The Space Race wasn’t just about who could get to the moon first. There were other battlefields where the space race was fought. One of those battlefields was in building a permanent manned presence in space in the form of a space station in low earth orbit. Such a station would not only be a great place for space based research, but also a starting point for military use of space. Winning the battle over low earth orbit against the Soviet Union was just as important as beating them to the moon.
Low earth orbit wasn’t as glamorous as the race to the moon, so it did not receive as much public attention, nor political attention, nor ultimately funding...at least in real life.
But in the world of Belitopia, the value of the fight for low earth orbit was critical, and the Skylab series of space stations was important for long term American presence in space. Even though it was important, that doesn’t mean we focused on it. In fact, one of the great lessons for America on space exploration came when we lost focus on the value of low earth orbit, and Skylab I, our first space station in low earth orbit, failed to deliver on its plans and promises. Instead, it would take two follow on Skylab space stations, Skylab II and Skylab III, before America would understand what it would take to maintain a long term presence in space in low earth orbit.
This is...Skylab Plus. Welcome to Belitopia.
The space race was actually fought on two fronts. The first was the race to the moon. This is what Project Apollo was originally created for. The second was the race to a permanent presence in low earth orbit...the permanent manned space station.
While the former was the more politically important race, due to the very public prestige associated with the voyage, the latter was actually a more important goal. Understanding, driving, and controlling human presence in low earth orbit was critical for many reasons:
First, it provides long term research opportunity into the impact of space and the value of space based industry.
Second, it provides research into earth and what makes the planet function, including significant improvements in weather forecasting, climate study, and geological research.
Third, there are huge advantages to the military and in national security for the purposes of proactive spying, reactive security monitoring, and even — weapon delivery.
Fourth, low earth orbit is a perfect jumping off point — a transfer point if you will — for future missions into deep space.
All of these reasons made the race for low earth orbit just as important as the race for the moon. It just was not as politically or socially charged of a mission as the moon race was.
Ultimately, permanent manned stations that could be used for research and as a transfer station for future missions was the mostimmediate goal. But before we could do that, we needed to understand what it took to create, support, and populate such a station. What we needed were baby steps, and we needed them fast before the Soviet Union could establish their foothold. It was truly a race.
This is the story of Skylab. Skylab was a program for space stations based on the Apollo technology, and part of the Apollo Applications Program that we’ve spoken about in previous episodes.
In real life, there was a single Skylab space station, and the results from the stations were…well...mixed. It was a damaged station that limped along, yet still provided huge research benefits for us. In Belitopia, Skylab I was just the first of a series of three Skylab space stations that were built. In Belitopia, Skylab was a true space station program that contributed greatly to our long term knowledge of space and space colonization.
What follows is a fictional documentary about the Skylab space stations and our race with the Russians toward having a long term presence in low earth orbit. The documentary is presented as if it takes place in the year 2040, some 70 years after these events took place. The documentary, titled “Our World in Space”, describes the race to build space stations in low earth orbit and how the Skylab program gave the Americans a lead in space research and an understanding of how to live and work for long periods of time in space. The documentary describes these events as a future historical record of past events.
While fiction, it’s based on much of the original Skylab I mission outcomes, along with thought and consideration on what follow-on Skylab missions would be like. This documentary is about the Skylab program and its impact on our long term presence in space. The Skylab program, in the world of Belitopia.
Hello, and welcome to “Our World in Space — The Skylab Program”.
Most people thought the space race was all about the race to put a man on the moon. But the space race was actually fought on two fronts. The first was the race to the moon. This is what Project Apollo was originally created for. The second front, and in some ways perhaps a more important front, was the race to a permanent human presence in space, particularly a presence in low earth orbit. This was the race for the first permanent manned space station.
While the moon race was the more politically important goal, due to the very public prestige associated with the voyage; it was the latter goal that was actually a more important goal. Understanding, driving, and controlling human presence in LEO, or low earth orbit, was critical for America’s dominance in space. This is because low earth orbit is where all the space action would be. Low earth orbit is where we could build transfer stations for missions to other destinations. Low earth orbit is where we could do research on our home planet, including important early research on climate and weather patterns. Low earth orbit was where we could spy on our enemies and they could spy on us.
Low earth orbit was the beaches of Normandy for space. Conquering low earth orbit was D-Day for the space race.
Humans needed permanent manned space stations in low earth orbit. It was that simple.
While ultimately permanent space stations that could be used for research and as transfer points was the goal, to accomplish that goal we needed to understand what it took to create, support, and populate such a station.
After the United States was successful in beating the Russians to the first lunar landing, the Soviet Union transitioned their space program quickly from one of racing toward to the moon, to one of racing toward owning low earth orbit. Very quickly, they built and launched a space station. On April 19, 1971, less than two years after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, humankind’s very first space station. This was a full six months before the United States could launch their first space station, Skylab I. Once again, the Soviet Union beat America in space.
