America’s first space station, Skylab, is launched

America’s first space station, Skylab, is launched

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Skylab, America’s first space station, is successfully launched into an orbit around the earth. astronauts Charles Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz made a rendezvous with Skylab, repairing a jammed solar panel and conducting scientific experiments during their 28-day stay aboard the space station.

The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salyut, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. However, unlike the ill-fated Salyut, which was plagued with problems, the American space station was a great success, safely housing three separate three-man crews for extended periods of time and exceeding pre-mission plans for scientific study.

Originally the spent third stage of a Saturn 5 moon rocket, the cylinder space station was 118 feet tall, weighed 77 tons, and carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time. Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate faster than expected, owing to unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, the parts of the space station that did not burn up in the atmosphere came crashing down on Australia and into the Indian Ocean. No one was injured.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

How Skylab racked up a fine for littering

In 1973, Skylab, America’s first space station, was launched into space, marking a pivotal moment in NASA history.

The purpose of this station was for astronauts to conduct experiments, learn more about solar astronomy, and document the effects on a human being from living in space for an extended amount of time.

Labeled cut-away view of the main workshop.

As Skylab orbited Earth for six years, NASA began to realize that the station’s orbit was beginning to decay.

While a lot of energy and effort had gone into preparing Skylab to be fired upwards into space, there hadn’t been as much discussion and preparation for Skylab’s return, despite the fact that the mission was only planned to be a nine-year-long stint.

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station.

There were no controls onboard that would allow Skylab to navigate to a landing pad. In other words, Skylab’s reentry to Earth would be unpredictable and problematic.

Major components of Skylab.

As Skylab began to make its way down to Earth in 1978, attempts to gain control of the station were made.

One such plan was to send another shuttle up to push the ship into high orbit, where it would continue to orbit until its power ran out, leaving it as a harmless piece of debris that threatened no one.

But funding problems and other bureaucratic issues plagued the program, preventing them from accomplishing their goal in time.

Skylab would rapidly make its entry into the atmosphere and threatened to crash into just about anywhere on earth.

Skylab 3’s Saturn IB at night, July 1973.

Thanks to some manipulation of Skylab’s boosters, the NASA crew members were able to get the station aimed toward the Indian Ocean, but there was still no way of knowing exactly where it would land.

This brought international attention to Skylab and a media spectacle ensued.

Skylab in orbit in 1973 as flown, docking ports in view.

In June of 1979, Skylab mania was in full swing. With the station now approaching re-entry, T-shirts with bullseyes were being sold. A town in Nebraska even went as far as to paint a giant bullseye so that Skylab would have something to aim for.

The press took advantage of this event, with the San Francisco Examiner offering a prize of $10,000 to the first person brought a piece of Skylab debris to their office when it crashed.

NASA Apollo moon landings conspiracies

The official forecast for Skylab’s landing would be somewhere between the 10th and 14th of July.

Sure enough, on July 11th, Skylab began re-entry, burning up, although not nearly as quickly as NASA had been hoping for. The debris ultimately ended up landing over West Australia, with pieces scattering across the continent.

One young man, a 17-year-old, was able to get his hands on a piece of debris and made his way to San Francisco, to collect the prize offered by the Examiner.

Solar prominence recorded by Skylab on August 21, 1973.

With a majority of debris landing in Esperance, West Australia, a fine was issued by the municipality, claiming that NASA had littered on their property and they were owed $400. This fine, of course, was a joke of sorts and NASA had no interest in paying it.

The fine would go unpaid and ignored until 30 years later.

The floor grating of Skylab under construction.

Scott Barley, a DJ for Highway Radio, a California-based radio station, heard about the story of Esperance issuing a fine to NASA in 2009.

Realizing there was an opportunity to have some fun, Scott began a fundraising effort over the radio, to raise the money so they could formally pay off the fine.

His efforts were successful, and he was able to raise the $400 necessary to take care of NASA’s unpaid littering ticket.

This artist’s concept is a cutaway illustration of Skylab with the Command-Service Module being docked to the Multiple Docking Adapter.

He shipped the check out to Esperance and eagerly awaited their reply.

Two months later, he received an invitation from the town of Esperance to attend the 30-year anniversary of Skylab falling. He would be given an oversized check for $400 so that he could formally present the money to the town.

Esperance town leaders would even go further by making Scott’s city, Barlow, California, into their twin, pairing the two over the crash landing of Skylab.

Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting.

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.

Artist’s depiction of Skylab. (Click to enlarge.)
Image credit: MSFC / NASA

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.

Skylab was saved by several EVAs that were conducted by the first crew of astronauts that launched to the station shortly after the platform was sent aloft. Photo Credit: Skylab 3 / NASA

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

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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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Reader Comments

We gained a ton of knowledge and experience from Skylab.
Personally, I place the greatest of these upon our own SUN and the correct understanding of stars.

Also the recognition that people have a role in space. Astronauts salvaged Skylab where machinery could not (interesting stories). Also, people need breaks and cannot work continually. Thus, they ‘went on strike’ (even more interesting story).

I’m glad NASA overcame the bureaucratic circles even at that time to launch Skylab and bring success!

What a success for the modified S-IVB stage!

The launch anomaly went a little different than what you described. When the micrometeoriod shield came off, both workshop arrays deployed. The starboard solar array did not deploy fully because a part of the shield wrapped around it preventing it from extending. The port solar array deployed fully. The micrometeoriod shield failure also damaged some avionics, so that the aft interstage failed to separate from the S-II stage. Once the workshop reached orbital velocity, after S-II engine cutoff, the retrorockets on the front truncated cone intersage structure of the S-II fired, and one of the four retrorockets impinged on the deployed port solar array, blowing it off of the workshop.

