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In Pictures: Skylab, NASA's first space station marks 40 years

NASA's first space station was a pacesetter for current International Space Station and a trendsetter for scientific experiments in space

  • Skylab was an ambitious space program designed to test all manner of until-that-time unproven thoughts about space -- mainly, could man really live for long periods in orbit? But it produced way more scientific data than that: For example, it produced a vast study of the Earth's crust, one of the first comprehensive studies of the sun, a closer look at comets, and manufactured alloys and crystals. Here we have gathered up a bunch of Skylab facts from NASA History Office for an overview of the mission that NASA will celebrate this month.

  • This sketch of Skylab was drawn by George Mueller, NASA associate administrator for manned space flight. This concept drawing was created at a meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center on Aug. 19, 1966. In 1970, the station became known as Skylab. Three crewed Skylab missions (Skylab 2 in May 1973, Skylab 3 in July 1973 and Skylab 4 in November 1973) were flown, NASA said.

  • What it all looked like.

  • Launched aboard the last of the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets on May 14, 1973, the uncrewed Skylab became America's first space station. The station almost immediately developed technical problems due to vibrations during liftoff when a critical meteoroid shield ripped off, taking one of the craft's two primary solar panels with it.

  • On May 25, the first crewed mission, consisting of Comdr. Charles Conrad Jr., Pilot Paul J. Weitz and Scientist Pilot Joseph P. Kerwin, launched to rendezvous with the station had to make substantial repairs, including deployment of a parasol sunshade that cooled the inside temperatures to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The workshop was made fully operational by June 4.

  • Here astronaut Owen Garriott performs a spacewalk at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit. Garriott had just deployed the Skylab Particle Collection Experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to collect material from interplanetary dust particles on prepared surfaces suitable for studying their impact phenomena, NASA said.

  • Skylab was maneuvered so its solar panels faced the sun to provide as much electricity as possible. Because of the loss of the meteoroid shield, however, this positioning caused workshop temperatures to rise to 52 degrees Celsius (126 degrees Fahrenheit). The launch of Skylab 2 was postponed while NASA engineers, in an intensive 10-day period, developed procedures and trained the crew to make the workshop habitable, NASA said.

  • During the inspection of Skylab, Conrad reported: "Solar wing 2 is completely gone, and solar wing 1 is partially deployed." He also reported that debris from the micrometeroid shield was jammed around the partially deployed wing, holding it in place and preventing full deployment.

  • Normally, Skylab flew with the solar arrays directly facing the sun. After the micrometeoroid shield was lost, ground controllers maneuvered the space station so that the workshop centerline was at a 45-degree angle to the sun. The solar arrays then operated with less effectiveness, but temperatures within the workshop were kept at a tolerable level, NASA said.

  • The solar observatory was designed for full exposure to the sun throughout most of the Skylab mission. The temperature of its components was carefully controlled.

  • Orientation in the space station was never a problem. As the crew adjusted to its new environment, Scientist Pilot Kerwin reported that there was, indeed, an up and down in space. It was simply a matter of telling yourself which was which, he observed.

  • Twenty-two titanium spheres housed the nitrogen required for operation of the thruster attitude control system.

  • The partially deployed workshop solar wing was made up of panels which were hinged together. Each was composed of hundreds of solar cells, NASA said.

  • Two IBM computers in the Skylab controlled the orientation of the laboratory throughout the mission. The onboard computers, which were arranged redundantly, were models of IBM's System/4Pi, a computer designed for the special weight and environmental requirements of aerospace applications. Each of the IBM computers aboard Skylab weighed 100 pounds and measured 19 by 7.3 by 31.8 inches. They were capable of handling more than 100 signals to Skylab attitude control equipment, IBM says.

  • This view of the Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Atlantic Coast area was taken as part of the Skylab 4 Earth Resources Experiments Package S190-B, a 5-inch Earth terrain infrared camera. The launch pads for the Skylab missions are clearly visible. Identification of living vegetation is possible through the use of the color infrared film. Various shades of red portray differences in the vegetation such as shown in the patterns in the agricultural area near Vero Beach.

  • The star tracker was an important part of the attitude and pointing control system. It measured attitude in roll and provided star position data for experiment pointing. As the third manned period progressed, the star tracker continued to malfunction and finally became unusable, NASA said.

  • NASA said much of the research and technology that makes the ISS possible was still just theory prior to launch of Skylab. "I think the greatest achievement is that we pretty much proved that the human body can stay weightless for a very long time," astronaut Gerald Carr said. "This was our first opportunity to go up and settle in." He said that the Skylab crews also helped develop countermeasures to help astronauts better endure long-duration flights. "I don't see any reason we couldn't go to Mars without artificial gravity," he said.

  • Skylab 2 commander Pete Conrad undergoes a dental examination by medical officer Joseph Kerwin in the Skylab Medical Facility. In the absence of an examination chair, Conrad simply rotated his body to an upside-down position to facilitate the procedure.

  • Eating in zero gravity could be a challenge.

  • Spaghetti and meat sauce came premixed and ready to be heated.

  • Other things were also a chore. Here we see the waste management compartment, with the fecal-urine collector mounted on the wall.

  • Unsecured objects floated about the workshop and collected on the screens. Crewmen began their search for missing items there, NASA said.

  • Extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) had been scheduled from the beginning to change out the film in the Apollo Telescope Mount. However, the EVAs eventually became necessary to repair the station, NASA said.

  • These diagrams show the two loops through which water circulated to cool the astronauts during their extravehicular activities. Circulating water flowed through "long underwear" worn under their pressurized suits. Heat was transferred to the primary workshop cooling system through intermediate heat exchangers, NASA said.

  • Electrical panels contained instruments showing the condition of electrical equipment, and switches and controls for their operation.

  • Typical of the photographs obtained by Skylab's solar instruments are these photographs of a solar eruption (top) and a solar prominence (bottom).

  • Space spider Arabella became a television celebrity when she spun an "earthly" web after becoming acclimated to the zero gravity environment. Her first attempt, shortly after reaching orbit, showed a disorientation, but adjustment came quickly.

  • This astronaut maneuvering unit was flown in the workshop to test it under weightless conditions for possible future application.

  • Garriott displays the lightweight portable television camera which the astronauts used to televise their activities, NASA said.

  • Also among the numerous experiments conducted in materials processing was the growth of crystals, such as this semiconductor crystal of germanium selenide, NASA said.

  • The crews also had fun devising their own small experiments. Carr said he enjoyed this hobby. "It was such an interesting thing to turn loose a blob of water to see what you can do with it." They also pulled a classic prank on mission controllers. The ground crew was shocked when Garriott's wife, Helen, called down to them from the station. The roomful of controllers sat confused until the crew burst into laughter -- Garriott had recorded his wife's voice before the flight and arranged to have it played to the control room, NASA said.

  • Comet Kohoutek's hydrogen halo is clearly evident in the far-ultraviolet camera photograph taken from Skylab on Christmas Day 1973.

  • While it was unoccupied, the space station circled the Earth and operated at reduced power and with many of its systems either inoperative or operating at reduced capacity. But Skylab was now a fully operational space station, its scientific value well established.

  • The unmanned Skylab could be sighted from great distances by its flashing lights, NASA said.

  • NASA's Skylab program paved the way for the International Space Station.

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