Mission Monday: America’s first space station launches into space

Before the International Space Station, there was Skylab, America’s first space station.

The mighty Saturn V rocket made its farewell on May 14, 1973, as Skylab launched into orbit. It marked the beginning of a new and exciting journey in human spaceflight.

The planning for America’s first space station began well before 1973, as early as Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic lunar landing. Like the International Space Station (ISS), Skylab was to become a crewed research laboratory in space. Astronauts would live and work in orbit for extended periods of time, conducting experiments and researching the effects of longer duration missions on the human body.

But NASA was on a tight budget and had to come up with some innovative ways to use leftover Apollo hardware to make Skylab a reality. According to NASA, two concepts were proposed. The first, known as the “Wet Concept,” proposed launching a Saturn 1B rocket, and converting the S IV-B upper stage into the laboratory while in orbit. The second option, known as the “Dry Concept,” proposed to convert the S IV-B on the ground instead of in orbit. It would then be affixed to the top of a Saturn V rocket and launched into orbit. NASA chose to go with the second option.

However, Skylab almost ended before it began. Shortly after launch, the micrometeoroid shield tore free, damaging one solar array and destroying the other. This created a daunting challenge for the first Skylab crew. With the remaining solar array damaged, it meant the station had no electrical power and the crew would not have adequate thermal protection.

Thus, the first Skylab crew, officially designated as Skylab II, although commonly referred to as Skylab I, was tasked with repairing the station.

Astronauts Charles Conrad, Paul Weitz, and Joseph Kerwin made the repairs within two weeks of arriving at Skylab. In total, Skylab had three crewed missions, each consisting of a team of three astronauts. Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott made up the crew of Skylab II, and Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson rounded out the Skylab missions as crew members of Skylab III.

America’s first space station weighed 170,000 pounds. It was comprised of four major components (refer to image): the Airlock Module for spacewalks, the Multiple Docking Adapter for crew and cargo entry, the Orbital Workshop where the crew lived and worked, and the Apollo Telescope Mount for studying the sun and stars.

Skylab was inhabited from May 25, 1973 to Feb. 8, 1974. The three missions traveled a total distance of 70 million miles, saw over 41 hours of spacewalks logged, and spent a combined total of 171 days in orbit. The three Skylab crews also conducted 270 experiments while in space, covering subjects such as physics, biology, and astronomy. One notable experiment occurred during Skylab III, and involved bringing spiders (named Anita and Arabella) into space to study if and how they formed webs in microgravity.

Eventually, Skylab’s orbit deteriorated. It burned up upon reentry on July 11, 1979, five years after the last crew departed the station. The majority of what was left of Skylab crashed into the Indian Ocean. However, some fragments of the station were discovered in Western Australia. One of these pieces is on display in the center.

Click here to read more about Skylab and don’t forget to see the Skylab 1-G Trainer in Starship Gallery when the center reopens.

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