I consider the loss of skylab one of the great “what-ifs” of space history.

The failure to follow the dry workshop Skylab with a wet workshop is the turning point in space exploration that began 40 years of being stranded in LEO. The main instrument of Skylab- a sun observation telescope- was there to try and predict solar storms which remain one of the key hazards to human travel through cislunar space (we narrowly missed such a storm irradiating an Apollo crew). And as the last Saturn V launch it was a postscript to the end of the first space age. 1968 to 1972.

SLS is progressing and promises the start of the second space age.

I’m afraid I profoundly disagree with your previous statement. The SLS completion could actually fatally damage NASA’s reputation. Its obsolete and eye wateringly expensive, just as it was designed to be.

Sorry to break the news to you the SLS completion could actually fatally damage NewSpace plans. It’s far more capable than anything else on Earth and designed to go to the Moon. Which is where the next President is going to send our U.S. Moon rocket. And we will be going back to stay this time.

Sorry but NASA can barely afford the rocket itself, never mind a payload – the recent and latest pork-stuffed monstrosity from congress seriously damages Newspace and ensures that Russia will pocket more cash for flights to the ISS – wonderful move, not.

If there was no space station NASA would have money for SLS. Whatever “seriously damages Newspace” is good for space exploration. Blaming the SLS for rides to the ISS is nonsense. Why are there always people just waiting to pounce on comments critical of NewSpace? It’s really weird what happens anywhere space is discussed on the internet. Like a cult. When that big beauty flies people are going to get interested in going back to the Moon and these forums are going to change.

BandYetAgain (or should I say Gary Church)

I think the more relevant question is why you feel the need to bring up the SLS in an article that has nothing to do with the SLS?

Mr. Rhian wrote a very good piece, detailing the history of Skylab. The appropriate thing to do with a response would be to merely comment on the article, or on Skylab, and call it a day.

And yet, you can’t seem to do that.

Pleading, begging, bullying, and being a pest will not make it go away Ferris.

People are *already* interested in going back to the Moon. Unfortunately, $40B is going to be spent on four test launches of a useless rocket instead of developing actual lunar technology. It’s difficult to get to the Moon if you don’t have a lander!

“SpaceX will be busy launching satellites-”

No ISS and a small satellite market means maybe not so busy and no money to blow up barges. Maybe no more SpaceX.

“All of them will have their hands full-”

So you say, I say not. And thus the wailing. We shall see.

Let me try to reply again, I answered your other comment.

Your 40 billion dollars for four launches? If you are counting all the money spent so far on SLS and the amount scheduled for these launches added to that then it is a good game you are playing but the costs after all the development is done are what go to the Moon. The present NASA hierarchy has done everything possible to starve the SLS to death but the tide will turn with the next administration- it already has started. The extra money for the upper stage is a sure sign the SLS is going and don’t you worry, it can carry a whole pack of robot landers to put rovers down to find the ice.

Some year’s ago, there was a piece in Air & Space Magazine, called Skylab’s Untimely Fate, or Skylab’s Ulitmate Fate (can’t remember which now), which talked about what could’ve been with the Shuttle and Skylab, and the plans that had been drawn up around that.

I always found the graphics associated with that piece very interesting.

Encyclopedia Astronautica – “Skylab’s Untimely Fate”.
by James Oberg – First appeared in Air & Space, February/March 1992, pp. 73-79

Quite an interesting history there on Skylab.

I really wish the pictures that were associated with that piece were online somehow/somewhere. I know that I am pure fan-boying the issue, because the words tell the story, but seeing how Skylab might have looked, as an expanding station, that could be built out, would’ve been very interesting. Skylab working with the Shuttle might have allowed for more quickly enabling LEO industrialization.

Of course, its always easy to paint a rosy “what-if” picture.

Instead of the What-If game that we could repeatly play, why not look at the what’s going on and the What’s Next vision.

I believe SLS has already started that (too bad their funding got blocked years ago (but that needs to be discussed on a whole new thread).

Let’s use the fire from these to inspire the next generation toward discoveries through manned space flight.

Skylab from the post-Apollo era inspired me!

Given thats not really what the article is about, that that is what my day job is about, I’d prefer to shy away from those topics here.

Besides, I don’t really care about inspring the youth. I want them to actually be able to go to space, with all of their friends.

“I believe SLS has already started that-”

-people are going to get interested in going back to the Moon and these forums are going to change.

After years of trying to survive on these forums I have only found a couple sites where I can have my say without getting endlessly harassed- and finally losing my temper, returning fire, and giving the moderators an excuse to get rid of their problem.

I look forward to seeing that change when the public becomes interested in space again by way of the SLS- and starts telling these NewSpace people to shut up and let them say something. The extra money for the upper stage is a sure sign that 40 years after Saturn V lifted Skylab, a new Moon rocket is going to fly.

Chinese-Russian talk of a Moon base and Europeans increasingly asking why we are not going back is also a sign of the coming change in direction. The next President will read the writing on the wall when someone explains to her what an albatross the ISS is- and there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the NewSpace camp. The cosmic ray rat story concerning what happens to brains in deep space will repeatedly come back to haunt the Mars fans until that fantasy is no longer the “horizon goal”- except maybe as a joke.

In the best scenario for advancing space exploration, the ISS closes shop and nobody will loan Bigelow a dime for his inflatable tourist stations. NewSpace will die with a whimper. Without NASA tax dollars the corporate welfare keeping Musk in play money will dry up and whether SpaceX can stand on it’s own two feet as a satellite launch provider remains to be seen. Mars missions will become Moon “precursor missions” despite lakes of bitter tears.

