America’s first outpost in space: “Skylab” started 50 years ago

The first problems came just 63 seconds after takeoff. A meteor shield unfurled, ripping through drag, taking one solar panel with it and damaging another. This is how “Skylab”, America’s first outpost in space, made it into space on May 14, 1973 – exactly 50 years ago – from the Cape Canaveral spaceport on board a Saturn 5 rocket, but was badly damaged.

The first crew consisted of Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin. The three started a few days later for “Skylab” and first had to do “huge DIY repair work” on the space station, according to the US space agency Nasa, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the start with an event in Houston in the US state Texas wants to celebrate.

The mission, which cost around 2.6 billion dollars, was actually supposed to be comfortable for the astronauts: The tube, which was around 36 meters long and almost seven meters wide, offered a shower, a small collection of books, a dartboard, fitness machines and comfortable beds. The food – with a window view of the earth – included cornflakes, bread, soup, vegetables, fruit, meat – and even lobster.

First, however, the astronauts had to secure the power supply and insulate the station from heat and cold after NASA had largely stabilized the course of “Skylab” after the start problems. After the 80-ton “Skylab” had been successfully repaired, the scientific work could begin. The three crews, each consisting of three, completed hundreds of experiments, spending 28, then 59 and finally 84 days on board the “Skylab”. Above all, the astronauts dealt with solar radiation, earth observation, weightlessness and biomedicine.

A view of Skylab in Earth orbit taken by Skylab 4’s Command and Service Module (CSM) during the CSM’s final orbit before returning home; recorded February 8, 1974.

(Bild: NASA (Crew of Skylab 4), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The astronauts also observed two spiders named “Arabella” and “Anita” – to find out whether they also spin webs without gravity. A student from the US state of Massachusetts came up with the experiment and NASA approved it. “They took up some of our time comfortably,” said astronaut Owen Garriott, part of the second “Skylab” crew, once in an interview. “You can’t be glued to the telescope 16 hours a day.” The spiders made webs, albeit with much thinner threads than on Earth – and ended up in the Guinness Book of Records as the first spiders in space.

In February 1974 the third and last crew left the “Skylab”. Actually, the station should have stayed in orbit for several more years, but financial problems at NASA and unusually strong solar activity prevented this. In July 1978, the sky laboratory crashed over a sparsely populated area in Australia.

The “Skylab” was created in the space race with the former Soviet Union. The first Soviet space station from the “Salyut” program had already been launched into Al two years earlier. The sky laboratory “Skylab” was the American answer to “Salyut” – at an altitude of 435 kilometers. The Soviet Union later sent the “Mir” space station after it, before the first – and still ongoing – joint project came about in 1998: The International Space Station ISS, on which German astronauts such as Alexander Gerst and Matthias Maurer were stationed.

The construction of commercial space stations is currently being planned in many places – and there is much discussion about the future of the ISS, also because of the tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine war. After Moscow had actually announced an exit for 2024, Russia’s space agency Roskosmos has now confirmed further participation until 2028.

“Skylab” was one of the foundations for the ISS, says ISS scientist Julie Robinson. “We owe so much to the pioneer crews, the ground teams, and the scientists who pioneered the path. Skylab helped us define the problems of long-term space flight—and the ISS is now solving them one by one others.”

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Skylab crew having fun in zero gravity


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