The First US Space Station

Skylab was the United States’ first space station and followed the successful Apollo program. Launched by a left-over Saturn V rocket, Skylab was manned by a total of 9 astronauts over 3 missions of 28, 59 and 84 days respectively during its 6 years orbiting Earth. Skylab’s orbit eventually decayed causing an uncontrolled re-entry, scattering debris over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia as it fell to Earth.

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Skylab Fast Summary Facts

  • Type:  Space Station
  • Destination:  Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
  • Status:  Burnt up on re-entry
  • Launch Location:  Kennedy Space Center, Florida
  • Launch Date:  May 14th 1973
  • Re-entry Date:  July 11th 1979

Interesting Facts About Skylab And Its Missions!

Skylab was launched and operated by NASA to be the United States' first space station and to also utilize spare hardware left over from the Apollo program. It was constructed from an unused upper stage of the Saturn V rocket and included a science laboratory, workshop, solar observatory and other life support systems necessary for the crew.

The primary objectives of the station were to learn how to live and work in space during long-duration spaceflights, to study the effects space had on the human body, studying solar activity with the onboard solar observatory while also performing other science experiments.

Skylab was launched by an unmanned Saturn V rocket, the final one to be launched and weighed a massive 77.1 tonnes (170,000 pounds)! The astronauts for the three manned expeditions followed and launched atop the smaller Saturn 1B in the three-man Apollo Command/Service Module (Apollo CSM) spacecraft.

Not everything went to plan during Skylab’s launch, as 63 seconds into the flight the station's micrometeoroid shield accidentally opened and tore the shield and one of the main solar panels off! These were critical for heat shielding and electricity production.

The first mission crew had to perform a spacewalk to make repairs and install a sun shield to save the station. Once the station was secured, the astronauts set about performing their scientific experiments, studying the Earth from orbit (taking thousands of photos) and recording everything relevant to the study of long-duration human spaceflight.

The first crew set a new record for human time spent in orbit, beating the 23 days set by the Soyuz 11 crew and by the end of the third Skylab mission the record had been extended to 84 days. There were plans to send a fourth manned mission, however, this would have required the Space Shuttle to reboost Skylab (to a higher altitude) and the delays in the shuttle program meant this wouldn’t happen before the station re-entered the atmosphere.

Due to the station’s low Earth orbit, the thin upper atmosphere’s drag gradually slowed Skylab until it re-entered the atmosphere uncontrolled on Skylab’s 34,980th orbit! This event gained a lot of attention from media around the world, with NASA aiming for the station to safely burn up over the Southern Indian Ocean, south-southeast of Cape Town on July 11th, 1979. However, the station would overshoot this zone with large charred pieces landing near Perth in Western Australia.

By the end of the Skylab program, NASA had spent $2.2 billion ($10 billion in 2010 dollars) on the orbiting station. NASA’s budget then focused on the Space Shuttle program, rather than space stations, but Shuttle Atlantis would make 7 visits to the Mir Space Station (Mir-Shuttle Program) and later shuttles flew construction missions to build the International Space Station (ISS).

 
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