It’s easy to forget that not all humans live on Earth. Since 1998 the International Space Station has been home to astronaut crews from a wide range of nations, and before that, in the 1990s, the Russians had a space station called Mir. Flights to the ISS are now so routine that they rarely make headlines. But 41 years ago today, on May 14, 1973, the very first space station went into orbit. Skylab, entirely a U.S. mission, was humanity’s first semi-permanent home in the heavens; until its fiery demise in 1979 nine American men called it home for a total of 171 days.
Skylab was never intended to be a glamorous effort. Forget about graceful wheels spinning in outer space to the strains of Strauss waltzes, as the vision of space from the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey showed us; Skylab looked like a beer can with a couple of straws sticking out of it. It was cobbled together by NASA engineers in the 1960s, partially–though not entirely–to give them something to do (and justify their budget) after they designed the expensive hardware that would take humans to the Moon on the Apollo program. That makes it sound like Skylab was an afterthought, but in fact the idea of a space station in Earth orbit was, at the time, a key component of NASA’s long-term space exploration strategy. The idea was not only to conduct scientific experiments in space, but also use Skylab as the building block for a permanent space complex which presumably would be the jumping-off point for grander missions, such as a mission to Mars.
The Skylab astronauts spent more time in space than any other Americans until the 1990s.
That was the idea, anyway, and not a bad one at the time. Skylab was created with hardware for the Apollo program. The main component was a converted Saturn rocket stage, one of the rockets that was suddenly available after budget cuts caused cancellation of the proposed Apollo 18, 19 and 20 missions. On May 14, 1973, almost six months after the final Apollo mission returned from the Moon, Skylab blasted off. The launch was disastrous. The space station was badly damaged during launch, with a sun shield torn and one of its two large solar panel wings inoperative. The station was unmanned when it was launched, so it had to sort of hang there in space until somebody could come fix it.
The fix-it men, the astronauts of Skylab 2, arrived eleven days later. Astronaut Pete Conrad, who walked on the Moon in Apollo 12, and his friends Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin set to work on a grueling schedule to try to save the dying station. On a series of spacewalks they put up a collapsible parasol to shade the station from the sun (otherwise it would have become too hot to function) and made some ingenious fixes to the electrical system. When finished Skylab looked jury-rigged and lopsided, but it functioned. The Skylab 1 team spent 26 days docked at the space station, then departed and splashed down safely on June 22, 1973.
Skylab 3, the next mission, arrived in July. Astronauts Bean, Lousma and Garriott spent a rather uneventful 58 days at the station, at least uneventful compared to the epic rescue mission that had come before. There were plenty of scientific experiments and the astronauts got used to living and working in space. The Skylab 3 team rotated out in September, and was replaced two months later by an all-rookie crew, Carr, Pogue and Gibson. Arriving at the station on November 16, 1973, they stayed the longest of all, 84 days, finally departing on February 8, 1974.
By comparison to previous space missions, Skylab’s interior was quite roomy. That doesn’t mean living aboard her was especially comfortable, however.
Exactly what to do with Skylab after that vexed NASA for several years. There was nothing wrong with the station itself, and in fact even after Carr, Pogue and Gibson left, there was enough food, water and air left on the station to support probably a few more missions. NASA was then developing the Space Shuttle and the plan was to use it to reactivate Skylab and even build more onto it, creating a permanent complex in space. As it turned out there was time pressure. In 1977 scientists realized mistakes had been made regarding the orbit in which Skylab was parked. They predicted, if left untouched, it would fall back to Earth sometime in 1979. At first NASA wasn’t that concerned. The Space Shuttle would be ready by 1978, just in time to tow Skylab to a more stable orbit and reopen it for business. Unfortunately program delays kept stretching out the Space Shuttle’s readiness date. In December 1978 NASA gave up. They realized the shuttle would not be ready, and, lacking a space vehicle with which to rescue Skylab, there was nothing to do but watch it fall.
Fall it did, and spectacularly so. On July 11, 1979, Skylab re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and began to burn up. NASA was understandably concerned that it might strike a populated area. Ground controllers tried the best they could to reorient the station so it would crash down over the ocean but this was imprecise because Skylab lacked retro-rockets or any other means of direct control. Streaking over the southern Indian Ocean, pieces of the disintegrating space station fell like meteorites and a few landed near Perth, Australia. No one was hurt, but all that remained of Skylab was some charred wreckage, a few pieces of which found their way into museums.
The disappointing and needless end of the world’s first space station, after only 6 years in the sky, illustrates the cardinal lesson of space exploration: you can’t do it on the cheap. If we had a working launch vehicle in the late 70s, Skylab could have been saved, but there was no political will to fund space efforts on the same scale. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Thus was the end of Skylab, and of an era.