Celebrating Skylab

On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched a space station called Skylab from Kennedy Space Center.

If that sentence sounds familiar, it’s because one very much like it also began our post on this date two years ago. A lofty ambition from NASA, Skylab looms large in our memory of childhood, and we continue to celebrate it.

Skylab (Artist's Concept, NASA)
Skylab (Artist’s Concept, NASA)

Sure, Skylab needed some in-space repair to get it running properly after its meteoroid shield had ripped away and left the workshop in the sizzling heat of the sun’s rays. Sure, this space station came zipping and burning back to Earth, with a few chunks landing here and there. Sure, it’s an example of poor timing, with the space shuttle not yet flying and nothing else able to nudge Skylab back up to its orbit. NASA has a detailed history of Skylab posted online that doesn’t ignore the glitches.

Skylab was America’s first space station, our nation’s first foray into living in space for extended periods of time, so we celebrate today both the general concept that now includes the International Space Station and the specific accomplishments of the three Skylab missions.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Skylab made to science was via the Apollo Telescope Mount, or ATM. This solar observatory maintained and operated by the Skylab crew reshaped the study of the Sun. The ATM pioneered the field of heliophysics by studying “coronal mass ejections and coronal holes as the source of solar wind.” Along with space probes Explorer I and Mariner 2, Skylab’s ATM observations “led to the understanding that stars interact with the universe not just through gravity and photon radiation but also through electromagnetic fields and particles.”

Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)
Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)

We’re thinking today about its more human accomplishments rather than, say, the contribution to understanding solar flares. Skylab, for instance, forced NASA to grapple with its policy of open communication. The world heard the conversations between Houston and astronauts in space, which was especially good public relations during Apollo and Skylab because it distinguished our space program from that of the Soviet Union, who, as the PR had it, kept secrets even from its own people. That said, NASA protects the doctor-patient privacy we have in the United States even when astronauts travel beyond the atmosphere. On Skylab, NASA allowed the astronauts to talk privately with the flight surgeon, and that information was merely summarized for the news media.

But when Pete Conrad, who didn’t like the open communications policy anyway, had trouble with the exercise bicycle, he requested the sort of private conversation about operations that was supposed to occur only in an emergency. After that non-emergency conversation that covered several topics and after the explaining NASA had to do to the press, private conversations were avoided. Conrad later claimed that he found out about a planned spacewalk in a phone call with his wife instead of from the folks running the mission on the ground because NASA didn’t want to reveal evolving mission plans to the press.

Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)
Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)

This working through of how to talk about what over open channels and over the long haul couldn’t be solved with technology alone. Real people had to work through the complexity of human communication. People had to learn from human behaviors, tendencies, and missteps. Though this space station involved all sorts of technological accomplishments, some of Skylab’s most interesting and important accomplishments involved human interactions, human thinking, and the human body.

How much should a person exercise in space? How should the crew’s fluctuating heart rates be factored into mission plans for tomorrow or next week? Would decreased ability to taste and smell food mean stocking more German potato salad on future missions?

"Homemade" Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4
“Homemade” Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4

If half the astronauts will suffer space sickness, but half won’t, what’s the best prevention and treatment? The first Skylab crew of three fared fine, but all three astronauts on the second crew were queasy within hours. Jack Lousma, Alan Bean, and Owen Garriott—all of whom are still alive and, we hope, celebrating today—couldn’t eat much and became slower in their work. Between space sickness and troubleshooting unexpected glitches, they fell a day behind schedule quickly. This turn of events was especially perplexing because Bean had flown on Apollo without suffering space sickness, and Lousma performed well in the tests designed to induce motion sickness during training. The physician recommended rapid head movement instead of bunk rest, which wasn’t what the crew wanted to hear. By the third day, each astronaut felt better, whether or not he’d done the head movements. Skylab made solving the space sickness problem a priority for NASA. If half or an entire space shuttle crew were to be sick for three days, the mission would be a mess.

Skylab Food Tray (NASA)
Skylab Food Tray (NASA)

Roughly halfway through the third manned Skylab mission, Gerald Carr sent an extra message—via the delayed but public-after-transcription B channel—indicating that the crew and the ground needed to talk about the pace and goals of the mission. The second crew had set the bar high, despite their initial queasiness. This third, all-rookie spaceflight crew felt pushed to get tasks checked off quickly rather than completed well, and they wanted more exercise and down time. On this twelve-week mission—what would be a world record for space endurance—the astronauts wanted a bit of time before sleep to clear their heads, whereas the ground had been scheduling every minute and wanted to maintain the crew at the ready for any scientific observation opportunity that might arise. Because all but emergency operations communications were public, neither the crew nor the ground had wanted to point out even each other’s minor shortcomings. They hadn’t made sure they were on the same page, day to day. The almost-hour-long, candid discussion that followed Carr’s request set a new precedent between crew and ground for missions to come.

The greatest accomplishment of Skylab is that it suggested more questions than it answered, questions about science, technology, and human beings. Skylab wasn’t designed as an end in itself but as part of the future into which we were growing up in the 1970s. Maybe we’re a bit sentimental about Skylab because, when we were kids, Skylab made living in space seem not only cool—maybe cooler than it actually was with space sickness and to-do lists—but also possible.

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