Monday, May 13, 2013

A House in Space

An amazing machine, despite all its difficulties.

Forty years ago, I lived about fifty miles north of New York City, in a little town just far away enough from Manhattan for the light pollution to dim and for the Milky Way to shine in the night sky. I didn't know many kids in town as I had just moved there over the previous Christmas, so I spent a lot of time in the evening just enjoying the brilliant stars overhead.

The Moon missions were over. With the cancellation of Apollos 18-20, I didn't think there would be another lunar landing until after I was out of high school. On May 14th, the final Saturn V would launch NASA's Skylab orbital workshop into space. I managed to talk a guidance counselor at my school into letting me watch the launch on a school TV during lunch time. It looked like this:


After the Saturn disappeared into the cloud deck, horrible things started to happen. The micrometeroid shield running the length of the converted S-IV-B stage sheared off the side of the lab, yanking one of the extensible solar panels with it.  The remnant cables of the missing solar panel coiled around the ship, knotting over the other solar panel and preventing its deployment. It would take two of the three planned missions to repair the Skylab enough for it to do many of the experiments for which it was designed.

Despite the near-disaster at launch, Skylab proved to be a remarkable workshop. By the end of the program, the United States had gained an 84-day record of continuous habitation in space. Many of the lessons learned would be put to use decades later on both Shuttle missions and in the construction of the International Space Station.

There's lots of minutiae to talk about in the history of Skylab but I just wanted to mention something I experienced with my own eyes. Before the first crew arrived at the station at the end of May, 1973, there was a detailed series of articles in the New York Times about what had gone wrong with the ship, and what the plan for the repairs would be. At the end of the article, there was a list of viewing times in the NY area for spotting both Skylab and the S-II Saturn stage that had pushed the ship into orbit. I remember standing in my front yard in the darkness, waiting to see if anything would be visible in the night sky.

Suddenly a dim bead of light appeared from the southwest, followed by another, much brighter light traveling at about the same speed. The S-II was slightly ahead of Skylab, as it was continuing in a slightly lower (and therefore faster) orbit. I had never seen two objects orbiting the Earth at the same time, and it struck me that this would probably be a common sight when I was older, as the sky filled with many orbiting Shuttles and stations.

I was wrong about the number of ships I'd see, but I was correct that I'd see multiple ships in space at the same time in my old age. By 2009, I was living in Massachusetts, and I remembered the Skylab flyover from so many years ago as I watched the Space Shuttle Discovery maneuver to dock with the International Space Station.

The ISS outshines the accomplishments of Skylab in just about every way, but Skylab's pioneering experiences (both operationally and in its repair) made the later achievements of the ISS possible.

1 comment:

  1. I unabashedly loved everything about Skylab, from its surplus-part construction to the ingenuity required to design and unfurl its sunscreen. And I don't think astronauts have ever had a larger volume of interior space to play in--the ISS is bigger, but you don't see anyone running hamster-wheel laps inside its circumference. It also seems to me that Skylab was about the last time one could make a credible argument that humans had a *scientific* role to play in space. The astronauts made genuine contributions to solar and Earth science that machines would very soon be able to do better. In my mind, Skylab was the last gasp of the Von Braun era.

    All arguable, of course, but Skylab holds a special place in my aging Space Age heart.