Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Skylab 1, America’s first space station

Skylab 1 launches from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A on May 14, 1973. NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Skylab, the United States' first space station, launches atop the massive Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973. Photo Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 1:37 p.m. EDT (16:37 GMT), Skylab 1, the United States’ first space station, was launched forty-two years ago today on May 14, 1973. The scientific and observational platform would remain on orbit for a little more than six years, falling out of orbit in July of 1979 – and it would serve NASA another opportunity to prove that it still had the “right stuff”.

The station was launched atop the last Saturn V rocket (SA-513) to be deployed. It encountered severe technical issues upon reaching orbit. These were precipitated when the micrometeoroid shield was stripped away from the rocket approximately 1 minute and 3 seconds into the flight. This created a further problem in that it tore off one of the two solar array panels – and causing the other one to be stuck.

Skylab_illustration image credit MSFC NASA

Artist’s depiction of Skylab. (Click to enlarge.)
Image credit: MSFC / NASA

Despite these issues, Skylab was placed into the proper, near-circular, orbit some 270 miles (435 kilometers) above the Earth. However, Skylab’s position was precarious, if it was to be saved – something dramatic would have to be done.

The situation reignited the “can do” attitude of NASA, with teams of engineers working to identify and correct the technical challenges that the station now faced.

Veteran Apollo astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. was joined by rookie astronauts Joseph P. Kerwin and Paul J. Weitz who journeyed up to the newly-deployed outpost and during a series of three extravehicular activities managed to get the remaining solar array deployed and drape a collapsible parasol which served as a sunshade for an exposed portion of the space station.

This caused the temperatures within Skylab to fall to acceptable levels and the trio of astronauts could begin living in the orbiting complex. They and the two successive crews would carry out some 16 biomedical experiments in the station’s microgravity environment as well as observations of the Sun and an array of other studies.

Skylab 3 crew conducting extra-vehicular activity EVA spacewalk NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Skylab was saved by several EVAs that were conducted by the first crew of astronauts that launched to the station shortly after the platform was sent aloft. Photo Credit: Skylab 3 / NASA

The other crewed missions to Skylab were the following: Skylab 3, which was comprised of commander Alan Bean, science pilot Owen K. Garriott, and pilot Jack R. Lousma; the final mission, Skylab 4, included commander Gerald P. Carr, science pilot Edward G. Gibson, and pilot William R. Pogue. While crews were kept very busy during their time on the outpost, serving on Skylab did have its benefits.

“Between 8 and 10 at night, we had free time,” Carr said. “For the most part, the most fun was looking out the window.”

Even in their free time, the astronauts on board the station found that they still had work to do in order to keep up with the workload.

“We had a number of other things to do,” Garriott said. “We had the student experiments, for example.”

Skylab began as what was known as the Apollo Orbital Workshop, which would use a S-IVB stage that would be equipped with a docking adapter. It would be provided with crew and equipment by additional flights of the Saturn 1B booster.

For a time in the late 1970s, NASA still hoped that the Space Shuttle would be able to fly to the station and it could once again be crewed after the third, and final, trio of astronauts had departed in early 1974. This was not to be, however.

On July 11 of 1979, the 86.3 feet (26.3 m) spacecraft re-entered into Earth’s atmosphere, with portions reported coming down over Perth, Australia. The first flight of the Space Shuttle, STS-1, did not take to the skies until two years later in April of 1981. While not the end that NASA might have wanted, Skylab’s position in the history books is assured.

“I think most people would recognize Skylab as the world’s first space station, or at least the U.S.’s first space station,” Garriott said.

Skylab lifts off from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39 in Florida. NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: NASA



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

We gained a ton of knowledge and experience from Skylab.
Personally, I place the greatest of these upon our own SUN and the correct understanding of stars.

Also the recognition that people have a role in space. Astronauts salvaged Skylab where machinery could not (interesting stories). Also, people need breaks and cannot work continually. Thus, they ‘went on strike’ (even more interesting story).

I’m glad NASA overcame the bureaucratic circles even at that time to launch Skylab and bring success!

What a success for the modified S-IVB stage!

The launch anomaly went a little different than what you described. When the micrometeoriod shield came off, both workshop arrays deployed. The starboard solar array did not deploy fully because a part of the shield wrapped around it preventing it from extending. The port solar array deployed fully. The micrometeoriod shield failure also damaged some avionics, so that the aft interstage failed to separate from the S-II stage. Once the workshop reached orbital velocity, after S-II engine cutoff, the retrorockets on the front truncated cone intersage structure of the S-II fired, and one of the four retrorockets impinged on the deployed port solar array, blowing it off of the workshop.

