By Sam Pak
Possibly the most renowned accomplishment mankind has been able to pull off is space travel. From Yuri Gagarin circling the earth in 1961 to Neil Armstrong first setting foot on the moon in 1969, humanity has rediscovered what it means to explore the unknown.
As we write this in May of 2023, we highlight a special scientific event that helped modern astrophysicists better understand the Earth we live on, the sun it orbits, and the human anatomy as it adjusts to space. Yes, it’s none other than NASA’s Skylab space station.
It’s a noteworthy project for numerous reasons, let alone hosting multiple crews of men over 171 days. Let’s dive into the program that created the skylab experiment and reflect on the lessons we’ve learned since the experiment's conclusion.
On May 14th, 1973, NASA launched the first U.S. space station, Skylab, into orbit. A byproduct of the Apollo program, Skylab was a reimplemented use of the tools, hardware, and technology that went into delivering a crew of astronauts to the moon. While the moon landing mission lasted roughly eight days, the intent of the Skylab program was to sustain a longer duration in the Earth’s orbit.
The purpose behind the span of the program was to monitor and observe natural phenomena that occur in the human body in space. The goal was to prove that humans could exist and even thrive out of Earth’s atmosphere for prolonged periods. That, and the fact that astronomical observations of the sun were much more accessible and productive when conducted from Skylab.
During the launch, upon breaking out of Earth’s atmosphere, one of the meteoroid shields tore off the hull of Skylab, followed by one of the two lateral solar arrays.
Due to the mechanical configuration of the station, the lost array would impede its twin from fully deploying as well. This would lead to reduced energy production and reflection of the sun’s heat once it reached orbit.
The ramifications were a steadily increasing internal heat that began to exceed tolerable levels for the crew. It would also threaten the integrity of onboard equipment and food supplies. The crew aboard Skylab managed to impose a rudimentary solar shield out of a sunshade until they could properly deploy the second lateral array.
What It Meant For the Science World
An astounding 270 experiments were conducted aboard the Skylab, spread across a wide breadth of scientific branches. More intentional observations surrounding the Earth were made possible, as well as the observation of solar astronomy. The crewmen aboard were able to collect data that would inform groundbreaking developments related to biomedicine and life sciences.
The other major aspect of skylab was the discovery of humanity’s physiological response to extended time in zero gravity. The 171-day study revealed that humans could maintain mental acuity and physical fitness with some minor exceptions, consisting of the following:
- The common sensitivity of “space motion sickness.”
- Reduced orthostatic tolerance (i.e., the comfort of remaining upright)
- Calcium loss
- Phosphorus loss
- Nitrogen loss
- Reduced tolerance to exercise
The implications bore new studies to mitigate these negative side effects so that mankind could endure even longer, and ideally limitless, periods of time in space.
A Collision Course Back to Earth
Skylab met its goal and served its purpose. The entire point of the Skylab project was to be a one-way trip for the station itself, with NASA having no intention of bringing it back down to Earth. Of course, the crewmen would inevitably return to Earth on separate occasions.
The station was left adrift in orbit until July 11th, 1979, when it began disintegrating and penetrating the atmosphere, cascading debris into the Indian Ocean and parts of Western Australia.
Thankfully, by the time most of the recorded debris made landfall, it was so small and insignificant that it caused no known property damage or injuries. There was one account, however, of an Australian farmer from Rawlinna who claimed the falling debris sent his sheep into a state of fright and terror!
The Skylab project was now officially complete, and NASA turned its focus on developing new projects, like the Space Shuttle and Space Station Freedom, which would later be combined with the International Space Station.
If you want to learn more about Skylab or feature it in a unit study with your students, you can find a timeline figure of Skylab in our America’s History Timeline Figures Set, or for more on space exploration, take a look at our 20th Century in America Lap-Pak!