With a one billion dollar increase in the budget for a Moon base and adding what is being flushed on ISS and commercial crew that means 10 billion a year- and 6 to 8 SLS flights a year for the next couple decades till a larger system replaces it. Since this is not much more than what the Army spends on ballistic missile defense and some silos in Alaska, SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS that the NASA budget will never go up even this small increment is not going to do anything to stop it from happening.

And the U.S. will be back in space.

You do realize that this has nothing to do with the story on skylab? Or that there are various NewSpace people/company that have an interest in the moon?

Or do you prefer to keep railing and so on?

“-endlessly harassed- and finally losing my temper, returning fire, and giving the moderators an excuse to get rid of their problem.”

And as you can see Richard, the harassment begins immediately. My comment was indeed about Skylab, it’s purpose, the vehicle that launched it, and it’s successor.

Apollo was cancelled due to NASA being a political football thrown back and forth between administrations and also because it competed with the much higher profit margins of defense industry projects. The 40 years the U.S. space program has remained stranded in LEO was due to these two factors and a third one most important of all- public opinion. Public opinion was that space was a waste of money. That people like Gerard K. O’Neill proposed space as the new “High Frontier” with Space Solar Power being the key to an end to poverty on planet Earth seemed too far-fetched.

It is far-fetched no longer and the opportunity to expand the human presence into the solar system is approaching with the next change in administration. Indeed, one of the key campaign issues- global warming- can be answered with Space Solar Power and a return to the Moon. The climate change deniers cannot really object because Space Solar Power stands by itself as a path to essentially limitless energy and prosperity for America.

Right now is a critical time that will decide the future course humankind though this is not appreciated.

NewSpace wants that future to be with rich tourists in the dead end of LEO for another 40 years. And they really, really, do not like people explaining that on public forums.

Which is why people like Ferris will never leave me alone.

Please don’t turn every post of yours into a “woe is me” piece, followed by your latest dissertation on how if we just followed your plan, everything would be hunky dory.

“Skylab from the post-Apollo era inspired me!”

The last events of import in my view were December 14, 1972, 22:54:37 UTC, when the ascent motor of Challenger lit off, and December 16, 1972, 23:35:09 UTC, when the America lit off her service module engine.

Splashdown was December 19, 1972, 19:24:59 UTC, and the first space age was over. The SLS will start the second space age and take us back to the Moon to stay.

“The next President will read the writing on the wall when someone explains to her what an albatross the ISS is- and there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the NewSpace camp.”

No, there won’t be. SpaceX will be busy launching satellites and designing a new launch vehicle, and Blue Origin is working on their own plans AND building engines for the ULA. And Orbital, while not “New Space”, still involved with the ISS, might be a bit more unhappy with it but they also build spacecrafts and run their solid fuel line of launchers for small science payloads. All of them will have their hands full anyway. So I don’t see any logic in as why there ought to be any “great wailing and gnashing of teeth” on their part.

America First in Space

1957: In September 26th, the first artificial satellite, which is a Vanguard satellite, is successfully launched into orbit by USA, as per their schedule. But in October 4th, the Soviets responded by launching Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit. Partly due to the anticommunism atmosphere that permeates in the American Society, the launch of Sputnik 1 generates a degree of public shock, anxiety and public fear in America.

1958: Partially as a result of the aforementioned Sputnik Shock, DARPA and NASA were created in 1958 to have America to maintain its edge against Soviets. For the same reasons and as in our timeline, funding for STEM education in the U.S. is increased. Besides that, 2nd American satellite "Explorer 1" is launched and discovered the Van Allen belt.

1959: Soviet Union's Luna 1 become the first spacecraft to enter heliocentric orbit. At the same year, Luna 3 becomes the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon.

1961: In January 1961, monkey Ham becomes the first hominid in space after being launched by American Mercury rocket into a suborbital trajectory. Later in March 24th, Alan Shepard, an American astronaut, becomes the first man in space, albeit being launched in a suborbital trajectory akin to Ham's. Shepard would receive a ticker tape parade for the feat of being the first person in space.

The bigger shock to the American public came in April when the Soviet Union responds by launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, which prompt US president Kennedy to set a national goal for a manned Moon mission.

1962: NASA's robotic spacecraft Mariner 2 successfully fly by Venus.

1963: US President Kennedy is assassinated. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space.

1965: First space rendezvous is achieved by the Americans, meanwhile cosmonaut Alexey Leonov made the mankind's first spacewalk.

1966: First space docking is done with an American Gemini spacecraft and an American Agena Target Vehicle. Luna 9, a Soviet Union spacecraft, is the first spacecraft perform a soft landing on the Moon.

1967: Apollo 1 disaster.

1968: Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders, who are travelling in the Apollo 8 mission, becomes the first humans to travel out of Earth's gravitational influence and into the Lunar influence.

1969: On July, astronauts Neil Armstrong landed on the moon with Buzz Aldrin in Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong is the first human to step his foot on moon, saying: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

1970: NASA's Apollo 13 safely returns to Earth after suffering a damage while on its Moon mission.

1971: First space station Salyut 1 is launched by the Soviet Union.

1972: NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts are launched to the outer planets and into interstellar space.

1973: Launch of Mariner 10, the first NASA robotic spacecraft mission to planet Mercury, and the first American space station Skylab.

1977: NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 is launched to flyby the outer planets and into interstellar space. The former spacecraft would become the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space eventually.

1979:  Skylab decays from Earth orbit.

1981: American space shuttle "Columbia" is the first orbital space plane to be launched into space.

1986: Challenger space shuttle disaster. First parts of Soviet Union's MIR space station is launched into space.

1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union, which brings the decades old Cold War to an end.

1998: First parts of ISS (International Space Station) is launched into orbit.

2001: MIR space station fall backs to Earth.

2003: Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

2006: First robotic spacecraft mission to planet Pluto, "New Horizons" is launched by NASA.

