Today, astronauts are regular habitants in Earth’s orbit on the International Space Station. This continued presence in space for over 18 years would not have been possible for the boundaries pushed by the first space stations. July 2019 will mark the 40 years re-entry anniversary of one the first Earth’s orbit explorer: the Skylab Space Station.
Before Skylab, the Soviet Union’s Salyut programme was the first space station programme. Over the course of fifteen years, four crewed scientific research space stations and two crewed military reconnaissance space stations successful operated. The first Salyut space station, that launched in 1971, was the world’s first. While the stations sought to explore the challenges of living in space and to conduct various scientific experiments, the civilian programme also provided secretive cover for the military Almaz stations that flew under the designation of Salyut.
Salyut 1 then Skylab
Skylab was launched shortly after Salyut 1 in May of 1973 and was the first space station operated by the United States. From the beginning, this space station proved to be a test of human engineering and innovation.
Shortly after launch, the station’s micrometeoroid shield that was designed as a thermal blanket and protective mechanism against debris prematurely opened. This shield, in addition to a solar array, was torn away from the station, causing subsequent antenna and communications complications. Temperatures inside the station soon rose without the protection of the protective shield. Ground crews collaborated to bring the station to an attitude that minimized overheating.
When the station’s first crew sought to dock their spacecraft with the station shortly thereafter, the docking system did not perform properly and required electronic connections to be bypassed in order to depressurize the spacecraft to enable successful docking.
Evidently, these early challenges and malfunctions not only demanded innovation and adaptation, but also demonstrated that these issues could be resolved in space. The astronauts and ground crews who were developing solutions to these complications were facing challenges that had not only been tackled before, but they were also being resolved in a completely new environment.
270 Scientific Experiments
While hosting three successive crews of astronauts, a variety of integral experiments were conducted onboard the Skylab station, particularly in the interest of studying how long-duration spaceflight impacts the human body. The astronauts’ daily activities – from their nutrition to exercise – were also monitored and studied closely to develop a better understanding of how the human body adapts to long periods in space.
Over 270 scientific experiments were conducted during the 171 days of human occupation of the station, including the domains of materials processing, astronomy, life sciences, and Earth observation. Skylab orbited the Earth for six years, until its decaying orbit caused it to re-enter the atmosphere. July 2019 will mark 40 years since its re-entry in 1979.
Most importantly, these early space stations proved that humans can live and work in space for extended periods of time. The ongoing success and value of the International Space Station and the current development of further human exploration endeavours – including those reaching for the Moon and Mars – would not be possible if it were not for the daring, innovative and pioneering feats of technology and research undertaken by these programmes.
Baker, Philip., and SpringerLink. The Story of Manned Space Stations: An Introduction. 2007.
Chladek, Jay, and Clayton C. Anderson. Outposts on the Frontier: a Fifty-Year History of Space Stations. 2017.
Harvey, Brian., et al. Russian Space Probes Scientific Discoveries and Future Missions. 2011.
Howell, Elizabeth. Skylab: First U.S. Space Station. https://www.space.com/19607-skylab.html
Ivanovich, Grujica S., and SpringerLink. Salyut — The First Space Station Triumph and Tragedy. 2008.
NASA. History of Skylab. 2003 https://www.nasa.gov/missions/shuttle/f_skylab1.html