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Skylab, NASA's First Space Station, Was Nearly a Disaster

by Amy Shira Teitel
May 14 2013, 7:40pm
The Skylab Space Station launched on May 14, 1973. It was the last time a Saturn V rocket flew. Via Wikipedia

Today marks 40 years since NASA’s first space station, Skylab, was launched into orbit. It was very nearly a disaster. 

Skylab began life as the Apollo Applications Program. AAP was a multistage program designed to build on the lessons learned during Apollo with the ultimate goal of establishing a firm and lasting human presence in space.

At the core of AAP was a so-called “wet workshop.” After riding a Saturn V rocket into orbit, astronauts would refurbish the spent SIV-B upper stage into a workspace, turning it into the first space station module. Subsequent launches on Saturn Vs and smaller Saturn 1B rockets would add habitat modules, more hardware, and more workshops to this first module to create a massive orbiting installation. The plan was to start AAP right on the heels of Apollo. NASA wouldn’t miss a beat. 

But the budget cuts that killed the last three lunar Apollo missions—Apollos 18, 19, and 20—took their toll on AAP. There was suddenly no room in the budget for a long-term, multistage orbital installation project. NASA could launch a single module into orbit or do nothing. It chose the single launch, and named this heavily revised program Skylab. 

With the name change came a change of design: the Skylab workstation would be built on Earth and launched ready for work. The “wet” workshop became a “dry” one, or one that was ready to at launch. But the core of the station remained the same, still made of an unused SIV-B upper stage of the Saturn V, and it would still use solar panels as its main power source.

Luckily, the cancelation of three lunar Apollo missions meant there was a spare Saturn V to launch the large station into orbit. It also meant NASA could tack on hardware to the station on Earth rather than launching it separately. Specifically, this included a solar observatory called the Apollo Telescope Mount.

Skylab as seen by the last crew to leave it in 1974, via Wikipedia

The Skylab space station was launched, without a crew, on May 14, 1973. Almost immediately the problems started. Vibrations from the Saturn V rocket in the early stages of the launch shook Skylab enough that one of its micrometeoroid shields ripped off, taking one of the station’s solar panels with it.

The damaged station reached orbit a few minutes later and the full extent of the problems became known. Not only had the micrometeorite shied sheared off one of the solar panels, debris had wrapped around the other preventing it from deploying fully. The station was in orbit, but severely crippled. 

For the crew that was meant to follow the station into orbit the next day—Apollo veteran and Moonwalker Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin, and Paul Weitz—the station’s problems were maddening. NASA postponed the Skylab 2 launch to give engineers and technicians time to develop some kind of repair procedures. Conrad grew increasingly anxious as the delay wore on. He knew the best way to fix the problem was to send his crew up to survey the damage and report on what they saw, but NASA was wary of taking chances.

Instead, the agency remotely maneuvered Skylab so the Apollo Telescope Mount’s solar panels faced the sun. It was an attempt to harness as much solar power as possible, but there was a catch. The loss of the meteoroid shield meant that in this orientation the workshop was exposed to untempered sunlight. Temperatures inside the workstation rose to 126 degrees Fahrenheit. But at least it had some power. 

Finally, the Skylab 2 crew launched ten days later on May 25, 1973. They carried several solar shades into orbit to shield the workspace from the Sun’s glare as well as a variety of tools that they hoped would help them free the jammed solar array.  

A cutaway illustration of Skylab, via Wikipedia

When the crew arrived, they found the heat inside Skylab so intense they could only work for short periods at a time, so they addressed that problem first. On their second day in orbit, the crew deployed one of the solar shades through an airlock in the workshop’s side. Measuring 22 by 24 feet and composed of woven nylon, mylar, and aluminum, the shade reflected enough solar energy to lower the internal temperatures to tolerable levels.

The crew then set to work on freeing the jammed solar array. The first try failed, but on their second attempt they managed to release to panel. With the panels deployed and the shade in place, Skylab was a working space station. The Skylab 2 crew had saved the program, and when they splashed down on June 22 after spending a little over 28 days in orbit, they left behind behind a fully functional orbital space station. It was only the first chapter of space drama for Skylab—the Skylab 4 mission saw mutiny—but the short-lived program stands as a lasting success for NASA's efforts to extend man's presence in orbit.