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Home > Skylab > Skylab Space Station Received Official Name in 1970

Skylab Space Station Received Official Name in 1970

Mike Wright
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian

In 1970 a new and official name was assigned to one of the most important projects in the 35-year history of the Marshall Center. In February 1970, NASA approved the name "Skylab" for a project that would result in America's first space station.

Of course, the origins of Skylab go back further than 1970. In the mid- 1960s NASA employees focused their talents on answering President Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the Marshall Center, this meant developing the huge Saturn rockets. At the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, it meant developing the Apollo spacecraft, and at the Kennedy Space Center it meant getting ready to launch the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. But while progress toward a manned lunar landing moved forward in the 1960s, NASA planners were also studying the direction that NASA might take after Apollo. The studies focused on how Saturn/Apollo technology could serve as building blocks for new space objectives.

Long before President Kennedy issued his manned lunar landing challenge to the nation, space flight engineers and scientists like Wernher von Braun had dreamed of the day when humans could stay in space for extended periods of time and perform meaningful scientific experiments. During the 1960s, NASA officials like Von Braun, who served as the first Director of the Marshall Center, knew that the Apollo spacecraft would be a versatile spacecraft but that it would be designed for extremely limited manned scientific operations.

NASA moved forward to accomplish the Apollo missions, but it also studied ways to build future spacecraft that could stay in space for longer periods of time and accomplish more detailed scientific objectives. The key to the planning revolved around making maximum use of Apollo technology. Such studies began in the mid-1960s under such uninspiring titles as "Extended Apollo (Apollo X)" and the "Apollo Extension System (AES)." In 1965 NASA grouped such studies under something called the "Apollo Applications Program," another name that failed at inspiration. In reality, what NASA wanted to build after Apollo might have been called a "space station." But that term brought huge dollar signs to the minds of the nation's political leaders at a time when the United States was pouring massive expenditures into the war in Vietnam and assigning new priorities to its domestic needs.

Still NASA studied its options and turned to the third stage of Marshall's Saturn V moon rocket for the answer. The stage required massive amounts of fuel when NASA used it on the Saturn V to launch the Apollo astronauts to the moon. But the extra fuel would not be required for an earth orbital mission, and the stage could be completely outfitted as an orbital workshop before launch.

NASA officials knew their idea for using a Saturn rocket stage as a laboratory in space needed a name and it needed identity. Trying to call the program "Apollo Applications" just didn't work, according to Skylab historians David Compton and Charles Benson. "AAP" became the butt of frequent jokes. Opponents referred to it as "Almost a Programs' and as "Apples, Apricots and Pears." According to Compton and Benson, one editorial cartoon showed two Martians observing the AAP space station. One with a puzzled expression was telling the other. "I don't know what the hell it is, but I think they call it AAP."

NASA Administrator Thomas Paine decided to remedy the situation. At his direction, a committee considered nearly 100 names and recommended eight, four from mythology and four from American history.

In reality, the committee passed over the recommendations and selected, instead, a name submitted by Lt. Col. Donald Steelman, an Air Force officer on duty with NASA in 1968. "Skylab" was a contraction for "laboratory in the Sky" and was quickly accepted within and outside of NASA.

Of course, Skylab's success and place in history has rested on more than its name. The 100-ton orbital workshop was launched on May 14, 1973 aboard a Marshall-managed Saturn V. Marshall-developed Saturn IB rockets were later used to launch three different three-man crews to the Skylab space station, which served as a complete orbiting home and scientific laboratory for the nine Skylab astronauts who lived and worked in teams of three in shirtsleeve comfort. Skylab's comprehensive program of scientific experimentation revealed unknown information about man's capability to withstand long periods of weightlessness, about the adaptability of living creatures to the space environment, and about life itself.

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