Skylab: Remembering America’s First Space Station

Astronaut on a Spacewalk outside the Skylab

While the International Space Station has been an ongoing project for NASA for over 20 years, it is not the first space station that the United States was involved with. After the final Apollo Moon landing, Apollo 17, NASA turned its sights back to Earth orbit. Using hardware elements that were left over from the Apollo Program, NASA developed the Skylab Program. There were two main goals for this program. The first was to prove that humans could live and work in space for extended periods, and the second was to expand our knowledge of solar astronomy beyond Earth-based observations.

The main structure of the space station would be a modified Saturn V third stage. This part would be known as the Orbital Work Shop and would have two solar panels. A special solar telescope mount was attached to a forward airlock and was designed to photograph and gather data about our Sun. Between May 1973 and February 1974, three different crews occupied the Skylab Space Station for a total of 171 days.

NASA Illustration of Skylab as planned

Skylab Station Launch May 14, 1973

The Skylab Station launched on May 14, 1973 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a Saturn V rocket. Unfortunately, only moments into the flight, vibrations during liftoff caused a critical meteoroid shield to be ripped off taking one of the craft’s two large solar panels with it. A piece of the torn meteoroid shield also wrapped around the other panel preventing it from deploying. The loss of the meteoroid shield also removed protection from intense solar heating and caused temperatures inside Skylab to rise to a sweltering 126 degrees Fahrenheit. The launch of the first crew that had been scheduled for the next day would be postponed until NASA had time to come up with solutions to cool the station and free the jammed solar panel.

Astronauts Joseph Kerwin, Charles C. Conrad Jr., and Paul J. Weitz

On May 25, the first Skylab crew lifted off in an Apollo Spacecraft using a Saturn 1B rocket. The crew consisted of Commander Charles C. Conrad Jr., Pilot Paul J. Weitz, and Scientist Joseph Kerwin. Conrad had previously walked on the Moon as Apollo 12 mission commander. The crew was able to deploy a type of parasol sunshade that cooled the inside temperatures to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They also did a spacewalk where they were able to free the remaining jammed solar panel. By June 4, the workshop was in full operation. In orbit, the crew conducted solar astronomy and Earth resources experiments, medical studies and five student experiments. The mission completed 392 experiment hours, and three spacewalks together totaling six hours, 20 minutes. After 28 days in orbit, the crew returned to Earth on June 22, 1973.

The second crew of Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma, and Owen K. Garriott launched on July 28 and would continue experiments on Skylab for 59 days. The third and final Skylab crew of Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, and Edward G. Gibson lifted off on Nov. 16, 1973. They would stay on Skylab for a record 84 days, three times the length of the first crew. They splashed down on Feb. 8, 1974, bringing an end to the Skylab Program.

NASA had developed plans to visit Skylab with the Space Shuttle when it began flying. Delays in the Shuttle’s first flight, along with greater atmospheric drag on Skylab due to increased solar activity meant this was not to be. Skylab burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979. A few pieces fell over sparsely populated areas of Australia and were recovered.

Skylab photographed by its last crew, Skylab 4
Skylab view of Solar Activity

Despite a rough start, Skylab turned out to be a tremendous success as the United States first attempt at a space station. It was the site of nearly 300 scientific and technical experiments, including medical experiments on humans’ adaptability to zero gravity, solar observations and detailed Earth resources experiments. The lessons learned also helped pave the way for the current International Space Station that has been continuously inhabited since November 2000.

Robert McCall's ASTP artworkfirst color image taken on mars