The Forgotten Success of Skylab
The one thing that most people seem to remember about Skylab is that it was the space station that crashed to Earth. On July 11, 1979, the NASA space station’s orbit completely deteriorated after five years above the planet. America’s long-term experiment with living in space had come to a fiery end.
Skylab was much more than a fireworks display to observers in July of ’79. It was America’s first space station, and one of the world’s most successful orbital platforms until construction began on the International Space Station in 1998. Skylab gathered tons of data about the Earth’s atmosphere and performed some of the first in-depth studies of the sun, data that formed the foundation for solar studies to this day.
The idea of a manned space station goes back to early days of NASA. Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist and father of the Saturn V, originally conceived a path to the moon by way of an orbital space platform that would double as an observatory and communications relay station. The advent of satellite technology made a manned orbital platform above the earth obsolete. Von Braun’s space station plan was scrapped for a cheaper, more direct route to the moon via Earth-launched rockets.
Von Braun did not give up on his dream, though. Even while designing and building the mighty Saturn V rocket and guiding America’s moon shot, he continued to push the idea of developing a space station that would orbit the Earth and be equipped to house scientists and equipment for long stays. Von Braun’s interest in the space station was two-fold. First, he was forever dedicated to the conquest of space. Second, he wanted his team to have a job after the Apollo missions concluded.
Von Braun realized even before the July 20, 1969 moon landing that the U.S. government was likely to lose interest in space after the lofty goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon was achieved. He envisioned the dramatic cuts to NASA’s budget that came to pass after the first successful Apollo Moon missions.
By this point, the space station was already in the advanced planning stages. Constrained by shrinking budgets, von Braun and NASA engineers came up with the idea of using a stage from an existing Saturn V rocket as the body of the station. Construction and modification began in late 1969.
By May 1973, the space station, now known as Skylab for “laboratory in the sky,” was ready for takeoff. It was launched on an unmanned, modified Saturn V on May 14. The station suffered damage to its main solar panel array and lost its micrometeoroid shield during deployment in orbit. This fueled the derision of skeptics who saw space exploration as a waste of money and resources.
The first three astronauts to man the station were sent up on May 25, and their first mission was to repair the damage sustained after launch. They deployed a shade that kept the sun from frying station instruments, and performed other repairs inside and out. Once this important housekeeping was taken care of, the astronauts got to work on a long list of science experiments.
The first crew returned to earth after 28 days aboard Skylab. A second three-man crew went up on July 28, 1973, staying for 60 days. Skylab’s third set of inhabitants went up on Nov. 16 that same year, staying for 84 days and establishing a record for longest human stay in space.
The astronauts on Skylab and scientists on the ground learned a lot about the effects of living in space on the human body. It was determined that humans could exist in zero gravity environments for sustained periods provided they engaged in daily exercise and a nutritious diet.
Among Skylab’s greatest achievements were its studies of the sun. The station included an impressive collection of observation equipment that included several types of cameras and telescopes. Over the course of the three missions, astronauts gathered data on the sun that revolutionized scientists’ understanding of the sun’s solar cycle, its impact on earth’s weather and magnetic fields, and even the formation and orbit of the planets.
Almost 300 separate experiments were conducted on Skylab. Beyond solar observations and various medical experiments, there were technology and operational experiments conducted to test components in space, and a series of experiments conducted on behalf of American high school students who submitted their ideas in advance.
Skylab offered a wealth of information, but it was not enough to impress government officials in charge of NASA’s budget. Space exploration is a long, arduous process, and many missions take years to show results. People are not that patient. Space probes that take years to reach their targets, or space stations that produce data that takes months or years to interpret rarely holds the attention of the general public for very long. And government bean counters were more agreeable to funding cheaper, less dangerous unmanned probes and satellites.
There was still more than enough oxygen and water on the station to sustain more manned missions, but funding for launches and maintenance were cut significantly after the third mission. Skylab orbited silent and empty from February 1974-79.
Skylab’s orbit was programmed to hold at least until 1979. It was believed that by that point the space shuttle would be up and running and could make regular trips to and from the station. Unfortunately, the space shuttle program ran behind schedule and Skylab’s orbit began to decay earlier than expected. It was suggested that retro rockets on the station could move it into a higher orbit, but NASA officials decided that it was time to throw in the towel on Skylab.
One plan called for taking Skylab down with missiles, but this was rejected because it would create too much orbital debris and NASA would not be able to target where it landed. Instead, they plotted its trajectory and programmed it to come down in a controlled descent over the Indian Ocean.
Skylab’s fall from orbit was a huge media event. Newspapers and radio stations offered prizes for people who showed up with pieces of the space station. T-shirts were sold, and Skylab became the butt of numerous late night TV jokes.
The station came back to Earth on July 11, 1979, with most of it either burning up in the atmosphere or plunging into the Indian Ocean. Some pieces were scattered across Australia, but no one on the ground was hit and no property damage was reported.
Skylab’s crews logged a total of 171 days in orbit, and the station traveled more than 70 million miles. Its legacy has informed and inspired the ISS, future manned missions to Mars, and mankind’s continued push to reach for the stars.