skylab anniversary
May 12, 2013

Remembering Skylab, 40 Years Later

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the first US space station that helped to pave the way for the International Space Station.

Skylab first launched on May 14, 1973, allowing astronauts to live and work on experiments while in an environment only space can provide. The first residents were astronauts Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin, who spent 28 days in orbit. The second crew spent 59 days up in space and it included astronauts Alan Bean, Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott. Skylab was short lived though, because the final crew – Jerry Carr, Bill Pogue and Edward Gibson– returned to Earth on February 8, 1974 after spending 84 days in space.

"Skylab served as the greatest solar observatory of its time, a microgravity lab, a medical lab, an Earth-observing facility, and, most importantly, a home away from home for its residents. The program also led to new technologies," NASA said about the retired space station. "Special showers, toilets, sleeping bags, exercise equipment and kitchen facilities were designed to function in microgravity."

It said the short-lived space laboratory still came with unexpected challenges. During the station's launch, airflow caused a meteoroid shield to come off, tearing one of the two solar panels and preventing the other from deploying. The first crew arrived 11 days after launch and their first task was to repair the damage.

The second crew had to face their own challenge as well when NASA discovered the lab had a thruster leak. Once Bean, Lousma and Garriott arrived, the thruster leak developed, prompting the space agency to come up with a rescue plan for the crew. Ultimately the crew didn't need a rescue mission because they were able to complete their tasks as planned.

NASA hoped to keep the Skylab in space for another eight to 10 years after the final crew's visit, but those plans were foiled on July 11, 1979 when the Skylab reentered the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrated.

"There was a certain small amount of sadness when we left, realizing we were going to be the last crew to inhabit the spacecraft," Carr said. "It had hung together beautifully for us, and we kind of hated to leave it. But, of course, we were also looking forward to going home."

NASA will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of Skylab with a televised roundtable discussion on Monday. The event will begin at 2:30 p.m. eastern time at the James Webb Auditorium of NASA Headquarters in Washington. Skylab astronauts Garriott and Carr will be speaking at the event, along with astronaut Kevin Ford, NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division director D. Marshall Porterfield, and NASA Advanced Exploration Systems director Jason Crusan.