Skylab: the space station that crashed into Australia
Fifty years ago, on May 14, 1973, a modified Saturn V rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center carrying America’s first space station, Skylab. Six years later, in the early hours of July 12, 1979, Skylab re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in a fiery flame, scattering debris from the Indian Ocean and Western Australia. More than a decade later, a rancher discovered this. end cap from one of Skylab’s oxygen tanks in the mud. Cattle drank collected rainwater from the remnants of a US$2.2 billion NASA investment.
Skylab failure and recovery
Skylab’s fate was sealed moments after liftoff when the sunshield and main solar panel were severely damaged, casting doubt on the spacecraft’s ability to carry out its many planned missions. Without the sun visor, which also protected against minor meteorite damage, the module’s internal temperature would rise to uninhabitable temperatures. Damaged solar panels could not generate enough electricity to power the space station.
The Skylab sunscreen, shown here hanging from a thin strap, was damaged during launch. NASA
Skylab was launched as a single two-story unit that combined living space with a workshop. It included hundreds of scientific experiments, a solar observatory, and even an in-flight shower device. The human crew was supposed to lift off the day after the spacecraft. Hours after Skylab’s failure, NASA delayed this crewed mission as engineers rushed to assess the damage and offer repairs. The space agency only had a brief opportunity to save the mission. When the cabin overheated, the food began to spoil, the film was damaged, and the materials began to break down and release gases, making the air unbreathable.
NASA engineer Jack Kinzler proposed a solar screen designed like an umbrella that could be opened through a 20 square centimeter hole near the injury site and then opened to provide shade. Once the proof of concept was approved, engineers raced over time to fabricate the device while the Skylab team began training on how to make the necessary repairs.
Eleven days later, on May 25, 1973, Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., pilot scientist Joseph Kerwin (the first medical doctor in space), and pilot Paul Weitz finally made it to the space station. After orbiting Skylab in the Apollo command and service module to visualize the damage, Weitz prepared for the EVA or EVA. While Kerwin held his legs, Weitz stood through the open hatch and tried to free the damaged solar array by hooking it with a three-meter pole. It didn’t work. Conrad then tried to dock hard to the Skylab, but the latches wouldn’t click into place. He tried again and again and again. After eight failed attempts, the crew resorted to a backup emergency docking procedure, which they had practiced only once on Earth. It worked.
Skylab’s emergency repairs included replacing the sun umbrella. [left] which was deployed through the airlock [rectangular opening, right].NASA
They then unfolded Kinzler’s solar umbrella, and within a few hours the temperature in Skylab’s cabin dropped to a life-threatening level. Two weeks later, Conrad and Kerwin performed a second spacewalk, removing debris from the main solar array and allowing it to open. Enough power was recovered to allow two more Skylab missions to be completed.
Skylab 3 featured Owen Garriott, the first electrical engineer in space. IEEE Spectruminterviewed him right after his mission and again in 2009. When I read his 1974 interview, nearly 50 years from this event, I was struck by his description of his role as a scientist/sun observer. He noted that conducting experiments at Skylab requires interpretation-based decisions, such as choosing the appropriate instrument settings and the optimal mode of operation for a given experiment. It was a good reminder that there is a subtle art in great science.
February 8, 2019, on the 45th anniversary of the return to Earth of the last Skylab crew, documentary In Search of Skylab: America’s Forgotten Triumph The premiere took place at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Directed by Dwight Steven-Bonecki, the film makes extensive use of archival footage interspersed with interviews with astronauts, engineers and their families. Looking for Skylab focuses on the initial launch and fight to save the mission, but also highlights some of the science experiments done in space.
I found clips of middle and high school students describing their proposed Skylab experiments to be quite poignant. They were so hopeful and sincere, but the overheated office ruined several plant-based studies.
Of course, sometimes new opportunities open up unexpectedly. The Skylab 3 crew was on site to see…and sketch— Kohoutek, or Christmas Comet. This was the first time humans had observed a comet from space.
