How It Works

The story of Skylab

Weight: 91,000 kg
Height: 36 metres (118 feet)
Diameter: 6.7 metres (22 feet)
Living space: 283 cubic metres (10,000 cubic feet)
Altitude: 270 miles (435 kilometres)
Orbital period: 93 minutes

How Skylab (left) matched up to Mir (centre) and the ISS (right)

Following on from the success of the Apollo missions, and using the same equipment, NASA launched its Skylab space station in 1973 to observe the effects on a human during a prolonged period in orbit around the Earth. It was also intended to provide more astronomical information than could be provided from Earth-based observations. It was operational until 1979, completing more than 300 experiments in the process with three different three-man crews inhabiting the station. Unlike the ISS, which has taken over 12 years to build and is still ongoing, Skylab required only one unmanned launch to be complete and needed no assembly in space.

The shell of Skylab was a modified Saturn V rocket used to go to the moon. It was also initially launched on top of a Saturn V, but the later manned missions used a Saturn 1B rocket. An Apollo Spacecraft transported the crew to the station and returned them to Earth. The success of Skylab missions proved that humans could be a positive asset when working in space, demonstrating excellent mobility and limited space related problems barring a few bouts of space sickness. Skylab also, for the first time, showed that the re-supply of space vehicles was possible. The station also famously had two spiders on board which showed that they could build a near-perfect web, if slightly irregular, in space.

Although a successful six-year mission, the station did encounter problems on launch when its meteoroid shield ripped off and damaged the station’s solar protection. When astronauts first arrived the station was a sweltering 52 degrees celsius, and a sun-parasol had to be deployed to lower the temperature.

The Demise of the Station

NASA originally had plans to dock a shuttle with Skylab in 1979 to push it into a higher orbit where it would not be dragged into Earth’s atmosphere. However, in late 1978 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned that an increase in solar activity would move Skylab into the atmosphere sooner than expected. With the shuttle program unexpectedly delayed until 1981, Skylab became the subject of a huge media storm when NASA announced they could do nothing to stop it re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on July 11 1979.

Controllers at the Johnson Space Centre attempted to manoeuvre the station to ensure it disintegrated over the ocean just south of Cape Town, South Africa upon re-entry. Unfortunately, a slight miscalculation meant its remains were scattered across Perth, Western Australia, including an area known as the Shire of Esperance, who jokingly fined NASA $400 (£250) for littering.

Shire of Esperance residents German Ugarte (left), Dorothy Andre (centre) and senior vice president of the Esperance Bay Historical Society and shire president at the time of the Skylab crash Merv Andre (right) with the $400 donation. Courtesy of the Esperance Express

30 years later, radio DJ Scott Barley of the Highway Radio in Barstow, California, discovered that the fine had never been paid. He made a request of his listeners to make donations and before long he’d collected the $400 necessary to pay off the tongue-in-cheek fine. Barley was flown out to Esperance where he was asked to mockingly present a giant, over-sized check for the full amount. Since that day (13 July 2009), now known as “Skylab-Esperance Day”, the cities of Barstow and Esperance have been twinned, an homage to the everlasting legacy of NASA’s first space station.

Another remarkable story to come out of Skylab’s demise was that of 17-year-old Australian truck driver Stan Thornton. When he learned that the San Francisco Examiner were offering $10,000 to the first person to deliver a piece of Skylab to their office following the crash, he immediately grabbed a chunk of nearby space station debris and took the first flight to the USA with no passport or belongings, pocketed the money and returned home.