Skylab A Space Station For America

On 14 May 1973, the final Saturn V left the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This two-stage variant of the launch vehicle that took American astronauts to the Moon carried the unmanned Skylab Orbital Workshop into orbit to begin a new phase of American space exploration. Among the crowd of 25,000 onlookers were three astronauts who were looking at more than just another lift-off, as they were hoping to follow it just twenty-four hours later. It may have been a spectacular rocket launch to everyone else, but Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and scientist-astronaut Joe Kerwin were watching what they thought would be their orbital home for the next month.

Within minutes of entering orbit, the success of finally getting the vehicle off the ground was tinged with disappointment and uncertainty as telemetry indicated that the station was in serious trouble. The proposed manned missions looked in doubt. Just sixty-three seconds after lift-off the micrometeoroid shield, designed to protect the habitability section from impacts during the mission, prematurely deployed a few centimetres. It was all but ripped off by the aerodynamic forces encountered during the powered ascent. Further, one of the two solar array wings had been lost, while the other appeared, from data received on the ground, to have been only partially deployed. With Skylab crippled in orbit, plans were devised to attempt to overcome the setback and see whether anything could be salvaged from the mission. Three teams of three astronauts were scheduled to visit the station for missions of twenty-eight, fifty-six and fifty-six days, but in mid-May 1973 the Skylab mission seemed to be over before it had started.4

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