NASA’s Skylab paved the way for operations in low-Earth orbit 50 years ago this week. The first space station was touted as a “bold concept,” and led the way for the International Space Station to begin operation in November of 2000.
Skylab began as the Apollo Applications Program in 1968 with a mission objective to develop science-based human space missions utilizing hardware meant for the effort to land astronauts on the moon. The 169,950-pound space station orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979 and included a workshop, a solar observatory, a multiple docking adapter, and other systems that allowed three crews to spend up to 84 days in space.
From its launch on May 14, 1973, until the return of its third and final crew on Feb. 8, 1974, the Skylab program proved that humans can live and work in outer space for extended periods of time.
Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin were the crew members who spent 28 days in orbit as the first crew of Skylab.
The second crew, which included Alan Bean, Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott, spent 59 days in space.
The final Skylab crew spent 84 days in space in which Jerry Carr, Bill Pogue and Edward Gibson took part.
The record set by the final crew was not broken by an American astronaut until the Shuttle-Mir program more than 20 years later.
Skylab served as the greatest solar observatory of its time, a microgravity lab, a medical lab, an Earth-observing facility, and, most importantly, a home away from home for its residents.
The program also led to new technologies. Special showers, toilets, sleeping bags, exercise equipment and kitchen facilities were designed to function in microgravity.
On July 11, 1979, Skylab re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated, dispersing debris across a sparsely populated section of western Australia and the southeastern Indian Ocean.