2007: First robotic spacecraft mission to dwarf planet Ceres, "Dawn" is launched by NASA.

2010: Major completion of ISS.

2015: Both NASA's Dawn and New Horizons spacecrafts arrived Ceres and Pluto respectively. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), with help and contributions from American scientists and international scientists who come from countries like Australia and Italy, detected the first gravitational wave.

2016: LIGO announced the gravitational wave discovery.

2017: LIGO and other observatories detected both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves emitted from a collision of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy.

2019: Five of Jupiter's moons with provisional designations S/2003 J5, S/2003 J15, S/2003 J3, S/2017 J4 and S/2018 J1 receive the official names of Eirene, Philophrosyne, Eupheme, Pandia and Ersa respectively. Start of COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

  • View of Skylab from Skylab 2 Crew
  • A “Smiling” view of the Skylab as Astronauts left
  • Skylab 4 EVA

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.

America’s first space station, Skylab, is launched - HISTORY

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Skylab, space station astronauts reflect on 40 years of life off Earth

International Space Station Expedition 34 commander Kevin Ford (right) presents Skylab astronauts Owen Garriott (left) and Gerald Carr with space-flown flags to mark the 40th anniversary of their missions on board America's first space station.

&mdash Before the International Space Station existed, before U.S. astronauts shared space on Russia's space station Mir, America's first home in Earth orbit was Skylab.

The converted upper stage of a massive Saturn V moon rocket, Skylab was launched 40 years ago Tuesday (May 14). The orbital workshop gave NASA its first experience at establishing a long-duration human presence in space, laying the foundation for American astronauts to take up continuous residency almost three decades later on board the International Space Station (ISS).

On Monday (May 13), NASA commemorated four decades of "life off Earth" and the 40th anniversary of the Skylab workshop's launch during a roundtable discussion held at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event featured Skylab and ISS astronauts, as well as agency managers who are helping to plan the United States' future outposts in space.

"When these guys went to the final frontier to stay for a long time, they did it as the first ones, the ones who were entering the unknown and to see what it was going to be like and set the stage for us," said astronaut Kevin Ford, who returned from space in March after commanding the International Space Station. "It is a pleasure for me to be here on the 40th anniversary."

NASA commemorated the 40th anniversary of Skylab, America's first space station, Monday, May 13, with a televised roundtable discussion that featured Skylab astronauts, a current astronaut and agency managers planning future spaceflights.

Three crews of three astronauts each launched to Skylab between May and November 1973. Each mission set a record for the amount of time that crew members spent in space &mdash Skylab 1 for 28 days, Skylab 2 for 59 days, and Skylab 3 for 84 days.

"It verified the fact that people could live, work [and] do productive things for long duration, and also took the first steps toward doing the science that we wanted to have aboard," said Owen Garriott, who served as the science pilot for Skylab's second crew.

That astronauts were even able to spend one day aboard Skylab was a testament to the value of having humans in space.

Excessive vibrations during the station's Saturn V liftoff resulted in a critical meteoroid shield being ripped off in flight, which in turn took out one of the orbital workshop's two power-providing solar arrays. Flight controllers moved Skylab's secondary solar panels to face the sun to provide as much electricity as possible, but because of the loss of the debris shield this caused the station's interior to heat up to over 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius).

The launch of the Skylab orbital workshop, May 14, 1973.

The effort to "save Skylab" fell to its first crew, who had to quickly prepare for a series of unexpected spacewalks in the short time they had between the station's launch and their own. Despite the very tight schedule, the astronauts were successful deploying a parasol (later augmented by a solar shield) to lower the temperature inside the station and freed a snagged second solar array.

Once the workshop was a stable living platform, the three Skylab crews logged about 2,000 hours in total performing scientific and medical experiments. They also took more than 46,000 photos of the Earth and 127,000 photos of the sun, capturing eight solar flares on film.

The astronauts also devised methods for maximizing their productivity, a lesson with far-reaching applications.

"We dealt with problems having to do with scheduling and productivity," said Gerald "Jerry" Carr, who commanded the final Skylab crew. "We came to some solutions that worked very well. It took a while to get there. but those solutions that we came across were used on subsequent missions to some degree."

"We tried to make sure that got into the planning for the operations aboard the International Space Station and on the [space] shuttle," Carr added.

"I think we're still working that issue," replied Ford. "We've gotten a much better feeling, I think, now that we are up there to do work that the ground can't necessarily figure out how long it is going to take you to do everything."

Skylab orbital workshop, America's first space station.

Upon the end of its crewed missions, Skylab was moved into a stable attitude where it was expected to remain for eight to 10 years. It was hoped that one of the early space shuttle missions could be used to re-boost Skylab's orbit to save the station for future use.

In late 1977 however, four years before the shuttle would first fly, it was discovered that greater-than-predicted solar activity had heated the outer layers of Earth's atmosphere, increasing the drag on Skylab. On July 11, 1979, Skylab reentered the atmosphere and broke apart over the Indian Ocean. Much of the station burned up or dropped into sea, but its debris field stretched over Australia, where many pieces were later found.

Despite its relatively short life span, the use of Skylab's unique environment and vantage point represented a major step in the United States' spaceflight efforts, serving as a bridge between the Apollo missions to the moon and the long-duration expeditions on board the International Space Station, the roundtable said.

"The [International] Space Station was built around what we learned on Skylab," Ford said. "What they put up there for us, the way the modules were sized and the way they were constructed in space. that all came out of what we learned from Skylab."

"We may have done it first, but these guys are doing it better," added Carr, referencing Ford and the current ISS crews. "People need to continue to do it better and better because we learn more and more as we do this. We just took the first step and the rest of the steps are having had been taken and are being taken right now."

