297. Skylab (1)



The International Space Station has been continuously inhabited since November of 2000. if you are under twenty-five, you probably don’t remember a time when it didn’t exist. You also probably don’t know that scientists widely resisted it’s construction, feeling that far more could be learned by spending the equivalent amount in other ways. Whether or not they were right will probably never be known.

The space race that culminated in landing on the moon was fueled by the cold war. The construction of the International Space Station was fueled by the need to demonstrate that the cold war was over, and that Russia and America were now friends. How well that has turned out is also still in doubt.

There were space stations before the ISS, mostly Russian. Wikipedia has a nice list available. The US had an aborted space station project in the late sixties, the MOL (see 256. The Space Station That Never Was) and an actual one in the mid to late seventies. It came on the heels of the Apollo program and it was called Skylab.

Most Americans have forgotten it ever existed but for a few brief weeks in 1979, everyone in the world was looking at the sky and thinking about Skylab.

Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last men on the moon in 1972 (see 293. Last Man on the Moon) because of funding cuts. Twenty Apollo missions had originally been envisioned. Apollo 20 was the first to be cancelled in January of 1970 to allow its booster to be used for Skylab. Later that year, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled.

If you think back only a few years, the last Space Shuttle flight brought rounds of congratulations for years of success, but at the same time the Cape, northeastern Florida, and NASA in general saw economic turmoil as thousands lost their jobs.

A similar thing happened at the height of the Apollo program. All the Saturn V boosters that were going to be built were in the pipeline, and the organization that produced them was in danger of disappearing. One of the schemes to keep the resource from disappearing was Skylab.

Space stations had always been envisioned. Early plans for reaching the moon called for building space station, then assembling the moon rockets there. It made good sense. Spacecraft have different design requirements from vehicles designed to cope with traveling through the atmosphere. Just look at the difference between the Lunar Lander and the Apollo Command Module. Now visualize a craft built in space for lunar or interplanetary travel; your vision will probably look a lot like the ISS looks today.

That plan to build a space station, then a moon rocket, made perfect sense, but it wasn’t going to happen fast enough to win a space race with the Russians. Hence the Apollo style moon missions, leading to victory in the space race, leading to an America that felt like a winner, but had no place to go next.

Enter, Skylab. more tomorrow


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