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Marshall's Role in SKYLAB

Skylab's 3 different three-man crews spent up to 84 days in Earth orbit and performed a variety of more than 100 experiments. In addition to providing the four Saturn launch vehicles, the Marshall Center was also responsible for directing many of the experiments.

Photo: Skylab Logo
Skylab Logo

The idea of an orbiting space station had occupied the minds of science fiction writers and space flight enthusiasts for years. Dr. Von Braun envisioned a laboratory in space in a series of articles in Collier's Magazine in the early 1950s. By 1962 NASA was seriously considering various space station concepts for long-duration Earth-orbital missions, and by August 1965 the agency created the Apollo Applications Office, moving America closer to plans for a space station like Skylab. MSFC focused on designs for a S-IVB orbital workshop where the astronauts could live and conduct scientific experiments. On December 1, 1965, George E. Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, met with Dr. Von Braun to discuss the Center's concept for the orbital workshop. Mueller asked him to formulate a program development plan for the Manned Space Flight Management Council. In effect, historians later wrote, Mueller gave Marshall the "green light" to begin the orbital workshop program, later called Skylab.

In the years that followed, the Marshall Center worked closely with McDonnell Douglas, the prime contractor for the workshop unit, to convert a Saturn IB stage into a habitable module containing living quarters and support systems as well as experiment areas.

Skylab Progress at MSFC

Skylab in Orbit
Skylab in Orbit
An underwater test program at MSFC's Neutral Buoyancy Simulator provided essential information that Skylab designers needed. Astronauts, technicians, design engineers, and professional divers in spacesuits and scuba gear conducted tasks similar to those necessary to activate the space orbiting workshop. The tasks were performed in the 1.4 million gallon water tank containing mockups of the Skylab cluster elements. In 1969 Astronauts Edward Gibson, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz worked inside the NBS at MSFC, maneuvering inside and around a full-scale replica of an Apollo Telescope Mount and Saturn workshop. The Center also supported the Skylab hardware development effort by creating a one-g "shirtsleeve" mockup in building 4619 for detailed engineering simulations and analysis. Marshall engineers tackled the problems of zero-gravity showers, toilets, sleeping bags, exercise equipment and kitchen facilities. They were also involved in developing and selecting materials used in the crew quarters and as protective thermal coating.

Skylab Components

Photo: Early Skylab Concept
Early Skylab Concept

An airlock module attached to the forward end of the workshop would enable crew members to make excursions outside the Skylab. McDonnell Douglas fabricated the module with close Marshall involvement in design, development, and test activities.

A docking adapter, attached to the forward end of the airlock module, would provide the docking port for the Apollo command and service module. Marshall designed and built the structure for this unit.

The Apollo Telescope Mount would be the first manned astronomical observatory designed for solar research from earth orbit. Marshall built some of the parts for the mount in-house and worked closely with several contractors to develop a very precise attitude control and pointing system that served the telescope and the entire Skylab cluster. The Center provided a simulation facility for tests of the attitude pointing control system hardware and software for real-time mission support. Marshall also supervised systems integration of the observatory and its instruments.

On November 2, 1971, as Skylab flight hardware manufacturing was nearing completion, NASA Administrator Dr. James C. Fletcher approved the Skylab Student Project, a joint effort between NASA and the National Science Teachers Association. MSFC would be the NASA interface with the students. The student experiments would be added to the list of MSFC Skylab investigations in materials processing in space and solar physics. MSFC also designed and built a series of Skylab biomedical experiments. These included the metabolic analyzer, the bicycle ergometer, the lower body negative pressure device, and the experiment support system.

As the Skylab launch date approached, MSFC personnel moved into the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC) for real-time flight support. Mission task centers were set up in Marshall's laboratories to assist the HOSC team in resolving any problems that might occur in flight. During the three manned periods, these support groups were fully staffed for around-the-clock operations; in the unmanned intervals, a skeleton staff maintained watch.

Repairing Skylab

Skylab Launch
Skylab Launch

The Skylab Workshop/Apollo Telescope Mount combination was launched by a Saturn V on May 14, 1973. NASA had planned to launch the first of three Skylab crews the following day. Unfortunately, trouble began approximately 63 seconds after the May 14 launch. A huge panel protecting the orbital workshop from micrometeorites and solar radiation ripped off. Adding to the trouble, one of the solar arrays for the workshop was torn away and a second array was only partially deployed. The solar arrays were designed to provide electrical power to the orbital workshop. The solar arrays for the Apollo Telescope Mount remained intact.