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40th Anniversary of Skylab


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Skylab, first U.S. space station, launched into Earth orbit on May 14, 1973. Three successive crews of visiting astronauts carried out investigations of the human body’s adaptation to the space environment, studied the Sun in unprecedented detail, and undertook pioneering Earth-resources observations.

Skylab was an outcome of the Apollo Applications Program set up by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1965 to adapt spacecraft and systems developed for the U.S. Moon landing program to a variety of scientific missions. As a first step toward establishing a long-term manned platform in space, Skylab made use of a Saturn V Moon rocket, whose third stage was outfitted with two decks as a habitat and ready-to-use orbital workshop, and the command and service modules of Apollo spacecraft, which ferried the station’s crews and small amounts of supplies. Skylab was 30.2 metres (99 feet) in length and 6.7 metres (22 feet) in diameter and had a mass of about 75,000 kg (165,000 pounds). Although limited by its consumable resources in the same way as the Soviet Union’s first-generation Salyut stations, Skylab was much roomier and capable of more research. Its main scientific instrument, the Apollo Telescope Mount, incorporated a number of component telescopes and other devices for observing the Sun over a broad range of the electromagnetic spectrum, from visible light through X-rays.

During Skylab’s ascent a thermal meteoroid shield was ripped off, which led to the loss of one of the lateral solar power arrays that was to supply electricity to the station and prevented full extension of the other. The first three-man crew deployed an improvised “parasol” sunshade (later fortified with an overlying sun shield) to prevent serious overheating of the station during their 28-day mission and released the jammed solar array. Skylab hosted two additional three-man crews for missions lasting 59 and 84 days. Each of the three Skylab missions set a new space endurance record. Although plans called for Skylab to be used again with one of the first space shuttle missions boosting it to a higher orbit, increased solar activity caused its orbit to degrade faster than expected. On July 11, 1979, it entered the atmosphere, broke up, and scattered debris over the southeastern Indian Ocean and Western Australia.

A chronology of spaceflights in the Skylab program is shown in the table.

A Brief History of Space Stations before the ISS

This 1995 concept shows space station Alpha, an early version of what eventually became the International Space Station. NASA

A century before Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon, science fiction told the public of a future with outposts on the Moon and orbiting high above the Earth. In the decades that followed, these earliest space station concepts evolved into orbital platforms that could launch manned missions to the Moon and Mars. After its inception, NASA picked up where visionaries left off, dabbling in space stations of varying layouts and capabilities before building the International Space Station that orbits the Earth today.

Noordung’s Wheel

Earliest Concepts in Science Fiction

Between October 1869 and February of 1870, readers of the Atlantic Monthly were introduced to the idea of living off the Earth through Edward Everett Hale’s science fiction story, “The Brick Moon.” Hale’s story tells of a 200-foot diameter brick sphere designed to orbit the Earth as a navigational aid for ships. But the brick moon is accidentally put into orbit with people on board. Halle followed this story with a sequel, ‘Life in the Brick Moon,’ wherein the characters find ways to survive in their new home. Not only do they live in the artificial satellite, they communicate with the Earth turning the brick moon into a communications satellite.

The term “space station” was coined more than fifty years later by Romanian rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. Writing in 1923, he envisioned a platform orbiting the Earth that would serve as a starting point for missions to the Moon and Mars. His idea was shared by Austrian Herman Noordung who, in 1928, published a blue print for an orbital outpost composed of multiple modules each with its own unique function.

Both Oberth and Noordung imagined their space stations would be launched by massive rockets, and an ocean away American engineer Robert Goddard was taking major strides towards developing these rockets. Goddard was among the first to experiment successfully with liquid propulsion, harnessing a reaction far more powerful than the black powder rockets that were prevalent at the time. And he wasn’t the only one. In Germany, an amateur rocket group called the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) was also having moderate success with liquid propelled rocket. In 1932, one member of the VfR, Wernher von Braun, was handpicked by the German Army to continue his work, developing liquid rockets for the military.

Von Braun’s Space Station

Military funding from the Reich before and during the Second World War brought rocketry to maturity, and by the war’s end von Braun’s team had a functioning rocket on their hands with the V-2. The technology was picked up by both American and Soviet scientists, but the bulk of leftover hardware and key team members migrated to the United States in 1945, including von Braun who added “spaceflight popularizer” to his resume before long.

Through collaborations with Collier’s Magazine and Walt Disney on the Tomorrowland TV series, von Braun brought his vision of a wheel-shaped space station to the public. This orbital platform would be an Earth observation post, a microgravity laboratory, as well as an observatory. It would also be a starting point for missions to the Moon and Mars, serving as a cornerstone in man’s exploration of the inner solar system.

NASA’s Inflatable Wheel

Space Stations for the New Space Agency

These futuristic space station concepts started inching towards reality in 1958. NASA was created to manage all spaceflight programs with the overarching goal of getting an astronaut in space before the Soviet Union lunched a cosmonaut. Anticipating putting the first man in space, NASA was already considering a space station as its second program in 1959, something that would help the agency learn to live and work in space before serving as a jumping off point for manned missions to the Moon. But Yuri Gagarin beat an American astronaut into orbit, derailing NASA’s long-range plan. President John Kennedy considered all possible next steps for America in space and determined that a mission to the Moon would be a better show of technological dominance than a space station.

NASA was laser focused on the Moon landing goal throughout the 1960s, but the a space station was never truly off the drawing board. Spurred on by Apollo’s high funding level and the growing national interest in spaceflight, an orbital outpost was again seriously considered in 1964 NASA’s main post-Apollo program. Four years later, it was officially on the books.

