Launched in 1973, Skylab was the world’s first successful space station. The space station known as Skylab was designed as an orbiting workshop for research on scientific matters, such as the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. Because the project represented the next step towards wider space exploration, NASA threw itself into successfully putting Skylab in orbit.
What was Skylab’s mission?
Skylab was the first manned mission. This cylindrical space station was 118 feet tall and weighed 77 tons. Three separate three-man crews occupied the Skylab workshop. Skylab missions included veteran astronauts, including some who had walked on the Moon. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided us with important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time.
So what went wrong?
After the last crew left the station, Skylab continued to orbit Earth, but it was not intended to remain lifeless. NASA maintained contact with the empty station in the hope to continue space exploration. But unfortunately, the procedure for bringing the space station back to Earth elegantly after the end of its mission wasn’t worked out correctly. This lack of preparation brought a problem, when NASA engineers made a threatening discovery that the space station was losing its orbit that too earlier than what was anticipated. The reason being unexpectedly high sunspot activity. Solar activity caused our atmosphere to expand, so the space station met increasing drag as it circled Earth. It’s orbit was clearly decaying.
Now What !!?
As the news started to spread across the world about the Station’s lost orbit, panic grew all over rapidly. Its impending fate prompted rather more interest than its successful career as a research center which has been forgotten today. To this growing fear, NASA responded with a plan to redirect one of the Space Shuttle test flights to rendezvous with Skylab to fit a rocket motor to boost it into a higher orbit. Unfortunately Skylab was predicted to fall back to Earth before 1980.
The Space station’s fall was delayed now. However, NASA had to come up with a solution to this falling giant. Skylab’s decaying orbit could not be stopped and the deteriorating space station started re-entering our atmosphere on July 11, 1979. Skylab had become a 77-ton loose cannon now.
Finally it was July 11th, 1979, with Skylab rapidly descending from its orbit, when NASA engineers fired the station’s booster rockets, hoping it would bring it down in the Indian Ocean. They were very close. While large chunks did go into the ocean, parts of the space station also littered populated areas of western Australia. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Finally ‘The End’
Thus the empty Skylab spacecraft made a spectacular return to earth, breaking up in the atmosphere and showering burning debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia. Today recovered fragments of Skylab are in museums. A complete back up Skylab is on public display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
After Skylab, NASA space station/laboratory projects included Spacelab, Shuttle-Mir, and Space Station Freedom which was later merged into the International Space Station.