After the micrometeoroid panel ripped off, the air temperature inside the workshop soon began approaching 130 degrees F. Engineers from Marshall and throughout NASA were concerned about the condition of food, film, and other equipment inside Skylab. They were also worried about plastic insulation material inside the workshop and possible toxic gases if the temperatures rose too high.

Skylab -- seriously overheating -- was maneuvered through varying nose-up attitudes that would best maintain an acceptable "holding condition." During that 10-day period and for some time thereafter, the space station operated on less than half of its designed electrical system which, in the partially nose-up attitudes, was generating power at reduced efficiency. All this meant one thing---the first manned Skylab launch scheduled for May 15 would be delayed until methods could be devised to repair and salvage the workshop. Teams at Marshall and other NASA centers that had put years of planning into Skylab began work quickly to save it. A trouble-shooting team was formed in the Huntsville Operations Support Center from existing support teams. Other space center and industry personnel joined those already in Huntsville where some personnel did not leave their posts from dawn Monday through Wednesday night. The assembled group ranged from design, materials, manufacturing, and simulation specialists from Marshall to procedures and stowage personnel from JSC. Also present were sail-making seamstresses with their stitching machines from New Jersey and the astronauts with a command module simulator flown in from Houston.

Over the next several days, Marshall considered a variety of repair options. Eventually three methods were developed, tested, rehearsed, and approved. Marshall was intensely involved in all three, a parasol sunshade, a twin-pole sunshade, and a set of metal cutting tools for freeing the jammed solar array. MSFC, however, had the lead role in developing the twin pole sunshade and the tools. Skylab 2 astronauts Charles Conrad and Joe Kerwin arrived at the Marshall Center from Kennedy Space Center to test solutions as they were developed and to practice in Marshall's Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. At the Kennedy Space Center, the astronauts' Saturn IB was kept on immediate standby to carry the rescuers and their equipment to the Skylab space station.

The First Manned Mission

At 8:00 a.m. on May 25, Skylab 2 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center with Astronauts Conrad, Kerwin and Paul Weitz headed toward the Skylab I Workshop that they hoped to repair in orbit. The rendezvous occurred at 3:30 that afternoon. On the following day, May 26, the crew began to deploy the solar parasol -- a mylar shade folded against a telescopic pole -- through the solar airlock.

Temperatures began to drop and the crew began to activate the new space station which was safe and contamination free. On June 7 the astronauts, working outside of Skylab, used a technique developed at Marshall to successfully cut the strap that had prevented deployment of the remaining solar array.

As a result of the repair efforts, the mission continued. The astronauts gathered data on some 80 percent of the planned solar experiments. They also achieved a major scientific accomplishment, monitoring a solar flare. They completed 11 of 14 planned Earth resources data runs and conducted a total of 16 medical experiments. The astronauts gathered data from five student investigations while two others were rescheduled for the second mission. The first manned Skylab crew splashed down June 22, 1973.

The Second Manned Mission

The second manned Skylab crew was launched on July 28, 1973. In addition to continuing the Skylab science program, the crew had to replace the parasol sunshade with the Marshall sail when the temperature inside the workshop started rising again. On August 6, with Astronaut Alan Bean standing by inside the workshop, Astronauts Owen Garriott, and Jack Lousma exited the Skylab space station and successfully erected the Marshall twin-pole solar shield.

By the tenth day of the mission, the crew was putting in about 19 man hours a day on scientific experiments, but a week to 10 days later they were doing 27 to 30 man hours of experiments each day. Although 26 Earth resources experiment passes had been planned, 39 were actually accomplished. In addition, some 206 hours of solar viewing had been planned while 305 were logged. The medical experiments had included 327 planned runs while 333 were accomplished. The mission also included the first orbital demonstration of astronaut maneuvering equipment and orbited a pair of common spiders, Arabella and Anita, to determine their ability to spin a web without the influence of gravity, one of the Skylab student experiments coordinated by the Marshall Center.

The Third Manned Mission

The second manned Skylab mission ended September 25, 1973, after 59 days in space. A Saturn IB carrying the third Skylab crew lifted off November 16, 1973. Astronauts Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson and William R. Pogue continued the Skylab in-flight experiment program, including four EVAs and the observation and documentation of the newly discovered Comet Kohoutek. The third crew also served as the source for important new medical data on how man reacts to weightlessness in space. Their mission ended February 8, 1974, setting a new endurance record and reflecting man's ability to live and work in space for extended periods of time.

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