Space Base

In 1969, NASA proposed a 100-man space station called Space Base. The idea was to build a platform that would serve as a laboratory for scientific and industry-sponsored microgravity experiments as well as a home port for nuclear-powered space tugs to ferry astronauts to and from an outpost on the Moon. Scheduled for orbital assembly to be completed by 1975, it didn’t take NASA long to realize that the cost of using expendable rockets (like the Saturn family that launched Apollo to the Moon) to both build and supply Space Base would exceed the construction cost of the station. The only way the project wouldn’t be a loss for NASA would be to build and supply it with a reusable vehicle, a sort of shuttle to ferry supplies and astronauts to Space Base over multiple missions. This became the Space Transportation System, more colloquially known as the space shuttle.

But a space shuttle was in the future. For the moment, NASA had an excess Apollo hardware from three cancelled lunar missions and opted to turn it into a short-term space station program called Skylab. The station itself was made form a repurposed S-IVB upper stage and launched on the last Saturn V in May of 1973. In the year that followed, Skylab hosted three crews, ultimately proving that humans can not only live and work in space, they can be instrumental in large-scale orbital construction efforts as well. The first Skylab crew performed emergency spacewalks to successfully free a jammed solar array, effectively saving the station.


Skylab was never intended to be a long-term space station it wasn’t designed to be resupplied, refuelled, or boosted into a higher orbit. After the last crew left in February of 1974, the station was abandoned and its orbit was left to decay. NASA briefly considered using a space shuttle orbiter to boost it into a higher orbit and revisit the station, but increased solar activity had expanded the Earth’s atmosphere, the fringes of which were dragging on the station more than expected. NASA simply couldn’t have a shuttle ready in time. Skylab reentered the Earth’s atmosphere over western Australia in July of 1979.

The Beginnings of a Real Space Station

As the Skylab program unfolded, NASA forged ahead with the reusable space shuttle that would facilitate building and maintaining a long-lasting space station. But the project as initially conceived by the agency proved too ambitious for its shrinking post-Apollo budget. The economic, political, social, and cultural landscape in the early 1970s wasn’t conducive to another program on the same scale as Apollo. The agency was forced to choose between an orbital outpost or a the vehicle needed to build it. The latter won, and the space station was put on hold while NASA developed its space shuttle.

With the station’s future uncertain, NASA began exploring the potential of working with international partners to defray its cost. In 1973, the United States and Europe formally entered into a partnership that would see the European Space Agency supply mini laboratory modules called Spacelabs to NASA. These small units were designed to launch in the shuttle’s massive payload bay and serve as experiment facility for up to three weeks in orbit, a proof of concept for a later station. The first Spacelab reached orbit in 1983 as part of the payload of STS-9.

The Dual Keel Space Station

In his State of the Union Address on January 25, 1984, President Ronald Reagan called for NASA to collaborate with international partners to build a space station within a decade. It was the political backing the space station program desperately needed. With congressional support and a formal presidential mandate in place, the agency established the Space Station Program Office in April and issued requests for proposals to industry leaders that fall. Two years later, Japan and Europe signed on to contribute modules and Canada agreed to supply a manipulator arm. The station was emerging from these early design stages with a dual keel arrangement with a central truss to hold the main living and working quarters as well as solar arrays.

But setbacks seemed to trump every step forward. One problem was the steadily rising cost. NASA’s original projection of $8 billion for three separate facilities — the main living space and two automated laboratory platforms — proved ambitiously low. The Challenger disaster also took its toll on the space station. The loss of seven astronauts raised safety concerns that ended with the decision to give astronauts on board the space station some escape system. This forced design changes that in turn increased the station’s weight.


The solution was to replace the dual keel arrangement with a single truss design and to make the laboratory modules smaller overall. This new design was finalized in 1987. In 1988, Reagan gave the station a name: Freedom.

Bush Puts NASA on a Path to Mars.

In July of 1989, just six months after taking office, President George Bush attempted to have his own “Kennedy moment.” In a speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 mission, he called for the United States to return men to the Moon and send astronauts on to Mars within three decades. And he endorsed space station Freedom as the cornerstone of this long-range effort. The plan was, roughly, a tripartite one. Immediately in the 1990s construction of space station Freedom was to be NASA’s main endeavour. Lunar missions were slated to resume in the early 21st century with the establishment of a lunar base for long term exploration. These two steps would lay the groundwork for a manned mission to Mars as early as the late 2010s. The ultimate goal was a permanent outpost on the red planet.

Bush’s call for a Mars landing yielded a 90-day study to solidify the program’s prospective timeline, goals, and cost. The idea was for Freedom to evolve alongside the effort to land men on Mars. It would serve as an orbital test bed where NASA would iron out the technologies needed to support long-duration deep space missions, and with crews staying on board for up to six months at a time it would be a way for the agency to learn about human survival in space in the relative safety of low Earth orbit.

Astronaut Ferry

The subsequent phase of lunar missions would rely heavily on Freedom. The crew, vehicles, and supplies would launch to the space station where they would load into a transfer vehicle. That transfer vehicle would then travel to low lunar orbit where it would meet an excursion vehicle that would either be waiting in a parking orbit or would launch from the surface to meet the arriving spacecraft. The excursion module would then take the crew to the lunar surface while the transfer vehicle would return to Freedom for maintenance and resupply. The crew could stay on the Moon for as long as a year, serviced by that same transfer vehicle ferrying between Freedom and the Moon. A similar arrangement was planned for missions to Mars.

As the 1990s dawned, Freedom was getting increasingly heavy and complicated with new requirements like the provision for spacewalks to support in-orbit assembly. Freedom’s cost rose to $38.3 billion, a figure that now included the shuttle launches but was still a far cry from the original $8 billion estimate. In 1993, President Bill Clinton called for the station to be redesigned once again in an attempt to lower the cost and bring in more international partners. Three redesigned station were put forth, and the proposal called Alpha was chosen by the White House.


