Two days after Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon, NASA announced that it would launch an orbital laboratory with space telescope, using a Saturn V rocket. Because of its great power, the Saturn V could place a large payload in low earth orbit, using only its first and second stages. The entire third stage was converted into the orbiting laboratory, and launched intact and ready for occupation. This was Skylab.
The astronauts who would man Skylab would arrive later in CSMs – NASA speak for Command Module and Service Module, considered as a package deal – launched on smaller Saturn I-B rockets.
This cylindrical third stage was divided by a floor grating into an upper work area and lower living quarters,with eating, sleeping, and bathroom areas. It was, of course, a weightless environment. At the end of the vehicle, an airlock and docking adapter allowed egress for extravehicular activities and connected Skylab to the CSM which brought the astronauts up, and remained docked to return them to Earth. A solar panel array provided power. In pictures of Skylab, this array is what looks like helicopter blades above the vehicle. The telescope mount is in the center of the solar power array.
Skylab was launched on May 14, 1973, with disastrous results. The meteorite shield, which was supposed to stay snugly against the outside of Skylab during the flight up, and deploy once in space, deployed prematurely. Once in orbit, only part of the solar panel array deployed. The rest had been trapped by the damaged meteorite shield. The result was too much heat and not enough power. Skylab was uninhabitable.
The astronaut launch was temporarily cancelled and NASA went into salvage mode. Within eleven days they had proposed, built, and tested a set of repairs, and the crew of Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz launched on May 25th. It proved to be no easy task.
The first day, working from the hatch of the CSM, Weitz tried using a forked stick to remove some of the debris remaining from the meteorite shield in order to deploy the solar array. No luck. Then the astronauts tried to dock, only to find that part of their capsule was non-functional. They had to externally repair their docking probe before connecting with Skylab and finally getting to sleep, no closer to repair. The next day, they attacked repairs from inside Skylab. Weitz wore a gas mask as he tested the air inside the structure. Scientists had feared that the high temperature environment would release poisonous gasses from the insulation. It had not, but the temperature inside was 130 degrees. The astronauts then set up a parasol they had brought, inside the second airlock near the telescope, and slowly extended it outside Skylab. It opened successfully, providing relief from the sun. The temperature dropped, although only to 95 degrees. The second night, the astronauts slept in the docking adapter area where the temperature was reasonable.
Several days later, Conrad and Kerwin performed another EVA, used large scissors to cut away part of the meteorites shield, and finally freed the remaining solar array.
The work of the first Skylab crew not only saved the station for the work it was designed to do, but also proved the necessity of manned missions to rescue projects in danger. Twenty years later, when the Hubble needed repair to perform its functions, the precedent had long since been established.
The first Skylab crew stayed aboard a month, conducting astronomy and medical research. The second crew, Bean, Lousma, and Garriott, remained aboard for two months, continuing repairs and research.. The third crew, Carr, Pogue, and Gibson, remained in space 84 days, observed and photographed comet Kohoutek and continued other experiments.
By the time the third crew returned to Earth, Skylab was nearing the end of its service life. Beyond the damage done on launch day, many other systems were failing. There were plans to use it further, but nature had plans of her own. conclusion tomorrow