Skylab Turns 50: Celebrating The First US Space Station

hero skylab space station
NASA's Skylab paved the way for operations in low-Earth orbit 50 years ago this week. The first space station was touted as a "bold concept," and led the way for the International Space Station (ISS) to begin operation in November of 2000.

Skylab began as the Apollo Applications Program in 1968 with a mission objective to develop science-based human space missions utilizing hardware meant for the effort to land astronauts on the moon. The 169,950-pound space station orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979 and included a workshop, a solar observatory, a multiple docking adapter, and other systems that allowed three crews to spend up to 84 days in space.

skylab 1 launch
The Skylab 1-Saturn V space vehicle is lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on May 14, 1973.

The launch of Skylab into orbit was not without complications, however. "At approximately 63 seconds into the launch of Skylab 1, there was an indication of premature deployment of the meteoroid protective shield," Skylab Program Manager William Schneider remarked in an interview. "If that has happened, the shield was probably torn off. The thermal indications are that it is gone, and we have some indication that our solar array on the workshop also did not fully deploy."

NASA immediately began planning how to possibly fix the Skylab, as astronauts began practicing using special tools to remove any material that may have jammed the remaining solar array so it would allow it to provide power. A square thermal shield was also created to protect the station from the heat of the sun.

The first Skylab crew was launched on May 25, 1973, with Schneider declaring, "This is Skylab 2, we fix anything," at the moment the crew lifted off.

spacewalk skylab 2
Astronaut Joseph Kerwin uses a cutting instrument to repair the solar array.

The crew performed a spacewalk to free the jammed solar array, setting the space station back on track. At that point, the crew began performing the mission's primary goals: studying microgravity material processing, Earth observations, expanding knowledge of solar astronomy, and proving that humans could live in space for extended periods of time.

IFLScience conducted an interview with astronaut Ed Gibson, who was the last person to leave Skylab. When asked about being at ground control when Skylab met its demise as it crashed back down to Earth, he stated, "The only thing I was very happy about, when I knew it was heading for Australia, is that it didn't hit anybody or cause any real serious damage, so it landed in a reasonable place from that standpoint." He added, "When it was all over we breathed a sigh of relief and said, well, we're glad we had the opportunity."

Skylab 3 pilot Jack Lousma summed up Skylab's meaning by remarking, "Flights of 28, 59, and 84 days were forerunners of what we are doing now aboard the International Space Station." He went on to say, "The fact that we could work in space for longer periods is one of the things we were able to prove during Skylab."