Thursday, May 13, 2010

Skylab's Shaky Start - 37 Years Ago

Unmanned Skylab 1 lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida 37 years ago on May 14, 1973. Within the first few minutes of launch the last Saturn V rocket configuration shook so much that the third stage laboratory (Skylab) began losing exterior components. Following the craft’s insertion into Earth orbit ground controllers discovered the loss of the micrometeor shield and one of two solar panels.

Without the shield and substantial loss of electrical generating capacity, Skylab began to heat up internally and posed a problem for the crew’s arrival in a few days. High temperatures inside the spacecraft, it was theorized could have produced poisonous toxins, and lead to loss of equipment and supplies.

Scientists, engineers, astronauts and management took ten days to study the problem, come up with a fix, and train the three man crew. The mission launch of astronauts Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz took place on May 25th to repair the ailing station and begin a new chapter in extended earth orbit stay. Once in orbit the crew deployed a parasol to shade the lab’s exterior. The remaining stuck solar panel was dislodged by the crew after snipping a metal band that held the collapsed panel in place. Following the initial repair drama the crew stayed in orbit for 28 days setting endurance records.

Skylab’s launch was an exciting new chapter in the American space program following the close of the Apollo moon missions. After the last three-man crew vacated Skylab in early 1974 the US conducted the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project joint mission with the Soviets in 1975 utilizing the last remaining Saturn IB rocket.

Six years later NASA rolled out the Space Shuttle program to continue earth orbit exploration. The unmanned Skylab vehicle eventually fell out of orbit and was mostly destroyed during re-entry with some pieces surviving on July 11, 1979 - long enough to strike Australia. Years later Russia revealed that it had constructed its own space shuttle, the Buran to among other things capture the vacated Skylab and return it to the Soviet Union for analysis.

As the Space Shuttle program winds down there is much debate politically, economically and scientifically about the direction of American manned space exploration.

One thing is sure; Skylab’s contributions directly enhanced the International Space Station’s mission (along with the Soviet Mir program) and undoubtedly will lead to long range space exploration vehicles and living habitats – be it in earth orbit, the surface of the moon or one day on Mars. Know that.

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