41 Years Ago Today: Skylab Is Launched

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the last of the Saturn Vs, and the first American space station.  After the last three Apollo missions were unceremoniously cancelled, surplus hardware remained.  One Saturn V was adapted to launch an unmanned payload into low Earth orbit, the largest payload ever placed into orbit in a single launched.  The upper stages (S-IVBs) of two more were modified into a space station, and a backup spare space station (Skylab and Skylab B).  On May 14, 1974, the Saturn V roared into orbit with Skylab under a huge, custom-built payload fairing.

The launch wasn’t without problems; there was more vibration than expected with this novel Saturn V configuration, causing some launch restraints to loosen, and when the gigantic payload fairing separated, the micrometeoroid shield was caught up in it.  The shield also snagged on one of the solar array assemblies, and both were torn free of the station.  Fragments of the micrometeoroid shield also pinned the surviving solar array assembly down, preventing it from deploying.  On orbit, the station was running only on the power generated by the Apollo Telescope Mount, which was woefully inadequate, and without the micrometeoroid shield, sunlight on the station’s pressurized module was more intense and temperatures were rapidly rising.

The first manned mission, Skylab 2 (the station’s launch being Skylab 1), was delayed from May 15 to May 25 to allow engineers and the crew to work together to rapidly devise and train a repair plan.  The crew successfully deployed a makeshift sunshade to bring temperatures back under control and freed the remaining main solar array.  Skylab was ready for business.  Two more manned missions would visit the station, flown in Apollo CSMs originally meant for lunar missions and boosted by Saturn 1B rockets placed atop gangly “milkstool” arrangements to elevate them enough atop the Mobile Transporter for the crew access arms built for Saturn V to fit the much smaller Saturn 1B.

Skylab had the greatest internal volume of any space station until the ISS neared completion — and it was only one module.  It was far roomier than any other manned spacecraft in orbit, and the crew were able to enjoy.  Just take a look:

After the inventory of flight-ready Apollo CSM was exhausted (three Skylab crews plus the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), the plan was to send the Space Shuttle up.  Congress had already nixed spending on a second Saturn V flight to launch the flight spare, Skylab B, which you can now visit at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, and ordered NASA to focus on the Space Shuttle program.  But this was slow going with all the Congressional mandates and the effort to merge the USAF and NASA Shuttle programs into one, and Skylab was sinking due to atmospheric drag.  So a reboost module was designed, to be delivered by the Shuttle.  Unfortunately, Skylab was sinking faster than they realized, and Shuttle was taking longer than expected, and in 1979, Skylab fell from the sky.  Debris ended up mostly in the Indian Ocean, but some landed on Australia.  NASA would make many proposals for new space stations to replace Skylab, but would not get the backing to actually fly one until the International Space Station.

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