Alpha used 75 percent of the hardware from Freedom, and before long Russia offered pieces of its unflown Mir 2 space station to lower the overall cost. This new station developed as one that promised to be far more capable than Freedom. In the course of the redefinition process, Alpha took on the moniker “International Space Station.” NASA’s Johnson Space Centre became lead centre behind the program, and Boeing signed on as prime contractor.

The ISS program kicked off with the Shuttle-Mir program, the first cooperation between the United States and Russia since 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In February of 1994, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev became the first Russian astronaut to fly on a shuttle with the STS-60 crew. A year later, the orbiter Discovery rendezvoused with Mir during the STS-63 mission. In March of 1995, U.S. astronaut Dr. Norman Thagard launched with two cosmonauts aboard Soyuz-TM 21 for a three month stay on Mir. At the end of the mission, the orbiter Atlantis docked with Mir to collect the crew and bring them home. In November of 1995, the orbiter Atlantis launched on STS-74 and delivered a Russian-built Docking Module to Mir marking the first time a module was added to a working space station in orbit. These shuttle-Mir missions gave NASA astronauts their first exposure to long-duration spaceflight since Skylab and also taught both nations valuable lessons in working together and building a multi-module station in space.

The ISS began taking shape in earnest in 1998. On November 20, the Zarya Control Module launched on a Russian Proton rocket. It was the first piece of the station, the battery power and fuel storage unit onto which later modules were added. The Unity node followed in December, and in May of 1999 the shuttle orbiter Discovery fitted the station with logistics and stocked it full of supplies. Four assembly missions in May, July, September, and October of 2000 saw addition of the Zvezda Service Module as well as installation of the Z1-Truss, a third pressurized mating adapter, and a Ku-band antenna. These missions also delivered supplies and performed maintenance on the Station. It was finally ready for a human crew.

On October 30, 2000, Expedition 1 launched on a Soyuz rocket and docked with the International Space Station. The crew of Yuri P. Gidzenko, William M. Shepherd, and Sergei K. Krikalev became the first to live and work on board the orbiting outpost. Another thirty-two assembly missions completed the ISS, bringing the dream of a space station to life nearly a century and a half after Hale’s story captured imaginations.

Boldly Going: A History of an American Space Station

Good morning everyone! This year, @TimothyC and I have gotten a very special present for you all for Boxing Day. We hope you'll enjoy it. Thanks go out to both the usual suspects for editing and image assistance: @nixonshead, @Workable Goblin, @Brainbin, @Usili, and a few unusual suspects too. Post will go up every third day, so look for the next one December 29th. Without further ado, let's get started to boldly launch what no one has launched before.

Ever since the end of the Space Shuttle program, Enterprise has frustrated attempts to tally its successes and milestones, testing the definitions and putting an asterisk next to almost every record. First orbiter to fly? Columbia in 1981, unless you count Enterprise. Longest single mission in space? Atlantis with 24 days on orbit in a single mission, unless you count Enterprise. Fewest missions? Discovery, whose career was cut short in tragedy on her 8th flight, unless you count Enterprise. Heaviest payload carried to orbit by the Space Shuttle? Atlantis with the Galileo probe and its Centaur booster tipping the scale at 28,592 kilograms, unless you count Enterprise. Most crew aboard a Shuttle? Challenger, carrying a crew of ten, unless you count Enterprise. Fewest crew aboard a launch? Columbia’s two-man crews during the STS-1 through STS-4 flight test sequence, unless you count Enterprise. First launch of the shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle? STS-99-C in 1998, unless you count Enterprise. Last Space Shuttle flying? Atlantis, unless of course you count Enterprise. OV-101’s history reflects the results of a successful improvisation that has left a profound mark on the history of human spaceflight. It holds a place in critical chapters not only of the Space Shuttle program’s birth and coming of age, but also in future steps into space beyond low Earth orbit. The orbiter’s legacy as “Space Station Enterprise” is poised to see it as a nexus for Western space programs for years to come, even as the decisions made forty years ago that saw the program’s birth still live on in the station’s unique capabilities and limitations. OV-101’s history, complex and contradictory as it may be, is adroitly summed up in the program support team’s officially unofficial motto, unchanged for more than three decades: "First to Fly, Last to Land."

Space Station Enterprise is often used as an example of the concept of “technical debt,’ where early decisions about a project can set its fate for years to come. Almost every compromise in the station’s design can be traced to its early legacy, but also the powerful ability to retool the station to meet new challenges which were never envisioned when Enterprise rolled out of the VAB for her first--and only--orbital flight. Originally, the station was born of the collapse of Carter-era detente in the early 1980s, as the new Reagan administration began to once again see space as a critical frontier in fighting communism. In addition to the military Strategic Defense Initiative, rumors circulated inside the administration’s highest levels of a large Soviet station planned for the mid-to-late 1980s, fed by Reagan’s Hollywood visions of glory and George Bush’s tight connections to and trust of the intelligence community. As it would emerge, the rumors were conflations of actual plans for the modular but Salyut-derived Mir space station and more speculative concepts plans for utilizing the Energia/Buran Shuttle, confusing the size of the latter with the module count of the former. Thus, for a period in 1981 to 1984, a consensus emerged within American intelligence, military, and civilian spaceflight programs that the Soviets might be planning to reclaim some of the glory they lost by not participating in the moon race by launching a space station many times the size of their existing Salyuts or even the lost American Skylab. Facing the possibility of a Soviet station massing as much as 250 metric tons, Reagan was determined that the United States would not fall behind and ordered NASA to begin studies of any practicable effort to match the achievement before the Free World lost the high ground.

