Following the Apollo mission, NASA wanted to establish a permanent foothold in space. To do this, they needed a space station. Although Skylab was not large, it served to give America some experience in building, maintaining, and operating space stations.
SkyLab was launched by a Saturn 5 rocket, replacing the third stage. This explains its shape, a large cylinder with a few panels out. It was launched in 1973, and all the missions aboard it would take place in that same year. Skylab 3, in November '73, shut SkyLab down to conserve power while waiting for the space shuttle in 1982. Unfortunately, Skylab fell into the Indian Ocean in 1979.
SkyLab fell out of orbit because of increased solar activity. This increased solar activity heated up Earth's atmosphere, causing it to expand (become larger). Because it had a low orbit, the unexpected expansion of the atmosphere produced extra atmospheric drag. This drag slowed Skylab down, and it fell uncontrollably. Unfortunately, SkyLab reentered Earth before the space shuttle could reach and refuel it.
This increased solar activity is a result of the Suns 11-year solar cycle. During this cycle, the Sun becomes brighter and hotter, then cooler and dimmer. Unfortunately, NASA did not take into account the solar cycle's impact on the atmosphere, and on Skylab's orbit.
Although the main reason for Skylab was to give Americana experience in space stations, Skylab did many scientific studies. Two main areas that SkyLab studied was micro-gravity biology and solar activity. Micro gravity biology was not only studied on test subjects like minnows, spiders, and seedlings, but also involved studying how the astronauts dealt with long term weightlessness.
Aboard Skylab was also the Apollo telescope mount, which was used to study the Sun. The sun was studied from Skylab for one main reason: the distorting atmosphere made it difficult to get accurate readings about solar activity. Ironically, it was unexpected solar activity that caused the destruction of Skylab!
SkyLab consisted of four main parts: the orbital workshop, the Apollo telescope mount, the docking adapter, and the airlock module. The main component, the orbital workshop, was built inside the hydrogen fuel tank of the last stage of the Saturn 5 rocket. This workshop was divided into two floors by a wire mesh grid. The lower area was where the astronauts lived, and the upper deck was reserved for scientific experiment. On either end of the orbital workshop was either the multiple docking adapter or the airlock module. The Apollo Telescope Mount was attached to the orbital laboratory and was made out of a modified lunar module. This module mostly contained instruments used for observing the Sun.
During launch, a major crisis for Skylab arose. One of Skylab's main component, the meteorite shield, prematurely deployed. The atmospheric drag caused by this set off a chain reaction with disastrous consequences. First, the meteorite shield was ripped off, along with one of the solar panels. The other solar panel was jammed by the metal torn away from the Space Station. Although Skylab successively reached worded, its only working solar panel was jammed closed. And so, when Skylab first reached orbit, it had barely any power, and it had no shade from the heat of the Sun.
Eleven days after launch, the crew of Skylab one reached the station. This mission was designed mainly to repair the damaged station and test out its systems. Before docking with Skylab, the astronauts made a first try at unjamming the solar panel. This attempt failed, however, and the astronauts were forced to enter the overheated station.
Once on board, the astronauts put a temporary heat shield on SkyLab which brought the temperature down to almost normal. However, most operations were prevented by the shortage of power. In order to fix the solar panel, the astronauts made a three and a half hour space walk. During this, they used a pair of wire cutters and a 8 meter long pole to cut the strap of metal that was holding the panel shut. Once out of the way, the panel was deployed and the station soon had enough power.
|Mission||To conduct science experiments on the effect of a zero gravity environment|
|Orbit Altitude||268 miles|
|Program Start||May 14, 1973|
|Program End||July 11, 1979|
|Sections||Orbital Workshop, Apollo Telescope Mount, Docking Adapter, & Airlock Module|
|Size||About 360 cubic meters (The size of a 2-3 bedroom house)|
|Boarding Dates||5/15/73 7/28/73 11/16/73|
|Boarding Durations||28, 59, & 84 days|
|Crew||Charles Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph P. Keawin|
|Mission||Repair solar panels, photographically monitor Earth, and perform biomedical studies.|
|Results||Repairs completed, 14,000 photos of Earth taken, and exercise was found to make readaptation to gravity easier.|
|Crew||Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriot|
|Mission||Place a sunshade to keep temperatures down and study the effects of weightlessness on minnows, seedlings, and spiders|
|Results||Several Photographs of solar flares taken, and a record breaking 4 hour spacewalk made.|
|Crew||Gerald Carr, Edward Giesori, and William Pogue|
|Mission||Study Comet Kohoutek|
|Results||Last Mission made, in 1979 Skylab's orbit deteriorated and it fell into the Indian Ocean. The station was intended to stay until 1982, when a space shuttle could save it, but it fell quicker than expected.|
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