Happy Birthday, Skylab

Skylab on Launch Pad (NASA)

On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched Skylab from Kennedy Space Center. As with other projects, like the Hubble Telescope, not everything was right with the first American space station at the beginning. But in-space repairs made real science in space—and living there—a reality for our generation.

Apollo astronauts like Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent time on Skylab, as did space shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. Fellow Illinoisan Joseph Kerwin became the first physician to be invited to train to go to space and spent 28 days in space. The 84 days of Skylab’s last mission now pales in comparison with stints on the International Space Station, and the percentage of days that Skylab was inhabited makes it looked little used. But at the time, this space station was pretty amazing and certainly paved the way for future low-Earth orbit projects.

Skylab, as seen by departing Skylab 2 crew (NASA)

What we remember most about Skylab is the anticipation of reentry in the summer of 1979. The space shuttle hadn’t been completed in time to save Skylab, to push it higher in orbit and extend its life for a few more years. Bets on the date of its demise were wagered, t-shirts were printed up, and rewards for pieces of the space station were offered by news organizations. We hoped its demise would come on the weekend and on our side of the globe, though all along NASA was shooting for the pieces to fall in the largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean, far from land and people who could be hit by burning bits of debris. On July 11, a Wednesday, Skylab fell to Earth, and we didn’t see it. NASA miscalculated the process and angles slightly, the spacecraft didn’t burn up fast enough, and some debris landed in Australia.

Apollo Capsule Docked with Skylab (NASA)

In many ways, as we look back on Skylab, it seems as if it, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, had been a television show we watched as kids, a bit of popular culture. The real science of it hadn’t made its way into our textbooks then. But it was real, and there’s proof at the National Air and Space Museum, where the second orbital workshop is on display. NASA had planned to send a second Skylab to space, so two complete space stations were manufactured. NASA doesn’t build spare spacecraft so that museum visitors can walk through them, imagining what it would be like to look down on the earth from 250 miles up. But that’s exactly what happened with Skylab, and it gave regular folks the rare opportunity to inhabit—to physically invest themselves in—the idea of living on a space station.

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