With the Saturn V rocket off the table, the only available American launcher capable of matching the proposed payload was the Space Transportation System itself. Though concepts for large clustered rockets similar to Saturn IB but derived from Titan or Delta tankage were being considered for SDI and other projects, they would not be available in time nor would they be able to launch the payloads required to match the Soviet system. Studies immediately focused on two competing methods for utilizing the basic Space Shuttle stack to launch massive, highly-capable stations with minimal modifications. The first was the “Shuttle-C”: a concept involving either a modified orbiter or a new-build propulsion module and fairing to launch a one-time large payload, multiplying the potential performance of the crewed Shuttles by a factor of two or three. While the custom propulsion module was most capable, it would also require significant development and require many years to achieve readiness. The prospect of cannibalizing an existing orbiter was much faster, and for a space station offered the tantalizing prospect of utilizing the orbiter’s existing pressure hull and systems as a basis for a capable station. If a module derived from the European Spacelab was placed in the launch bay during ascent and a derivation of Marshall Space Flight Center’s proposed 25 kW power module deployed along with it, the orbiter’s systems would offer the combined stack access to basic levels of power, data, computers, life support systems, and serve as a structural backbone for future modular expansion. A single launch could carry a station nearly as capable as the entire Skylab into orbit in a single shot, requiring only the expenditure of one of the nation’s precious few orbiters.

The competing proposal was more ambitious, drawing on Skylab heritage. Every launch of the Space Shuttle, after all, would carry almost all the way to orbit the large insulated external tank. This hardware, which unlike the Shuttle was designed to be expended every flight, would offer a cavernous internal volume if accessed by the large inspection manholes located in the intertank and the aft end of the larger hydrogen tank. Even the forward ogive-shaped LOX tank alone would offer more than three times the volume of Skylab ready for outfitting. If even a single tank could be outfitted successfully, it would form the core of a massive American presence in orbit and a base camp for reusing dozens more tanks, offering the possibility of an explosive growth in low-orbital infrastructure. However, adapting the first tank was the challenge. Marshall’s engineers had faced the task of inflight outfitting of a tank head-on only a few years prior for the Skylab program, and had found it to be anything but trivial--a fact best illustrated by the massive simplification of their station design task when they switched from an orbitally converted “wetlab” to ground-integrated “drylab”. Once Skylab could be outfitted on the ground, the tedious tasks of installing fittings for basic operability could be eliminated, enabling a capable station from the start. Even having a pressurized “work shack” for accessing the tanks would offer something better than nothing. The Shuttle external tank could offer none of this--only a massive potential volume and a promise for many more.

The orbiter-derived station became the leading possibility for achieving Reagan’s bold and perhaps over-ambitious vision for an American space station. Some documentation from early in Space Station Enterprise’s development indicates that the decision to present this option may have been as much expectations management as a real advantage for the orbiter-derived station over the external tank wetlab. It appears some NASA station program leaders in Johnson Space Flight Center hoped that the prospect of tearing one of the nation’s brand new spacecraft to its bones for a single flight would put the White House’s urgency in context and divert Presidential attention to more sustainable station programs focusing on assembling many modules using the Space Shuttle. If discouraging the White House was truly their intent, the gambit failed spectacularly.

Even before the formal reports were presented, the White House had not only already seen draft versions of the plans for the Orbiter-derived station, but had also become aware of the potential of the external tank wetlab via the same informal channels. What the external tank wetlab lacked, after all, was a work shed to start its exploitation, something with the endurance to stay up longer than any single orbiter while crews completed the basic outfitting process. The large cabin and cargo bay volume of the Shuttle Orbiter would provide this in spades. An external tank, retained on orbit and modified for future adaption, would make the perfect addition to the Shuttle-derived station: it would result in a combined recorded payload of some 150,000 kg--more than a Saturn V and nearly twice that of Skylab. It would, in a single launch, dramatically exceed anything the Soviet Union could potentially launch for years to come. It was, of course, understood to be a short-term solution, something to buy time for more capable purpose-built modules launched on Shuttle-C or Barbarian rockets, but it would provide a captivating visual of American superiority in spaceflight in its sheer size even if plans to open up the external tank were never fully executed. In late 1982, NASA was directed to select which orbiter would receive the conversion and begin immediate work on this combined station design. NASA’s plans for a more incremental station would fall by the wayside as the new “STS-Derived Spacelab'' received top priority for their operational budget.

America's first space station Skylab turns 40

Before the International Space Station and viral videos from space , there was Skylab -- America's first space station.

Skylab launched into space by the unmanned Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973 from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

The space station went unmanned for over a week until Commander Charles C. Conrad Jr., Paul J. Weitz and Joseph Kerwin arrived on May 25, 1973.

In the 1977 book "Skylab, Our First Space Station," author Leland F. Belew describes the highlights of Skylab's mission.

According to Belew, the first crew made repairs to the ship that occurred during take-off and conducted solar astronomy and Earth resources experiments, as well as medical studies and five student experiments. Two more teams of astronauts made missions to Skylab in July and November of 1973.

Researchers on Skylab performed nearly 300 experiments including studies of the Earth's crust, oceans and surfaces, comets, meteors, planets and stars.

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Astronauts were able to study the sun like never before because they could observe X-ray and ultraviolet emissions that could not be examined from Earth. And for the first time, remote parts of the Earth could be accurately measured.

Skylab researchers were able to study physiological and psychological effects from prolonged periods of zero-gravity. A total of 16 biomedical experiments were conducted.

"Skylab's success proved many things. Chief among these is man's capability not only to sustain long periods of weightlessness but to live and work effectively in the space environment," Belew wrote. "And the program provided a vast amount of scientific data which scientists will be analyzing for many years."

Skylab returned to Earth on July 7, 1979. Over 100 experiments by scientist from 28 nations conducted experiments on space station.