Monday, May 2, 2011

Saving Skylab

by Patrick J. Walsh

At lift off on May 25, 1973, the first crew of the Skylab space station faced uncertainties unique in the history of space travel. While they had originally been given the honor of being the first crew of America’s first space station to carry out scientific and medical research, they were suddenly faced instead with the task of implementing major repairs to the station, which had been damaged during its launch on May 14.

Veteran astronaut Pete Conrad served as commander of the first Skylab crew. The third person to walk on the Moon -- a feat he achieved as commander of Apollo 12, in November, 1969, Conrad had also flown in space during Gemini 5, in 1965, and Gemini 11, in 1966. His enthusiasm, experience and leadership ability proved particularly well suited to the difficulties encountered by the inaugural Skylab crew.

Joining Conrad on the flight were Paul Weitz, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who served as pilot, and Joseph Kerwin, a naval flight surgeon who served as the mission’s scientist astronaut.

Excessive vibration had caused Skylab’s meteoroid shield, which was designed to shade the station’s workshop area, to deploy prematurely during the vehicle’s launch. As the station was propelled into orbit, the shield broke away, which in turn also caused the loss of one of the station’s two main solar arrays.

As a result, Skylab had too little electrical power to sustain its intended operations, and the station’s primary work area was subject to heat from the Sun that was far too intense to allow for productive research.

Faced with the prospect of losing the station entirely, NASA officials spared no effort in devising plans to salvage Skylab and its ambitious program of scientific research. Teams of administrators, astronauts, engineers and scientists carefully constructed plans to counter every threat to the station’s survival -- and Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz spent the ten days following their originally scheduled launch immersed instead in the details of how they would fix the damage.

Taking the challenge of their revised mission to heart, the crew members established a habit of working long hours every day shortly after they arrived at the station. They carefully executed the procedures that had been worked out in the exhaustive simulations on Earth, installing a makeshift sunscreen over the work area, and, within several weeks, making a spacewalk to deploy Skylab’s one remaining main solar array.

To the untrained eye accustomed to the gleaming, high tech sheen of previous NASA triumphs, photos of the results of their efforts might have seemed inelegant, the single solar array jutting awkwardly from one side of the station, the sunscreen resembling a tarp tent over a backyard summer barbecue.

But the repairs that Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz were able to put in place at America’s first space station -- as well as their intense commitment to carrying out the research program that they had originally been assigned -- allowed them to conduct nearly 400 hours of experiments, and enabled Skylab to support the work of two subsequent crews. Together the three teams of Skylab astronauts would return a treasure trove of important scientific research, which would be studied on Earth even years after the end of the Skylab program.

[Transcript, episode 5 of the video series “Five Minutes in Space;” see the video at my YouTube channel,]

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program

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