Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Skylab: America’s First Space Station and Its Legacy
May 14, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Skylab, America's first space station and first crewed research laboratory in space. NASA's official website describes the historic event as “Clouds of smoke billow out over the surrounding area as the uncrewed Skylab 1/Saturn V space vehicle launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 14, 1973.” The major components of the space station were the orbital workshop, Apollo Telescope Mount, multiple docking adapters, and airlock module.
The launch of Skylab came two years after the Soviet Union had deployed the world's first space station, Salyut 1. This station only hosted a single crew, which arrived aboard the ill-fated Soyuz 11 mission in June 1971. After three weeks aboard Salyut 1, the Soyuz 11 crew returned to Earth, but were killed when their capsule depressurized during re-entry. Although the Soviet Union would launch three more space stations in 1972 and early 1973, the first of these failed to reach orbit, and the next two malfunctioned shortly after deployment, with no Soyuz missions being launched to any of them. Skylab was, therefore, the second space station to be crewed in orbit, but as of 2023, it remains the only crewed station to have been operated exclusively by the United States.
Skylab's launch marked the thirteenth and final flight of the legendary Saturn V rocket, which had powered previous Apollo missions on their journeys to the Moon. During the Skylab mission, the rocket utilized a two-stage setup, where the S-IVB third stage was replaced by the Orbital Workshop. The rocket's instrument unit (IU) was incorporated at the forward end of the OWS, with a four-sector payload fairing encapsulating the airlock, MDA, and ATM. According to Space.com, this was the final instance in which the Saturn V rocket was employed in space travel.
Skylab's mission was to help us learn to live and work in space for longer than ever before. It is only after this point that we can consider journeys to Mars and other destinations that will require years to complete. An orbiting laboratory was NASA's initial goal until President John F. Kennedy challenged the agency to beat the Russians to the moon. Skylab paved the way for comprehending human responses to extended space travel, allowing space stations to thrive in the following years, regardless of what the future may bring. The ISS carries forward its own heritage, along with that of the Soviet Salyut and Mir stations, as it persists in providing priceless scientific contributions. The experience with long-duration missions that has been honed aboard these outposts will also be key to future spaceflight beyond Earth's orbit.
The idea for Skylab originated in 1965 when NASA budgets were plump. Despite financial constraints, the agency approved the program to proceed, partly due to the utilization of the existing Apollo infrastructure by the satellite. The Saturn V rocket, initially designed for the Apollo 12 mission, has the capability of launching Skylab into orbit. And the space station itself would be constructed out of a rocket's third stage. McDonnell Douglas, the manufacturer of the S-IVB, would be responsible for converting the stage into Skylab's Orbital Workshop, under a contract signed in August 1969.
In terms of appearance, this particular Saturn V rocket stood out from its predecessors because it only had two stages instead of the usual three. Additionally, instead of the S-IVB third stage, it had the Skylab space station, which was covered by a bullet-shaped shield to protect it from the stresses of ascent.
Skylab's launch was not without complications. About 63 seconds into the flight, the Orbital Workshop's micrometeoroid shield – which was also designed to act as a critical part of the station's thermal control system – suffered a structural failure and detached. The No.2 solar array's tie-down fittings, which were damaged, caused debris to block the No.1 solar array and resulted in harm to the interstage's separation systems between the first and second stages of the rocket.
0. “NASA's “made in Alabama” space station, fifty years later.” Alabama Public Radio, 14 May. 2023, https://www.apr.org/news/2023-05-14/nasas-made-in-alabama-space-station-fifty-years-later
1. “Skylab at 50 – How the United States entered the space station era – NASASpaceFlight.com” NASASpaceflight.com, 14 May. 2023, https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2023/05/skylab-at-50/
2. “On this day in history, May 14, 1973, Skylab, the first US space station, is launched” Fox News, 14 May. 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/this-day-history-may-14-1973-skylab-first-us-space-station-launched
3. ““A Few Telemetry Glitches”: Remembering Skylab’s Hair-Raising Ride to Space, 50 Years On” AmericaSpace, 14 May. 2023, https://www.americaspace.com/2023/05/14/a-few-telemetry-glitches-remembering-skylabs-hair-raising-ride-to-space-50-years-on
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5. “Looking back at Skylab, NASA’s pioneering space station” Popular Science, 12 May. 2023, https://www.popsci.com/science/skylab-nasa-space-station-50-years/
6. “The story of the Skylab space station, 50 years on” BBC Sky at Night Magazine, 14 May. 2023, https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/space-missions/skylab/