How NASA’s first space station almost destroyed a town

40 years on we take a look at the incredible story of Skylab, NASA’s first attempt at a space station.


Skylab allowed NASA to study prolonged missions in space.

In 1971 the Soviet Union launched the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, to global acclaim. Not one to be ousted by the USSR, NASA already had plans in the works to outdo the Soviets with a bigger and better station that would lay the groundwork for future space stations including Mir and the ISS. Enter Skylab, NASA’s pioneering space station of the Seventies.

During the Fifties rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, alongside other space visionaries, outlined his plan to build a giant rotating space habitat that would house many people in orbit. The proposal, although ambitious, was seriously considered by NASA and other agencies as a means to explore beyond Earth orbit, specifically the Moon. Following the creation of Project Apollo, however, which did not require in-orbit assembly, von Braun’s ambitious plans were scrapped.

NASA, however, still saw the benefits of launching a space station, especially for scientific purposes and to ascertain the ability of humans to operate for a prolonged period in space. Thus, in 1963, NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) decided to cooperate in the building of a space station, although their objectives proved to be different and NASA went ahead with construction of Skylab alone.

Skylab was launched atop a modified Saturn V rocket on 14 May 1973, the last time this iconic rocket ever launched. The modifications were the upper stage of the rocket. Skylab was basically a refurbished third stage of a rocket gutted out and made into an orbital workshop, which was placed inside the upper stage of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts launched to the station in an Apollo Command and Service Module atop a smaller Saturn 1B rocket. Unlike the ISS, which took over 12 years to build, Skylab was built in its entirety and required only one unmanned launch.

Boeing technicians work inside the giant first stage of a Saturn V rocket.

Boeing technicians work inside the giant first stage of a Saturn V rocket.

Less than two weeks later, on 25 May 1973, the first three-manned crew (Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin) launched to the station. However, their arrival was not devoid of problems. During the unmanned launch of Skylab a micro-meteoroid shield had torn off the station. Not only had this ripped off one of the solar panels and prevented the other from deploying, but it also left the station without a defense against incoming solar radiation. This raised the temperature on Skylab to a blistering 52°C (126°F). When the first crew arrived, their first task was to deploy a makeshift parasol with a spacewalk to lower the temperature and deploy the stuck solar panel, bringing the station up to near full power.

With the problems overcome, Skylab was ready to fulfil its promise. One of the most important tasks of the Skylab missions was to see how humans coped with prolonged stays in space. The three astronauts performed daily biological tests, taking turns to act as the “guinea pig” as the others monitored their bodies. These ranged from basic physical exercises to blood tests and other medical examinations. The astronauts’ days lasted from 6am to 10pm (Houston time), during which they each conducted solar observations and other experiments. The crew also had a number of experiments designed by students to carry out, which were generally a bit more light-hearted than those arranged by NASA. These included observing the motion of a blob of water in zero-gravity and playing catch to test hand-eye coordination.

Inside Skylab

Astronaut Edward Gibson demonstrates zero-gravity on board Skylab in this picture.

Skylab was a surprisingly large station, comparable in liveable space to a three-bedroom house. It had a number of amenities that were tested for the first time and would become mainstays of future space stations Mir and the International Space Station including a toilet and shower. After overcoming the initial disorientation of living in zero-gravity all nine astronauts to stay on Skylab reported no problems operating in a weightless environment. All their experiments were highly successful and, using the solar observatory attached to the station (the Apollo Telescope Mount), the astronauts performed the most detailed observations of the Sun at the time.

In total three different three-man crews visited the station, Skylab 2, 3 and 4, with the trips lasting 28, 59 and 84 days respectively. The last mission to the station departed on 8 February 1974. In anticipation of another crew visiting the station the astronauts left behind supplies including food and water. The events that followed, however, meant that astronauts Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson would be the last residents on Skylab.

The original plan was for Skylab to remain in orbit for another ten or so years, with crews possibly being brought to the station by the Space Shuttle. However, in 1978 it was discovered that the Sun was entering a period of increased solar activity, which in turn would push Skylab lower in its orbit, culminating in an uncontrolled re-entry in 1979. NASA devised a plan to use a Space Shuttle to boost the station higher but, when the Space Shuttle programme was delayed until 1982, it became readily apparent that Skylab could not be saved.

The size of Skylab meant that it wouldn’t entirely burn up in the atmosphere, and it was likely that debris would make it to the surface. In addition, ground control did not have complete control over the station, so they could not direct where the debris would land. Skylab moved into a state of freefall and, on 11 July 1969, it began to re-enter the atmosphere amidst a media maelstrom.

Skylab in orbit

Skylab was a great example of how not to de-orbit a large object...

As it descended the station burned up and broke apart, but parts of it survived the harsh temperatures of re-entry. Initial reports said that it had fallen safely into the Indian Ocean away from populated areas. One town in Western Australia, however, disagreed. Residents in the Shire of Esperance were startled when a multitude of sonic booms could suddenly be heard in the sky as pieces of debris broke the sound barrier. Chunks of Skylab rained across Esperance, including an oxygen tank, but fortunately no one was harmed.

Esperance took it all on the chin, however, and there were several endearing stories to come out of the incident such as that of Stan Thornton, a 17-year-old farmer in Esperance. His mother alerted him to a piece of Skylab debris in their garden, and Stan had already heard that the San Francisco Examiner was offering $10,000 to anyone who could deliver a piece of Skylab debris to their office. After cooling down the debris in his garden, Stan hopped on a plane to San Francisco with nothing more than a toothbrush and his wallet and was greeted by throngs of media who watched him hand in the debris to claim his prize.

Esperance also jokingly fined NASA $400 for “littering”. Despite several requests from the American public to pay it over the years, the fee remained unpaid until a persistent radio host arrived in Esperance in 2009 with a cheque for the full amount of money, donated by his listeners. Scott Barley of the Highway Radio in Barstow, California handed over the money to widespread applause as people remembered the event that put Esperance firmly on the map.

Skylab’s high-profile demise was testament to its significance in an age where space exploration was still riding the waves of the Apollo successes. It will forever be regarded as one of NASA’s pioneering achievements that paved the way to the International Space Station, providing key information and experimental evidence that will prove useful for decades to come.

Images courtesy of NASA and Boeing

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