America's First Space Station

Skylab, America's First Space Station
The U.S. Skylab space station in orbit over a cloud-covered Earth, photographed February 8, 1974, by the departing third crew of astronauts from their Skylab 4 Command Module. (Photo by Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG / Getty Images)

What Was Skylab?

Skylab was America’s first space station. Launched unmanned on May 14, 1973 from the Kennedy Space Center, Skylab was built and supplied to hold three separate crews of three astronauts over the course of seven months. However, the whole program was nearly ruined when the micrometeoroid shield broke off during launch and damaged other parts of the Skylab.

The combined teamwork of scientists on the ground and astronauts aboard Skylab were able to not only save the Skylab, but make it an all-around success.

Scientific and medical experiments conducted on Skylab greatly added to our knowledge of living in space, the creation of alloys in a non-gravity environment, the planet Earth, and the Sun. Skylab fell from the sky as space debris on July 11, 1979.

Competing With the Russians

In the race to space, the United States was behind. Although the U.S. was the first to have a man walk on the Moon, they were second to the Russians for sending the first animal into orbit, the first man to space, and for creating the first space station.

In 1971, the Russians had launched Salyut 1, the world's first space station. The success of Salyut 1 was dimmed, however, when its first crew had to go home early because they were unable to enter Salyut and its second crew, who had spent 23 days in space, died during re-entry. 

While the Russians were working to build Salyut 2, the United States began working on their own space station -- Skylab,  Lacking funding, NASA decided to use leftover, unused parts from its lunar missions to create Skylab.

(Scientists, however, did add many new features needed for a longer-term stay in space.)

Officially part of the Apollo program, Skylab was a relatively large, cylindrical structure, 118 feet long (36 meters) and 22 feet in diameter (6.7 meters). It had two, huge solar-panel wings and even more solar panels along a windmill-looking tail.The Skylab cluster, as it was often called by scientists, consisted of five main sections:

  • Workshop – This was a two-story area where the crew ate, slept, and conducted experiments.
  • Airlock Module – Access point for crew-members to go on spacewalks.
  • Docking Adaptor – This is where the command and service module (CSM) could attach to the Skylab.
  • Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) – An observation area for crew-members to conduct solar research.
  • Command and Service Module (CSM) -- The spacecraft that took the crew from Earth to the Skylab and back home again.

While the finishing touches were being put on Skylab, the Russians finished Salyut 2 first. On April 3, 1973, Salyut 2 was launched into space. The Russians' haste, however, proved to be their downfall. Just days after the unmanned Salyut 2 reached orbit, an explosion wrecked the space station. 

The Launch of Skylab

On May 14, 1973, just six weeks after Salyut 2's launch, Skylab was ready. The Skylab, minus the CSM, had been loaded onto a Saturn V rocket and placed onto Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. At 1:30 p.m. on May 14, 1973, the unmanned Skylab launched. At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly, but that didn’t last long.

At 63 seconds after initial launch, unexpected readings began to appear at Mission Control.

Something had gone very wrong.

After much research, it was discovered that the micrometeoroid shield had broken off and gotten tangled in the workshop’s solar-panel wings. Ultimately, the shield broke off one solar wing and prevented the other from fully deploying. This caused two major problems: the workshop was getting severely overheated and there wasn’t enough solar power to operate all of the Skylab’s controls.

Trying to Fix the Broken Skylab

The micrometeoroid shield was an aluminum structure that was supposed to pop up along the exterior of the workshop in order to shield that area from both heat from the Sun and fast-moving but small meteoroids. When the micrometeoroid shield broke off, it exposed the workshop, where the crew was supposed to live and work, directly to the Sun’s rays, causing the exterior of the workshop to overheat by 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since the first crew of Skylab was supposed to launch in the CSM just a day after Skylab, this had to be delayed. The first crew’s launch was postponed ten days – not a lot of time for scientists to figure out how to solve this major problem.

Scientists from around the country worked diligently to come up with a plan. They needed to find a workable solution that could be made, tested, and packed within this tight time-frame. Several ideas were considered with just two ultimately chosen.

The plan was that the first crew would place an umbrella-like shade over the workshop and then the second crew would place a more elaborate shade over the workshop using poles and fabric.

It was a massive effort to get this plan to work, but the teamwork between scientists on the ground and astronauts in space proved that even major repairs could be done in space. This became a staple for the Skylab as over 150 different things unexpectedly needed fixing during the Skylab’s tenure.

The Crews

As with Russia's Salyut 1 and 2, the plan was to send a fully functional space station into orbit and then have crews come meet it in space. For Skylab, three separate crews were to live on Skylab, with a 60 day wait in between. Each of  these crews consisted of a commander, a pilot, and a scientist pilot.

