Saturday, September 10, 2011

Skylabbin' with Pete, Joe, and Paul: Skylab II, 1973

By Guest Contributor Emily Carney

By 1973, the Apollo program had ground to a halt after the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20. Budget cuts had forced NASA into a holding period, which wouldn't truly be broken until the first space shuttle flight in 1981. However, NASA had a veritable city of spare parts left over from the Apollo days – some command modules, Saturn V rockets (how does one have a spare Saturn V rocket? It boggles the mind) and Saturn IB rockets – and they decided to put these leftovers to good use. By May 1973, America's first space station, the appropriately and elegantly named Skylab, was ready to fly.
The space station – a truly gigantic payload for its time – was launched May 14, 1973 from a Saturn V launch vehicle. Almost immediately Skylab ran into some massive problems which threatened to permanently disable the space station. During the launch, apparently high frequency vibrations of some sort caused the station's micrometeoroid shield/sun shade (sort of like the space version of those tinfoil-ish things you put on your car's windshield) and one main solar panel to detach from the craft. In addition, the other main solar panel was jammed shut like a broken accordion by all of the debris kicked up. In short, Skylab at its onset looked like the Ultimate Space Hot Mess and it was highly doubtful that the space station could be rescued from permanent damage.

Enter Pete Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz, the crew of Skylab II. After spending a few extra days on the ground cooking up repair scenarios, the men of Skylab II were strapped into their Apollo command module and blasted off from a Saturn IB launch vehicle to the Giant Crippled Bird in the Sky. The day was May 25, 1973.
The three astronauts immediately became the world's first Space Mechanics when they found that their Apollo spacecraft was unable to dock with Skylab. Without a working docking port, there was essentially no mission and Skylab would be reduced to becoming an exceptionally large piece of space trash. Kerwin and Weitz suited up at one point in an attempt to fix whatever was making docking impossible. They also tried to release the jammed solar panel, but their effort (which involved Kerwin having to hold Weitz by his legs while the latter astronaut hung out of the CM hatch, which sounds like a blast!) was not a success.
At long last, after several unsuccessful attempts, mission commander Pete Conrad (perhaps the most hilarious astronaut who ever existed) finally managed to get the docking latches to work. After this slightly hair-raising experience – the space equivalent of not being able to fit your car into a parking space - the three astronauts found even more craziness awaiting them aboard Skylab. The place was extremely hot due to the loss of the sun shield, and probably stank like hot garbage. After atmospheric testing proved that Skylab was safe to enter without pressure suits (there was some concern that the high temperatures would degrade the plastic onboard, creating toxic gas), the three men got to work.
The crew managed to deploy a replacement parasol from inside the space station, which made it possible for real work to start. Soon temperatures began to drop in the crew's compartments, and they were actually able to get to real science. But perhaps the greatest highlight of Skylab II involved a rather perilous-sounding spacewalk undertaken by Conrad and Kerwin.
In what sounds like a made-up story involving space magic, the men used a system of poles, garden shears and primitive pulleys in another attempt to fix the jammed solar panel, which was limiting Skylab's operational life. Their novel fix worked. Skylab was essentially rescued from becoming a one-shot deal, and two more crews were able to use the station for long-duration flights which yielded important scientific findings.
Skylab contained an impressive array of eight ten-foot-long telescopes, and put this equipment to amazing use during its first manned mission. The station's telescope console contained a solar flare alarm, which would go off whenever the station passed by the Earth's South Atlantic anomaly (where the Van Allen radiation belts would bend closer to the Earths' surface). Weitz eventually stumbled upon a real solar flare via the telescopes during the mission; the flare alarm went off, and Kerwin proclaimed rather poetically, “I'd like you to be the first to know that the pilot is the proud father of a genuine flare.” This may have been one of the most exciting, spellbinding discoveries gleaned from Skylab; by mission's end, the three astronauts had taken 33,000 photos of Earth and the Sun.
On June 22, Skylab II's crew splashed down at long last off the coast of California. Their mission had yielded some of the most illuminating photos of Earth and the Sun humans had ever seen; in addition, they had functioned as the first “fix-it” crew in space, and had made additional important discoveries concerning man's medical tolerances to long-duration spaceflight.
Some space enthusiasts regard Skylab as barely a radar blip which occurred during the novelty-filled 1970s, a time in which manned spaceflight underwent a kind of “dry,” inactive period. However, Skylab deserves more recognition for its unique achievements and for its status as the country's first fortress in space. Skylab would go on to house two more crews from 1973 to 1974, and continued to contribute to medical and planetary science. The first U.S. space station would reenter auspiciously over Australia in 1979; the direct predecessor to the International Space Station was rather sadly reduced to hunks of burned-up debris. A Skylab mockup still exists at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
An excellent article about Skylab and its manned missions was featured in the October 1974 issue of National Geographic magazine, which can be found in many local library archives.
Here is a great clip from the NASA film Skylab: The First 40 Days which shows the mission-saving spacewalk and other experimental footage.

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