This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Living in Space

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May 14, 1973:  The United States Launches Skylab One

The United States launches Skylab One, its first manned space station. It is the last launch of the Saturn V rocket, and the largest payload ever launched into space at the time. Skylab will fall back into the Earth’s atmosphere in July 1979.

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Skylab was launched and operated by NASA and was the United States’ first space station. Skylab orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979, and included a workshop, a solar observatory, and other systems. It was launched unmanned by a modified Saturn V rocket, with a mass of 169,950 pounds (77 t).

Three manned missions to the station, conducted between 1973 and 1974 using the Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) atop the smaller Saturn IB, each delivered a three-astronaut crew. On the last two manned missions, an additional Apollo / Saturn IB stood by ready to rescue the crew in orbit if it was needed.

ollo Telescope Mount. You can see the replacement heat sheild in gold.

Apollo Telescope Mount. You can see the replacement heat sheild in gold.

Skylab included the Apollo Telescope Mount, which was a multi-spectral solar observatory, Multiple Docking Adapter (with two docking ports), Airlock Module with EVA hatches, and the Orbital Workshop, the main habitable volume. Electrical power came from solar arrays, as well as fuel cells in the docked Apollo CSM. The rear of the station included a large waste tank, propellant tanks for maneuvering jets, and a heat radiator.

The station was damaged during launch when the micrometeoroid shield separated from the workshop and tore away, taking one of two main solar panel arrays with it and jamming the other one so that it could not deploy. This deprived Skylab of most of its electrical power, and also removed protection from intense solar heating, threatening to make it unusable. The first crew was able to save it in the first ever in-space major repair, by deploying a replacement heat shade and freeing the jammed solar panels.

Two cutaway views of the orbital workshop showing details of the living and working quarters

Two cutaway views of the orbital workshop showing details of the living and working quarters

Industrial design firm Raymond Loewy/William Snaith recommended emphasizing habitability and comfort for the astronauts by, for example, providing a wardroom for meals and relaxation, and a window to view the Earth and space, although astronauts who participated in Skylab planning were dubious about the designers’ focus on areas such as color schemes. Habitability had not previously been an area of concern when building spacecraft, due to their small volume and brief mission durations, but the Skylab missions would last for months.

Astronauts were uninterested in watching movies on a proposed entertainment center or playing games, but did want books and individual music choices.  Food was also important; early Apollo crews complained about its quality, and a NASA volunteer found living on the Apollo food for four days on Earth to be intolerable; its taste and composition, in the form of cubes and squeeze tubes, were unpleasant.  Skylab food significantly improved on its predecessors by prioritizing edibility over scientific needs.

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Each astronaut had a private sleeping area the size of a small walk-in closet, with a curtain, sleeping bag, and locker. Designers also added a shower and a toilet; the latter was both for comfort and to obtain precise urine and feces samples for examination on Earth.

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Numerous scientific experiments were conducted aboard Skylab during its operational life, and crews were able to confirm the existence of coronal holes in the Sun. The Earth Resources Experiment Package (EREP), was used to view the Earth with sensors that recorded data in the visible, infrared, and microwave spectral regions. Thousands of photographs of Earth were taken, and records for human time spent in orbit were extended.

Plans were made to refurbish and reuse Skylab, using the Space Shuttle to boost its orbit and repair it. However, development of the Shuttle was delayed, and Skylab reentered Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated in 1979, with debris striking portions of Western Australia.

This is the largest recovered piece of the Skylab Space Station that plunged to the Earth in 1979. This fragment is one of six identical air tanks that were aboard the orbiting laboratory to supply oxygen to the crew. The oxygen tank was recovered in Australia by two men who witnessed its re-entry on July 11. Before it crashed, the tank was eight feet long, four feet in diameter and weighed 2,800 pounds empty.

This is the largest recovered piece of the Skylab Space Station that plunged to the Earth in 1979. This fragment is one of six identical air tanks that were aboard the orbiting laboratory to supply oxygen to the crew. The oxygen tank was recovered in Australia by two men who witnessed its re-entry on July 11. Before it crashed, the tank was eight feet long, four feet in diameter and weighed 2,800 pounds empty.

Skylab Action

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