May 31, 2023

America’s first space station, Skylab, turns 50

The Cold War was the fuel that kept the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union so hot during the second half of the 20th century. In 1957, the Soviets put the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit, and 4 years later, they sent the first man into space. In 1969, the Americans sent a man to the moon and became the first to walk on lunar soil.

Of course, conquering space requires little more than dangerous near-Earth excursions. Man must settle in space. An important step in this achievement was 50 years ago, in 1973, when the United States launched Skylab, its first orbital station capable of harboring humans for extended stays in space.

[ Uma visão do laboratório orbital Skylab na órbita da Terra fotografado pela tripulação da Missão Skylab 4 antes de retornar para a superfície – Créditos: NASA ]

Skylab, as the name suggests, was an orbiting laboratory where hundreds of experiments were carried out within a year of operation. But this is not the first space station in history. That distinction belongs to the Soviets, who put Salyut 1 into orbit two years ago.

But the Soviet station was not so lucky during its short time in space. Salyut 1 was unable to land due to its first crew connection failure. Second, after spending 23 days in the station, the Soyuz spacecraft experienced a problem with one of its valves when it returned to Earth. The failure killed three crew members. Three months after the tragedy, Salyut 1 re-entered the atmosphere, prematurely ending the trajectory of the first space station in history.

[ Ilustração da Estação Espacial Salyut 1 com uma espaçonave Soyuz se aproximando acima e à esquerda – Créditos: RIA-Novosti ]

As for Skylab, it can be said that it succeeded in what it set out to do. The Americans took advantage of the experience gained in the Apollo missions and used part of what was created to take man to the moon to build their first orbital station. Skylab’s main body was mounted on the structure of the Saturn V rocket’s second stage, and included the same command and service module used on the lunar missions.

During the missions to the moon, several rendezvous and docking maneuvers were carried out in orbit, which was a basic experience so that the failures of the first manned mission of Salyut 1 would not be repeated with the Americans.

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Skylab is 17 meters long, 6 meters in diameter and weighs 100 tons. It had a multi-dock adapter with two ports and a camera module with hatches for additional vehicle functions. Inside was a workshop, an Apollo solar laboratory, and several hundred physical and biological experiments. Electricity was generated from solar panels and fuel cells in the command and service module. At the rear, there is a waste tank and a fuel tank, used to power the ship.

[ Diagrama da Estação Espacial Skylab – Créditos: NASA ]

The entire system was launched into orbit by a modified version of the powerful Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission that launched the US space station into orbit was called Skylob 1, and would be the last flight of the Saturn V rocket to take a man to the moon.

[ Imagem do Sol registrada a partir da Skylab – Créditos: NASA ]

Three subsequent missions, Skylab 2, 3 and 4, carried three different crews to the orbital station. These missions were launched on Saturn IP rockets, a less powerful version of the Saturn V.

It was from Skylab that the first major repair of the spacecraft was carried out in space. During launch, the micrometeoroid shield ruptured, damaging one of the main solar panels and blocking the other main array. This created a “power crisis” that put Skylab on “red flag” and exposed the spacecraft to increased solar heat, threatening to render it unusable. So the first Skylab crew had to replace the damaged heat shield and free the blocked solar panels. It ensured proper functioning of the station.

On the scientific side, the Apollo telescope made important observations of the Sun from space, and the astronauts also took thousands of pictures of Earth, the stars, and the Comet Kohoutek. In addition to hundreds of other experiments in the fields of human physiology, biomedicine, space physics, mineral resources, geology, and meteorology, 19 student-submitted experiments observed Earth in both visible light, infrared, and microwaves.

[ Imagem do Sol registrada a partir da Skylab – Créditos: NASA ]

One of the experiments carried out on Skylab earned scientist Riccardo Giacconi the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The record for staying in space has been extended from 23 days set by the Soyuz 11 crew aboard Salyut 1 to 84 days by the Skylab 4 crew.

The end of Skylab

However, Skylop’s success did not save it from such an unhappy ending. As the command and service module ran out of fuel, the station was unable to raise its day-to-day decaying orbit. The US plan was to dock the space shuttle with Skylab and raise the observatory to a higher orbit.

Unfortunately, the space shuttle program is delayed and will not be ready in time to save the American station. An alternative solution was planned, but no budget of more than $60 million was released, condemning Skylob’s uncontrolled reentry into the atmosphere.

Skylab’s disappearance attracted international media attention. After all, it’s not every day that an orbital station weighing more than 100 tons falls uncontrollably to Earth. Skylob’s latest feat is the most dangerous re-entry in the history of space exploration. The NASA report calculated that there was a 0.7% chance that Skylab debris would hit a person and a 14% chance that part of the space station would land in a major city.

It is estimated that about 30 tons of debris reached the ground in southwestern Australia, bearing the heat of the atmospheric passage. Many of them have been recovered and are now on display in museums. Fortunately, there were no injuries or major damage, but the end of the first US space station was similar to the achievements it had made since 50 years ago, when Skylab was put into Earth orbit and helped humanity conquer space once and for all. .

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