What was Skylab? Back in the day, long before there was an International Space Station, or even a Space Shuttle, and not too long after the end of NASA's famous Apollo Space Program, there existed the world's first space station, an "orbital workshop," known as Skylab. Developed over a period of nearly ten years, the NASA Skylab project was launched into orbit in 1973 and completed three missions that year.
But what did Skylab do? It was a workshop of scientific and medical experiments, some of them inspired by students on Earth. It was also a test, of sorts, to determine whether or not humans could safely and productively live in space for extended periods in the Skylab station. Skylab program history is full of fascinating stories related to the experiments conducted aboard, and inventions and technologies that were developed as a result of what happened aboard Skylab. Read on to find out the whole story of humanity's first home in space.
The 1970s marked the waning of the NASA Apollo program, but several years before that program ended, plans were in the works for a new sort of human activity in space. A new goal for the United States and NASA was to explore how humans might live and work in space for extended periods.
Budgets were tight at the time, so NASA looked for safe, but affordable, ways to build a space station. They came up with Skylab, which was supported by a modified Saturn V rocket. Skylab was launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 14, 1973.
Skylab's mission was multi-faceted. In addition to learning more about how humans handled life in space, it also included an in-depth study of the Sun, observations of the comet Kohoutek, as well as a myriad of scientific experiments onboard.
Launching Skylab was a piece of cake for NASA, as they'd been launching successfully for years. But, the size and scope of Skylab was quite different from the smaller capsules that splashed down after orbiting the earth or visiting the moon.
So, Skylab was actually launched with no firm plans as to how or when it would return to Earth.
After Skylab's first successful mission ended after 28 days in space in 1973, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, Associate Director of Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Leland F. Belew, Manager of the Skylab program, wrote that “It may turn out to be the beginning of Man’s permanent foothold and settlement in space.”
A total of three separate Skylab crews successfully spent 171 days in space, with each new crew breaking the record set by the previous crew. There were no recorded instances of health problems or other concerns related to human life in space.
News about activities aboard Skylab held the world in rapt attention. Not only were human beings living and working in space, but they were also actually communicating and cooperating with high school students on scientific projects. Talk about an interactive experience! Results of experiments connected with students on Earth as well as the astronaut's own projects were broadcast on TV and appeared on the covers of everything from Time to elementary school students' Weekly Reader. The experiments themselves ran the gamut - first, there were the obvious projects dealing with Earth observation, astronomy, and space physics. But everyone, and especially the astronauts, wanted to see how everything possible from Earth functioned in space.
Experiments with plants and insects were conducted, along with biomedical and biological studies. They even conducted research into micro-gravity technology. If all of this sounds like what goes on at the International Space Station, that is exactly right. Skylab, which NASA preferred to call an "orbital workshop," laid the foundation of research and experiments that would follow later in space.