Skylab: America’s First Space Station
The launch of Skylab, America's first space station, on board a modified Saturn V rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Fla. on May 14, 1973, marked a new phase for American's human space flight program. Once again Americans stood poised to leave behind their terrestrial abode, but this time with a much different goal: staying in space for longer periods and conducting complex scientific experiments in the unique space environment. Skylab was the culmination of much difficult work and detailed preparation that began as early as the late 1960s at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The space program was operating in a time when U.S. budgets were fiscally constrained, so NASA's leaders searched for an affordable way to build a space station. They came up with the idea of turning part of a Saturn V rocket into a space station, and the Skylab concept was born.
Skylab fulfilled the dreams of Dr. Wernher von Braun who had long wanted to build an orbiting outpost where people learn could how to live and work in space for longer periods. Von Braun and his team came up with the idea of using parts of an existing Saturn V rocket to make an orbital laboratory. Turning a rocket into a laboratory was not easy, but it was an affordable way to build a space station because existing hardware could be used. As plans for Skylab moved from dreams and drawings to reality, the Marshall Center developed and integrated most of the major components: the orbital workshop, where the astronauts lived and worked, an airlock module, which served as a doorway to space for extravehicular activities, and a multiple docking adapter so that the Apollo crew capsule could dock with the lab and drop off people and equipment. The Marshall team also built science equipment: the Apollo telescope mount, which allowed telescopes to study the stars and the sun, a payload shroud for the delivery of the Skylab, and many experiments. The series of biomedical equipment that included a bicycle ergometer, metabolic analyzer, lower body negative pressure device, as well as the experimental support system, were designed and built at Marshall facilities. Marshall provided the Saturn 1B launch vehicles for the three crew missions, and the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled Skylab into orbit. Astronauts even trained to work in the space environment by practicing operations in Marshall's Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, an underwater training facility that simulated low gravity. Engineers and designers used the underwater simulator as they designed Skylab and later after Skylab was launched when they had to rapidly develop a way to repair Skylab's sunshield, which was damaged during launch.
With the launch of Skylab and its subsequent three crewed missions, all the detailed plans that turned a Saturn V rocket into a space station became a reality. Over the course of its human occupation from May 25, 1973 to February 8,1974, three crews, each with three crewmembers, visited Skylab and carried out 270 scientific and technical investigations requiring 90 different pieces of experimental hardware. Research spanned the fields of physics, astronomy, and biological sciences. The three Skylab crews logged over 41 hours of extravehicular activity and a combined 171 days on orbit, travelling more than 70 million miles. The third Skylab crew lived in space for 84 days, which at the time was a new record for the longest human stay in space.
Skylab's mission at the vanguard of space exploration encompassed a wide array of outstanding achievements including a revolution in our understanding of the Sun, the observation of the comet Kohoutek, and proof that human beings could live and work for extended periods in a microgravity environment. There was even the documentation of the web-spinning space spiders Anita and Arabella. Most importantly, the Skylab missions demonstrated that humankind's abilities are limited only by the bounds of our imaginations. The International Space Station and future voyages into deep space all owe a debt of gratitude to Skylab's innovative, remarkable missions devised more than 40 years ago.
Detailed information on Skylab is available on the Marshall History Office web site: http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/skylab/index.html
See our detailed Skylab images on Marshall's Flickr gallery at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasamarshall/sets/72157632646424119/