Chicken Little got it right
The return of Skylab in 1979 sparked a wave of memorabilia commemorating the event, including this t-shirt.
In February 1974, when the third Skylab crew shut down the space station and left, they left with the hope that other astronauts would follow. Damage to the solar panels meant that Skylab’s orbit would eventually disintegrate, but NASA’s initial calculations were that it was in space until early 1983. This would provide coincidence with the launch of a new space shuttle program and possible efforts to increase Skylab’s orbit. Back in 1978 NASA press release touted the promise of using Skylab as a living and working space for shuttle flights, or as a convenient work platform for fabricating and building additional structures in space. But the shuttle program dragged on, and unusual solar activity affected Skylab’s solar charging. Skylab wasn’t going to do that.
When it became clear that Skylab was about to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, betting on the time and place of the crash became international news. NASA did its best to keep parts of the 76.5-ton structure from crashing into densely populated areas, launching boosters one last time to change its final path. Although the heaviest fragments of the station fell into the Indian Ocean, debris scattered across the state of Western Australia from the coastal town of Esperance, across the Nullarbor Plain, a flat desert Great Australian Bight– in the city of Balladonia.
Early relic hunters scoured the area for pieces of Skylab. The largest exhibits ended up in museums, including what is now Esperanza Museum. But the debris field covered thousands of square kilometers of a sparsely populated region, and some items took longer to discover.
In the early 1990s, a rancher noticed that cattle were drinking in a place where there should not have been water. He went on a reconnaissance mission and found the Skylab fragment pictured above. It was part of Skylab’s large cylindrical oxygen tanks, which broke in two on impact. The larger piece ended up in the Esperanza Museum, while the smaller one remained undetected until discovered by a curious cattle breeder. The curved shape formed a shallow dish to collect rainwater, making it perhaps the most expensive water bowl.
Skylaughs: Cash in on Skylab’s fall
Memorabilia, such as the Skylab crash helmet, help capture the zeitgeist.Geoffrey Hall
In the weeks leading up to Skylab’s re-entry into the atmosphere, a cottage industry of commemorative memorabilia emerged. Bob Smith, owner of a specialized silkscreen shop in Lemon Grove, California, joined the action. He asked his art director, Ray Dunakin, to do something stupid with a guy in an old helmet and with a steel umbrella in his hands. In an email, Dunakin told me that the resulting T-shirt has become one of their most popular designs, selling in the thousands. Smith convinced the local broadcaster to send a film crew and a reporter to cover the printing process. The reporter got an interesting story and Smith got free publicity.
Although Dunakin has always been interested in space exploration and followed all NASA launches, the Skylab T-shirt was just a job at the very beginning of his career. He had previously done freelance airbrushing, but Smith’s job was Dunakin’s first full-time job as a graphic designer. He was shocked when, more than 40 years later, one of the T-shirts reappeared on the resale site, along with a huge markup.
Users of Skylab’s homemade safety helmet promised that it would “do you absolutely no good!”
Another young man who tried to cash in on the Skylab hype was Geoffrey Hall. At the age of 26, he founded Seat-of-the-Pants Management, which specialized in innovative gifts. In honor of Skylab’s passing, he made Skylab protective helmets. The handmade paper caps came with the following manufacturer’s warranty: “If Skylab does fall on you, your Skylab crash helmet No prevent “split headache”. In fact, it will make you absolutely nothing good!Hall took orders for about 20,000 at $2 a piece, but made no profit. After the Skylab crash, several buyers refused to pay. Hall learned a harsh lesson that he had to throw forward.
Memorabilia such as T-shirts and paper caps are often thought of as ephemeral – they exist in the moment to reflect the zeitgeist. But sometimes they are stored in basements, attics, and even museums, only to emerge decades later as useful artifacts for historians and the public to ponder about a shared past.
Part continuation of the serieslooking at historical artifacts that reveal the limitless potential of technology.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the May 2023 print issue titled The Great Fall of Skylab.
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