space station was much easier than it had been in the mid ‘60s. Because NASA had extra Saturn V rockets lying around, there was no need to fill a station full of fuel to get it into orbit – payload weight restrictions were now pretty flexible and designers could think big. And they did, calling on Raymond Loewy to assist in the design. The resulting space station was positively spacious with separated living and working spaces.

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Skylab was launched into orbit in 1973. Unfortunately, there were immediate technical problems. A sun shield failed to deploy and the one of the solar “wings” didn’t extend. This presented to serious issues: 1. without the sunshield, the station’s interior would become dangerously hot 2. without the second set of solar panels, the station would not have adequate power. The first crew of astronauts to visit Skylab had the daunting task of making repairs during risky spacewalks. But after much effort, the damage was fixed and the station was ready to be occupied.

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A total of three mission to Skylab took place (include the first one to make repairs). Astronauts faced a grueling science schedule, studying everything from microgravity to the corona of the sun. This brutal schedule lead to a revolt among the astronauts, who often had little time to even eat meals due to the regimented work routine ground controllers kept them on. Fed up with being worked like dogs, the astronauts stopped performing science experiments until NASA cut back on the number of assigned tasks. Of course this was an important lesson – later missions to Russia’s MIR and the International Space Station would have downtime built into the mission schedules to help maintain a healthy work environment in space.

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So why did Skylab fall from the sky in 1979? When the station was originally conceived, there was the assumption that the United States would have a space shuttle to service it. And the space shuttle was designed and built to service a space station, which needs refueling for its thrusters from time to time to remain in orbit. The great irony of Skylab is the shuttle didn’t fly until 1981, two years after the space station fell from orbit due to neglect. But Skylab laid the foundation for future NASA missions to MIR in the ’90s and the ISS today - even though little credit is given to this forgotten first space station.

Entry Filed under: Science

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Brain  |  October 28th, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I always loved Skylab. It just looked cool.

    RIP.

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