Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Skylab 1, America’s first space station
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.
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.
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.
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.