Ferris Valyn

I consider the loss of skylab one of the great “what-ifs” of space history.

The failure to follow the dry workshop Skylab with a wet workshop is the turning point in space exploration that began 40 years of being stranded in LEO. The main instrument of Skylab- a sun observation telescope- was there to try and predict solar storms which remain one of the key hazards to human travel through cislunar space (we narrowly missed such a storm irradiating an Apollo crew). And as the last Saturn V launch it was a postscript to the end of the first space age. 1968 to 1972.

SLS is progressing and promises the start of the second space age.

I’m afraid I profoundly disagree with your previous statement. The SLS completion could actually fatally damage NASA’s reputation. Its obsolete and eye wateringly expensive, just as it was designed to be.

Sorry to break the news to you; the SLS completion could actually fatally damage NewSpace plans. It’s far more capable than anything else on Earth and designed to go to the Moon. Which is where the next President is going to send our U.S. Moon rocket. And we will be going back to stay this time.

Sorry but NASA can barely afford the rocket itself, never mind a payload – the recent and latest pork-stuffed monstrosity from congress seriously damages Newspace and ensures that Russia will pocket more cash for flights to the ISS – wonderful move, not.

If there was no space station NASA would have money for SLS. Whatever “seriously damages Newspace” is good for space exploration. Blaming the SLS for rides to the ISS is nonsense. Why are there always people just waiting to pounce on comments critical of NewSpace? It’s really weird what happens anywhere space is discussed on the internet. Like a cult. When that big beauty flies people are going to get interested in going back to the Moon and these forums are going to change.

BandYetAgain (or should I say Gary Church)

I think the more relevant question is why you feel the need to bring up the SLS in an article that has nothing to do with the SLS?

Mr. Rhian wrote a very good piece, detailing the history of Skylab. The appropriate thing to do with a response would be to merely comment on the article, or on Skylab, and call it a day.

And yet, you can’t seem to do that.

The next Skylab.

Pleading, begging, bullying, and being a pest will not make it go away Ferris.

People are *already* interested in going back to the Moon. Unfortunately, $40B is going to be spent on four test launches of a useless rocket instead of developing actual lunar technology. It’s difficult to get to the Moon if you don’t have a lander!

“SpaceX will be busy launching satellites-”

No ISS and a small satellite market means maybe not so busy and no money to blow up barges. Maybe no more SpaceX.

“All of them will have their hands full-”

So you say, I say not. And thus the wailing. We shall see.

Let me try to reply again, I answered your other comment.

Your 40 billion dollars for four launches? If you are counting all the money spent so far on SLS and the amount scheduled for these launches added to that then it is a good game you are playing but the costs after all the development is done are what go to the Moon. The present NASA hierarchy has done everything possible to starve the SLS to death but the tide will turn with the next administration- it already has started. The extra money for the upper stage is a sure sign the SLS is going and don’t you worry, it can carry a whole pack of robot landers to put rovers down to find the ice.

Ferris Valyn

Some year’s ago, there was a piece in Air & Space Magazine, called Skylab’s Untimely Fate, or Skylab’s Ulitmate Fate (can’t remember which now), which talked about what could’ve been with the Shuttle and Skylab, and the plans that had been drawn up around that.

I always found the graphics associated with that piece very interesting.

Encyclopedia Astronautica – “Skylab’s Untimely Fate”.
by James Oberg – First appeared in Air & Space, February/March 1992, pp. 73-79

Quite an interesting history there on Skylab.

I really wish the pictures that were associated with that piece were online somehow/somewhere. I know that I am pure fan-boying the issue, because the words tell the story, but seeing how Skylab might have looked, as an expanding station, that could be built out, would’ve been very interesting. Skylab working with the Shuttle might have allowed for more quickly enabling LEO industrialization.

Of course, its always easy to paint a rosy “what-if” picture.

Instead of the What-If game that we could repeatly play, why not look at the what’s going on and the What’s Next vision.

I believe SLS has already started that (too bad their funding got blocked years ago (but that needs to be discussed on a whole new thread).

Let’s use the fire from these to inspire the next generation toward discoveries through manned space flight.

Skylab from the post-Apollo era inspired me!

Ferris Valyn


Given thats not really what the article is about, that that is what my day job is about, I’d prefer to shy away from those topics here.

