Skylab Marks Half a Century as America’s Pioneer Space Station

America's first outpost in space: "Skylab" started 50 years ago

On May 14, 1973, America’s first space station, “Skylab”, was launched from Cape Canaveral spaceport via a Saturn 5 rocket. However, just 63 seconds after takeoff, a meteor shield unfurled, ripping through drag, and damaged one of the solar panels. The first crew consisting of Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz, and Joseph Kerwin had to do “huge DIY repair work” on the space station.

The tube was around 36 meters long and almost seven meters wide, offering a shower, a small collection of books, a dartboard, fitness machines, comfortable beds, and even lobster as part of the food. After NASA largely stabilized the course of Skylab following the start problems, the astronauts had to secure the power supply and insulate the station from heat and cold.

After repairing the 80-ton Skylab, the scientific work could begin. The three crews, each consisting of three members, completed hundreds of experiments, spending 28, then 59 and finally 84 days on board the Skylab. They conducted experiments on solar radiation, earth observation, weightlessness, biomedicine, and even observed spiders named “Arabella” and “Anita” to find out whether they also spin webs without gravity.

In February 1974, the last crew left Skylab. The station was supposed to stay in orbit for several more years, but financial problems at NASA and unusually strong solar activity prevented this. In July 1978, Skylab crashed over a sparsely populated area in Australia.

Skylab was created in the space race with the former Soviet Union, which sent the first Soviet space station from the “Salyut” program two years earlier. Skylab was the American response to “Salyut” and was stationed at an altitude of 435 kilometers. The Soviet Union later sent the “Mir” space station before the first joint project, the International Space Station (ISS), launched in 1998, on which German astronauts such as Alexander Gerst and Matthias Maurer were stationed.

Currently, many places are planning the construction of commercial space stations, but there is much discussion about the future of the ISS due to tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine war. After Moscow announced an exit for 2024, Russia’s space agency Roskosmos has now confirmed further participation until 2028. Skylab was one of the foundations for the ISS, which is now solving long-term space flight problems.

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