NASA’s Skylab was the first American space station. During its six years in space, it not only helped prove that humans could live and work in space, but allowed us to expand our knowledge of the solar system.
– Planning and Launching Skylab –
Skylab had many functions: it served as a microgravity lab, a solar observatory, a medical lab, and more. Also, unlike earlier spacecraft, which were designed for relatively short missions, Skylab was designed to be inhabited for months at a time, and habitability was a more significant concern. To this end, Skylab had more individual sleeping cubicles, a shower and toilet, and tastier food.
The Skylab space station was launched, unmanned, from the Kennedy Space Center on May 14, 1973, and put into orbit 270 miles (435 kilometers) above the Earth. However, its meteoroid shield (designed to shade part of the station) had deployed too early and broken off in flight, taking one solar array with it and pinning the other array in a partially-open position. Repairing the space station would be the first task of the three-man crew.
– The First Crew –
The first Skylab crew, consisting of Charles Conrad, Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph Kerwin, launched on May 25, 1973, eleven days after the station itself had started its orbit. They succeeded in deploying a new shield, and later freed the pinned solar array during a spacewalk. The crew returned to Earth on June 22, having spent 28 days in space, and setting a new record for longest duration manned spaceflight.
– The Second and Third Crews –
The next crew (Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma, and Owen Garriott) launched the week after the return of their predecessors, on June 28. They erected an additional sun shield during a spacewalk. The second crew landed back on Earth on September 25, 1973, their 59-day trip breaking the first crew’s record.
The third, and final, Skylab crew consisted of Jerry Carr, Bill Pogue, and Edward Gibson. They spent 84 days in space (from November 16, 1973 to February 8, 1974), again breaking the record set by the previous crew.
– Skylab’s Fall –
After the last crew left, NASA performed some additional tests that would have been unsafe while people were aboard, then shut the station down. It was expected that Skylab would stay in space for at least eight years. However, extra solar activity warmed the Earth’s outer atmosphere and increased drag on the spacecraft, and, in the fall of 1977, scientists determined that Skylab was no longer in a stable orbit.
Skylab’s impending fall inspired a range of reactions. People went to Skylab parties (some outdoors, some in sub-basements), wore “Skylab Target” t-shirts, bet on where it would fall, and bought joke “survival kits” that contained plastic helmets and targets.
In the weeks leading up to Skylab’s fall, NASA made small adjustments to Skylab’s position, in an attempt to minimize the odds of the craft disintegrating over a populated area. Other government agencies made preparations as well: the State Department designated a Skylab officer in each overseas mission, and the Air Force was ready to fly “go teams” to any nation where pieces of Skylab landed.
Fortunately, when Skylab entered the atmosphere and disintegrated on July 11, 1979, the debris fell over the Indian Ocean and a sparsely populated area of western Australia. No one was injured, although the Shire of Esperance did fine NASA $400 for littering.
Though its life was short, Skylab left behind a lasting legacy. The Skylab mission helped lay the foundations for later work in space, such as the International Space Station, by showing how theories about human life in space could be applied in practice. Further, Gerald Carr, Commander for the third crew, has said that the work on Skylab showed that humans might be able to travel to Mars without artificial gravity. Whatever direction space travel takes in the future, the lessons learned from Skylab will be an important part of it.