On May 14, 1973, Skylab, the first space station operated by the United States, was launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Ideas for an orbiting space station came about as the Apollo program was winding down and scientists wanted to find a use for unused equipment from the moon landings. The station also provided the 400,000 people that worked on the Apollo project with jobs that would have otherwise ended with the demise of the program.
Long-term habitation led to some unique complications that NASA and its scientists had not dealt with previously. If astronauts were going to live in Skylab for months at a time, ensuring harmonious living situations was a must. NASA studied the psychology of people placed in confined areas for an extended period of time in submarines. The agency also employed designers to create attractive living accommodations for the astronauts. Food was another aspect of long-term habitation NASA had to deal with. Previous space food was okay for short trips to space, but was unpleasant for long durations. NASA improved the edibility of the food for the space station.
The station was damaged during launch, so the first crew of astronauts had to fix jammed solar panels, which were needed to power the station, and installed a replacement heat shield, which was necessary to protect the station from extreme solar heat. After a rocky start, Skylab hosted three manned missions, with each group of astronauts setting records for amount of time spent in space.
Many experiments took place on the station. Experiments were done on everything from circadian rhythm studies to x-ray photography. The station provided scientists with over 150,000 photographs of the Earth and Sun, many of which could not have been taken with unmanned spacecraft. Schools from throughout the United States also submitted experiments that were performed on Skylab.
The last crew left Skylab in February 1974. There was much discussion on continuing to use the space station because of its generous size. While many plans emerged to reuse the space station, it was eventually decided that all plans to salvage the space station would be abandoned. Skylab’s orbit gradually decayed and, while reentry was supposed to occur sometime in the early 1980s, the space station entered Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979 due to extreme solar activity, which heated Earth’s atmosphere and caused drag of Skylab. NASA has planned for the space station to burn up over the Indian Ocean, but a calculation error and Skylab disintegrating at a slower rate than predicted meant that some debris landed in isolated parts of Australia.
Items in Our Collection:
Homesteading Space: the Skylab Story by David Hitt; Owen K Garriott; Joe Kerwin
Living and Working in Space: a History of Skylab by William David Compton; Charles D Benson
Skylab: America's Space Station by David Shayler