  • Crew 1 – 28 days on Skylab (May 25 to June 21, 1973)
    Commander Charles Conrad Jr. (the third man to walk on the Moon)
    Pilot Paul J. Weitz
    Scientist Pilot Joseph P. Kerwin
  • Crew 2 – 59 days on Skylab (July 28 to September 24, 1973)
    Commander Alan L. Bean (the fourth person to walk on the Moon)
    Pilot Jack R. Lousma
    Scientist Pilot Owen K. Garriott
  • Crew 3 – 84 days on Skylab (November 16, 1973 to February 8, 1974)
    Commander Gerald P. Carr
    Pilot William R. Pogue
    Scientist Pilot Edward G. Gibson

Originally, the first crew was to spend 28 days on Skylab, crew two to spend 56 days, and crew three to spend 56 days. However, the crews were doing so well in space that crew two and three's stays were lengthened to a total of 59 and 84 days, respectively.

Ultimately, these crews spent between four to twelve weeks living in space, without gravity, in a small compartment. Simple things that most of us take for granted had to be re-thought and re-designed by scientists to make these longer stays possible.

Life in Space

Scientists, working with a limited budget, needed to build Skylab cheaply, sturdily, and comfortably. They needed to think through how and where the astronauts would work, eat, sleep, exercise, and relax. Without gravity and without a distinct up or down orientation, many of the simplest, everyday actions become logistically difficult. 

Take showering, for example. Drops of water in space would just float around.the space station and land on electrical equipment. Scientists had to engineer a shower that would prevent this from happening but still allow the astronauts to clean themselves. The result was a retractable tube that an astronaut could slide into, with water that was directed by forced air flow. 

Food was another concern. Tubes of liquid food, used in previous shorter flights, was considered unappetizing for a longer stay in space. Scientists worked hard to diversify the astronauts' food and provided dried, frozen, and canned food. (To prevent silverware from floating around the cabin, engineers attached them to a table via magnets.)

Storing trash was another issue – you wouldn’t want that floating around the Skylab for seven months. Scientists also developed a bathroom system that could freeze urine and dry fecal matter so that medical specialists back on Earth could learn from it.

Interestingly, even astronauts simply speaking to each other would be difficult because the thin atmosphere only let sound travel a few feet.

Science Experiments

Living on a space station was in no way a vacation. Scientists back on Earth had many questions they wanted answered and so had planned about 100 scientific experiments for the astronauts to conduct while in space. These experiments were wide in scope but can be divided into five categories:

  • Living in Space: A number of these experiments involved answering the question – “How long can people live in space and can they readjust when returning back to Earth?” The crews underwent a large number of medical experiments while they were on Skylab that monitored both physiological as well as psychological effects of living in space. The findings were that humans adapt quite readily to space life and then their bodies rather quickly readjust to gravity when they return.
  • Earth: The view from Skylab gave an unprecedented opportunity to look at the Earth on a grand scale and analyze human impact on our world.
  • The Sun:  For the first time, scientists were able to get readings, pictures, and recordings of the Sun without the impairment of looking through Earth’s atmosphere. The information learned from these experiments greatly advanced our understanding of solar astronomy and included the discovery of coronal mass ejections.
  • Manufacturing and Crystal Formations in Space: The crew on Skylab also conducted a number of experiments examining what would happen if a crystal was made without the influence of gravity. The results were astounding, with some of the most pure crystals ever made. This could, in the future, mean that manufacturing in space would be a worthwhile endeavor.
  • High School Projects: The Skylab crew also conducted 17 experiments submitted by high school students. One of these experiments included two spiders, who grew beautiful webs in space despite the lack of gravity.
  • Comet Kohoutek: Near Christmas of 1973, the third crew had the unexpected opportunity to witness Comet Kohoutek pass by the Sun.

Information gained from the Skylab mission has been indispensable, including the 40,000 pictures taken of the Earth and 182,000 pictures of the Sun.

The End of Skylab

The Skylab, although plagued by problems, far exceeded what scientists hoped to accomplish with it. It completed 3,900 orbits around the Earth and carried crew for 171 days while traveling 70.5 million miles, from the day it was launched until the third crew left.

When crew three left Skylab on February 8, 1974, NASA still had hopes that it would eventually send another crew someday. However, time went by, funding was cut, and everyone began to focus on the space shuttle project instead. The Skylab, once a symbol of the future, became just another piece of neglected space debris orbiting the Earth.

Then, in 1978, it became apparent that the Skylab’s orbit was deteriorating faster than expected. Unfortunately, the scientists that had worked so diligently to build the space station and get it into space had neglected to create a way to get the Skylab back down to Earth again.

On July 11, 1979, the 77-ton Skylab re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists had tried to maneuver the Skylab so that its debris would land in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, a math miscalculation caused only some of the debris to land in the ocean – the rest landed in a sparsely populated area of Western Australia. Thankfully, no one was hurt.