David Shayler has been a prolific writer of space history for the last several years, and this narrative history of Skylab is a notable addition to his portfolio and the historical literature on space stations. From the time of Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy through Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and Wernher von Braun all the spaceflight visionaries believed that a space station was a necessary prerequisite to further human exploration of space. They recognized that once humans had achieved Earth-orbit about 250 miles up, the presumed location of any space station, the vast majority of the atmosphere and the gravity well had been conquered and that humans were now about halfway to anywhere else they might want to go. They could use it as a base camp at the bottom of the mountain or the fort in the wilderness, or use any other similar metaphor, to jump off on explorations of the Solar System. It became the centerpiece of an integrated strategy for space exploration, and found its most sophisticated depiction as a way station in the masterful 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
The first effort in the United States to build a space station was Skylab, launched in 1973 and occupied through 1974, a far cry from the rotating wheel of "2001: A Space Odyssey" but nonetheless a genuine success story. It represented a preliminary space station and was a relatively small orbital space platform that would allow astronauts for the first time to remain in space for months at a time. It would be, NASA officials hoped, be the precursor of a real space station. This is the story that Shayler tells in this fine narrative history.
It used a reconfigured and habitable third stage of the Saturn V rocket as the basic component of the orbital workshop. The 100-ton Skylab 1 workshop was launched into orbit on May 14, 1973, the last use of the giant Saturn V launch vehicle. Shayler is at his best when discussing the dramatic rescue effort that followed, for technical problems developed due to vibrations during lift-off When the meteoroid shield--designed also to shade Skylab's workshop from the Sun's rays--ripped off, taking with it one of the spacecraft's two solar panels, and another piece wrapped around the other panel to keep it from properly deploying. This caused a serious temperature rise inside Skylab that the astronauts had to correct.
In an intensive ten-day period, NASA developed procedures and trained the crew to make the workshop habitable. On May 25, 1973, astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph P. Kerwin, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in an Apollo capsule atop a Saturn IB and rendezvoused with the orbital workshop. This crew carried a parasol, tools, and replacement supplies to repair the orbital workshop. After substantial repairs requiring extravehicular activity (EVA), including deployment of a parasol sunshade that cooled the inside temperatures to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, by June 4 the workshop was habitable. During a June 7 EVA the crew also freed the jammed solar array and increased power to the workshop.
In orbit the crew conducted solar astronomy and Earth resources experiments, medical studies, and five student experiments. This first crew made 404 orbits and carried out experiments for 392 hours, in the process making three EVAs totaling six hours and 20 minutes. The first group of astronauts returned to Earth on June 22, 1973, and two other Skylab missions followed. The Skylab 3 crew was launched on July 28, 1973, and its mission lasted 59 days. Skylab 4, the last mission on the workshop was launched on November 16, 1973, and remained in orbit for 84 days. At the conclusion of Skylab 4 the orbital workshop was powered down with the intention that it might be visited again.
Following the final occupied phase of the Skylab mission, ground controllers performed some engineering tests of certain Skylab systems, positioned Skylab into a stable attitude, and shut down its systems. It was expected that Skylab would remain in orbit eight to ten years, by which time NASA might be able to reactivate it. In the fall of 1977, however, space agency officials determined that Skylab had entered a rapidly decaying orbit--resulting from greater than predicted solar activity--and that it would reenter the Earth's atmosphere within two years. They steered the orbital workshop as best they could so that debris from reentry would fall over oceans and unpopulated areas of the planet. On July 11, 1979, Skylab finally impacted the Earth's surface. The debris dispersion area stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia. NASA and the U.S. space program took criticism for this development, ranging from the sale of hardhats as "Skylab Survival Kits" to serious questions about the propriety of space flight altogether if people were likely to be killed by falling objects. In reality, while NASA took sufficient precautions so that no one was injured, its leaders had learned that the agency could never again allow a situation in which large chunks of orbital debris had a chance of reaching the Earth's surface. It was an inauspicious ending to the first American space station, not one that its originators had envisioned, but it had opened some doors of understanding and had whetted the appetite for a full-fledged space station.
David Shayler tells this story well, but without footnotes. If you wish to read the same story, also well told, but with references to official documents see the official NASA history by W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, "Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab" (Washington, DC: NASA Special Publication-4208, 1983).