Besides, I don’t really care about inspring the youth. I want them to actually be able to go to space, with all of their friends.

“I believe SLS has already started that-”

-people are going to get interested in going back to the Moon and these forums are going to change.

After years of trying to survive on these forums I have only found a couple sites where I can have my say without getting endlessly harassed- and finally losing my temper, returning fire, and giving the moderators an excuse to get rid of their problem.

I look forward to seeing that change when the public becomes interested in space again by way of the SLS- and starts telling these NewSpace people to shut up and let them say something. The extra money for the upper stage is a sure sign that 40 years after Saturn V lifted Skylab, a new Moon rocket is going to fly.

Chinese-Russian talk of a Moon base and Europeans increasingly asking why we are not going back is also a sign of the coming change in direction. The next President will read the writing on the wall when someone explains to her what an albatross the ISS is- and there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the NewSpace camp. The cosmic ray rat story concerning what happens to brains in deep space will repeatedly come back to haunt the Mars fans until that fantasy is no longer the “horizon goal”- except maybe as a joke.

In the best scenario for advancing space exploration, the ISS closes shop and nobody will loan Bigelow a dime for his inflatable tourist stations. NewSpace will die with a whimper. Without NASA tax dollars the corporate welfare keeping Musk in play money will dry up and whether SpaceX can stand on it’s own two feet as a satellite launch provider remains to be seen. Mars missions will become Moon “precursor missions” despite lakes of bitter tears.

With a one billion dollar increase in the budget for a Moon base and adding what is being flushed on ISS and commercial crew that means 10 billion a year- and 6 to 8 SLS flights a year for the next couple decades till a larger system replaces it. Since this is not much more than what the Army spends on ballistic missile defense and some silos in Alaska, SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS that the NASA budget will never go up even this small increment is not going to do anything to stop it from happening.

And the U.S. will be back in space.

Ferris Valyn


You do realize that this has nothing to do with the story on skylab? Or that there are various NewSpace people/company that have an interest in the moon?

Or do you prefer to keep railing and so on?

“-endlessly harassed- and finally losing my temper, returning fire, and giving the moderators an excuse to get rid of their problem.”

And as you can see Richard, the harassment begins immediately. My comment was indeed about Skylab, it’s purpose, the vehicle that launched it, and it’s successor.

Apollo was cancelled due to NASA being a political football thrown back and forth between administrations and also because it competed with the much higher profit margins of defense industry projects. The 40 years the U.S. space program has remained stranded in LEO was due to these two factors and a third one most important of all- public opinion. Public opinion was that space was a waste of money. That people like Gerard K. O’Neill proposed space as the new “High Frontier” with Space Solar Power being the key to an end to poverty on planet Earth seemed too far-fetched.

It is far-fetched no longer and the opportunity to expand the human presence into the solar system is approaching with the next change in administration. Indeed, one of the key campaign issues- global warming- can be answered with Space Solar Power and a return to the Moon. The climate change deniers cannot really object because Space Solar Power stands by itself as a path to essentially limitless energy and prosperity for America.

Right now is a critical time that will decide the future course humankind though this is not appreciated.

NewSpace wants that future to be with rich tourists in the dead end of LEO for another 40 years. And they really, really, do not like people explaining that on public forums.

Which is why people like Ferris will never leave me alone.

Ferris Valyn


Please don’t turn every post of yours into a “woe is me” piece, followed by your latest dissertation on how if we just followed your plan, everything would be hunky dory.

“Skylab from the post-Apollo era inspired me!”

The last events of import in my view were December 14, 1972, 22:54:37 UTC, when the ascent motor of Challenger lit off, and December 16, 1972, 23:35:09 UTC, when the America lit off her service module engine.

Splashdown was December 19, 1972, 19:24:59 UTC, and the first space age was over. The SLS will start the second space age and take us back to the Moon to stay.

“The next President will read the writing on the wall when someone explains to her what an albatross the ISS is- and there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the NewSpace camp.”

No, there won’t be. SpaceX will be busy launching satellites and designing a new launch vehicle, and Blue Origin is working on their own plans AND building engines for the ULA. And Orbital, while not “New Space”, still involved with the ISS, might be a bit more unhappy with it but they also build spacecrafts and run their solid fuel line of launchers for small science payloads. All of them will have their hands full anyway. So I don’t see any logic in as why there ought to be any “great wailing and gnashing of teeth” on their part.

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