This year we celebrate 50 years since the launch of Skylab, America’s first manned space station.
There is nothing more exciting than a real-life adventure that seems like it is out of a great book or movie. The story of Skylab has that feel for me. On a trip to Disney World in Florida, I remember an attraction that simulated launching into space. Part of that simulator had video of astronauts running and tumbling around the inside of a large cylinder. What seemed like science fiction was actual video from Skylab, imagery that sticks in my mind even to this day.
Though I was enthralled by the photos and videos from Skylab as a child, I did not become aware of the stories related to the program until just recently. As someone who is fond of the writings of Jules Verne, and someone who also does a lot of hands-on repair work, Skylab struck a new chord with me as an adult. The first thing that I find interesting is the initial plan for the missions. Skylab 1 launched on May 14, 1973. The astronauts who would inhabit the station were scheduled to launch the very next day, from a rocket already poised on a launchpad only a mile and a half away. I find it so amazing and audacious that the “home” for three astronauts was sent into space only a day before they planned to take up residence.
The tension that usually occurs in adventure stories came after the launch of Skylab 1. As the Saturn V launch vehicle carrying Skylab to orbit ascended, a micrometeorite shield and sunshade on the space station unintentionally deployed. (This brings to mind what it feels like to put your hand, palm facing forward, out of the window of a car going 75 mph.) Needless to say, Skylab—or at least parts of it—was severely damaged.
While Skylab was successfully launched into orbit, controllers on the ground worked to assess the damage. They found that in addition to losing a micrometeorite shield and sunshade, the space station had sustained damage to one of its solar array panels. The Skylab 2 astronauts would have to postpone their next-day launch and rendezvous with the space station.
Much like the famous CO2 scrubber situation from the Apollo 13 mission, inventive problem-solving was needed to continue the adventure. While no human lives were at risk, this high-profile extension of the Apollo program was in jeopardy. Over the next ten days, teams consisting of NASA officials, engineers, technicians, back-up Skylab crew, and the astronauts themselves worked to define specific problems, explore options, sketch out their ideas, and create viable solutions. One achievement of the teams was thinking up three potential ways to replace the sunshade. A solution for this was key. Without a sunshade in place, the workshop inside of Skylab could reach temperatures of 52˚C (125˚F). At the same time, the teams explored what could be done about the damaged solar array. Skylab needed to have all its solar arrays pointing toward the sun for power.
This is the part of the adventure story in which an outsider, one possessing a key set of skills, knowledge or outside equipment, helps the main characters overcome a large obstacle. In this case, the outsider was Cliff Bosch. Bosch worked for AB Chance, a company that supplied tools for electrical linemen, the utilities workers who install, service, and make emergency repairs to power lines after a storm. Before he knew it, Bosch became part of the plan to save Skylab. (By the way, “Saving Skylab” is a great documentary detailing this part of the story). Upon learning of the problem, Bosch chose tools from the AB Chance inventory and hopped a ride on a NASA-bound jet. Now that is a day to remember!
I cannot imagine the amount of work that took place in the days between the launch of Skylab 1 and Skylab 2. The teams needed to stay focused and work fast. On May 25, 1973, the astronauts of the Skylab 2 mission were ready, and so began the next chapter of this true-life adventure. Their mission was to catch up with the damaged space station, conduct an onsite/in-space visual assessment of the damage, and perform repairs during spacewalks. One of my favorite quotes from this part of the story comes from commander Charles Conrad, who said, “This is Skylab 2, we fix anything.” After successfully reaching the space station, the astronauts were able to assess and do the needed repairs, such as using a tweaked version of an AB Chance Lineman tool to free one of the solar array panels that had gotten stuck. At the time, these were the biggest problems to be fixed in space.
After diving into the story of Skylab, I now understand why the images I saw as a kid looked a bit off to me. The space station did not have the same symmetry I was used to seeing in NASA equipment. One panel was ripped off during launch. There was the floppy-looking gold sheet that does not look like it was attached to the station. Now I know that this was the mylar solar shield put in place by the astronauts. Little did I know as a kid that these visual anomalies were part of a true-life adventure and invention story to save America’s first manned space station.
After the space station was repaired, the adventure story continued with chapters filled with exploration and unique experiences. Skylab had a total of three crews visit the station: the first stayed 28 days; the second, 56 days, and the final crew, 84 days. What is daring about this, you may ask? The great adventure here is their longevity in space. Up until the Skylab missions, the longest an American had stayed in space was 14 days. The long-term flights and work done on Skylab paved the way for future space endeavors like the International Space Station and missions to Mars. The exciting history of Skylab is part of the grander adventure story which continues as humans continue their exploration of space.
Happy 50th anniversary to the adventure that was Skylab!