Image quality improved a lot from the first videos on the moon.

We landed on the moon. We drove around in a moon-buggie and we played golf. Even brought back a few rocks. That was all the moon was any good for so we got bored and quit. NASA’s budget was gutted. They were tasked with keeping manned space flight going with only a pittance compared to the previous decade.

Fortunately, the Soviets came to our rescue. Having failed to get a man anywhere near the moon, they decided to beat us by launching the Salyut space station in 1971. Whatever the Ruskies did, we had to do better. Skylab was already under development but without some incentive, it may well have been strangled of funding. We were hesitant to spend that kind of money on civilian space in Jimmy Carter’s “Age of Limits”.

Salyut’s origins lay in the ultra top secret Almaz military space station which was

Salyut station with two Soyuz capsules docked.

repurposed and modified to dock with Soyuz capsules. The first Soyuz was unable to dock and aborted the mission. The second successfully docked but a valve opened on reentry and sucked all the air out of the capsule, asphyxiating the crew. From then on all Soyuz crews wore their pressure suits on reentry. Salyut I was intentionally deorbited after it ran out of supplies before it could be restocked.

Salyut 2 was a different critter, a military space station (essentially a manned spy satellite) under a civilian cover. It depressurized quickly from holes blown in it by shrapnel from the upper stage of its Proton booster. Then it’s solar array inexplicably tore itself off.

Kosmos 557 was really a Salyut and not another in a very long string of Kosmos satellites . However, it too failed. The Soviets didn’t want to admit to another space station failure so it was officially called merely Kosmos satellite 557 for the press release. This was three days before we launched Skylab.

Salyut 3 was another cover for a military station. To our knowledge, this was the first and only orbiting weapon of war. Much later we learned that it carried a modified antiaircraft cannon that was used to destroy a target satellite. Only one of the two crews sent up to it succeeded in docking.

The list of the Salyuts goes on until the creation of the MIR station in 1986.

Just look at the comparison of Skylab dwarfing an 18 wheeler tractor trailer. Also, notice how the network honored Vietnam veterans.

We had a lot of leftovers from the Apollo program, some Saturn IBs, some Saturn Vs and some leftover command modules. (Many of them ended up as museum pieces in rocket parks.) W. Von Braun was still around and he suggested that rather than scrapping all that goodness we turn a modified third stage of a Saturn V (still the heaviest launch vehicle ever to see service) into an orbiting space station that weighed 170,000 lbs., still today the heaviest ever satellite launch.

Up it went – but not without an argument. There was a micrometeor shield that doubled

No thermal blanket and main solar array unextended.

as a heat shield against the sun. It decided to deploy a little over a minute into the flight. It was actually past enough of the Earth’s atmosphere that it might have survived. The second stage separated from the third using a retrorocket to force the separation. That retro blew the shield blanket completely away. In order to keep the station habitable, they positioned it such to minimize solar exposure time but the loss of the shielding would mean less protection against micrometeorites. But at least it was up there and we got to brag about launching the first US Space station. And ours was the size of a house, not like those little pipsqueak Salyuts.

Any time astronauts were in Skylab, there was a command module docked on location plus a fully prepped command module modified to hold 5 people was ready for immediate launch on a Saturn IB as a rescue mission. (The idea was originally planned as a way to rescue astronauts trapped in lunar orbit.)

Ten days later a crew went up in a lunar command module atop a Saturn IB  – at that time the second heaviest launch vehicle in the world.  Their mission was to deploy the solar array that would power Skylab. The deployment proved to be extremely difficult, especially given the primitive state of extra-vehicular activities at the time.

Once again the stubborn little station refused to cooperate. A metal strap refused to release. Anyone listening to Mission Control at the time would have been treated to a stream of foul language as the panels refused to budge. It stopped when Mission Control reminded them that communications were live. Then when Commander Pete Conrad attempted to dock, the docking mechanism didn’t work. The command module had to be depressurized and the electricals disconnected before they could dock and enter Skylab.

Human ingenuity eventually overcame the recalcitrant solar array and later a replacement thermal and micrometeoroid shield was finally in place. The docking problem was figured out. The crew’s 26 days in space set a record, beating the old 23-day record held by Salyut.

BTW, Skylab 1 was the launch of Skylab itself. Skylab 2, 3, and 4 were the crewed missions.

A second crew was sent up. This time there wasn’t enough for the crew to do. They became bored and requested more work than Mission Control had ready for them to do

Floating around in this weightless for months can make even the toughest person sick.

on a 59 day mission. (They did discover “space sickness”, rather like nausea setting in after long periods of weightless disorientation.) Mission Control was jubilant. But two weeks before mission completion, astronauts reported seeing a “snowstorm” outside their windows. The investigation revealed that fuel tanks for two of the four the command module engines had sprung a leak.

The rescue ship looked like it might be needed. NASA crunched the numbers and decided that as long as the command module had two functional engines, they would keep the

What the command module looked like after reentry

astronauts on Skylab and have them return normally. This might seem like taking a risk but the module was designed to be able to reenter safely with only one engine. However had they actually gone down to just one engine, the rescue ship would have been launched.

Everything in the US space program had always been over-engineered. This kind of “pants PLUS suspenders” philosophy would die with the end of Skylab.

A third crew went up. This time Mission Control poured on far more work than the astronauts could handle. Rather than admit they couldn’t handle it, the crew labored on, taking shortcuts, fudging on quality, shorting themselves on sleep and downtime, and so on until they couldn’t take it anymore. Depending on who you talk to, what followed was either the first space mutiny or the first labor action in space. They went on strike for a reduced workload. The crew won the strike but none of them ever went into space again.

Funding for Skylab dried up when the Space Shuttle concept began to pick up steam. The final crew to inhabit it stayed up for 83 days and an incredible amount of physics and life science had been accomplished. It was decided that rather than spend the resources to boost it to a higher orbit, they would deorbit it to land in the Indian Ocean. Due to miscalculation, pieces of it were scattered across Australia but nobody was hurt.

In 1975, there was one last launch of the Command module in the Apollo-Soyuz space project. The two ships were modified to dock and crew were able to make contact with each other. Just imagine how much more useful it would have been to have them dock with the space station and actually have enough room to live and work in.

In many ways, it was the little space station that could. Years later it could have saved a lot of money as the core for the ISS. But now NASA had a new love object; the Space Shuttle and a new style of management to go with it.

Previous article: Space IS the Final Frontier.

Next article up will be the Space Shuttle.