But Salyut 1 had significant problems. The first crew that visited Salyut 1 could not successfully dock with it due to a problem with the docking module on Salyut 1. They couldn’t even open the door to the station. Instead, they had to return home without ever sitting foot in the station. The second crew sent to Salyut 1 was the first and last crew to actually enter the space station. This second crew was on board a mere 23 days before a fire forced them to abandon the station permanently. What’s worse, while the crew was reentering the earth atmosphere to come home, a pressurization problem in the ship...killed the entire crew. When the ship was recovered once it landed on earth, the crew was found inside, dead.
This was the Soviet Union’s first attempt at a space station, but not their last attempt. They would create six other Salyut space stations in their race against the Americans.
But before the Soviet Union could replace their first station, it was America’s turn. For the United States, the first space station needed to be based on the same technology that powered Apollo. The space station program was part of the Apollo Applications Program, and the goal was to make significant use of Apollo technology. Project Apollo had already proved itself in landing on the moon. It was planned to be used for the future upcoming Venus Flyby mission, and there were plans to use Apollo technology for the first lunar bases. But before it was used for any of these other projects, it was used to create Skylab.
America’s first space station, Skylab I, was quickly built and quickly put into space. It was seen as a relatively simple project. Unfortunately, it was seen as so simple, that the team was not focused, and the station quality suffered. Like Salyut 1 with the Soviet Union, Skylab I would have significant problems. Let’s look back at the creation and history of Skylab I.
Shortly after the formation of the AAP agency in October of 1969, this was the agency spinoff from NASA that was responsible for reuse of Apollo technology, and shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon for the first time, one of the very first projects for AAP was to figure out how to create a manned space station in low earth orbit.
The decision was made to build a station quickly and cheaply, simply to get it into space ahead of the Russians.
Hence, Skylab I was born. Skylab I was very simple. Take the 3rd stage of the Saturn V rocket, add some solar panels, telescopes, and other research equipment, pressurize the vessel so that it could be used by shirt sleeve crews in low earth orbit, then send it into space. Apollo command-service modules would be used to transport crews to the station, and the crews would perform simple scientific activities over medium to long duration voyages. It would be that simple.
Skylab I was quickly developed, and it was developed on a shoe string budget. After all, this was going to be easy.
Skylab I, unfortunately, was not the first space station into orbit. That honor would go to the Soviet Salyut 1. However, the problems with Salyut 1 were well publicized, and America was sure we could do better.
Finally, on October 13, 1971, Skylab I was launched. But, unfortunately, karma knocked on the door of this space station as well. During the launch, the outer shielding for the station was torn off, as was one of the folded solar panels. The result? Skylab I was in jeopardy of boiling to destruction in the extreme heat of the sun in earth orbit. Without the protection of the outer shielding, there was no way the station could support a human crew and keep them alive. Unless a solution was found, Skylab I would have to be abandoned even before it was put into service.
But American ingenuity came into play. Over the next 10 days options were considered and a plan developed. The plan was to send up a large parasol...an umbrella if you will, that would be used to cover part of the space station and keep the sun’s energy from boiling the station. The umbrella would protect the station, and save the program.
America ingenuity saved the day.
And 11 days after the launch of the space station, the first crew of Skylab I arrived at the station with the parasol. They were able to deploy it as well as release the remaining solar panel to finally make the station habitable. The crew struggled getting the docking adaptor on the station to work correctly, though, a problem that waseerily reminiscent of Salyut 1, but they were able to clear up the problem and enter the space station to continue their mission.
Skylab I was saved.
The lesson of Skylab I — never more would our attention falter when it came to an important mission. Too much was at stake. The value received from a space mission is usually in proportion to the amount invested — time, money, and focus. The more you invest, the more you get out of the program. That lesson would serve the space agencies well for many years to come, and would be one of the main reasons why the manned space program continued to receive the funding it needed. The remainder of the Skylab program would receive the attention required, and funding necessary, to be successful.
In all, three separate crews made Skylab I their home from October 15, 1971 until March 1, 1973. The longest crew stayed for 210 days, a record at the time. Skylab I was a success, and America was once again the leader in establishing a presence in low earth orbit. This was a lead that would actually be extended when the Soviet Union’s next attempt at putting a station into space, Salyut 2 which launched on April 3, 1973, became a complete and utter failure. While no human lives were loss, the ship itself was destroyed. It survived in orbit for a mere 13 days before it burned up in the atmosphere, having never even being visited by a human crew.
While successful, Skylab I was limited. It was small, it was injured, and it didn’t have the power it needed to support our needs in space for the long term. Instead, a larger and more powerful space station was needed.
This is where Skylab II came to be. Based on the same overall technology as Skylab I, Skylab II was nearly twice the size of Skylab I. It consisted of two sections that were launched independently, each section launched on its own Saturn V rocket, each section the size of the original Skylab I, and each section looking very similar to the core of the original Skylab 1. The two sections were joined in space to create a larger space station. The new station, which looked much like two main Skylab modules attached together, was assembled in space by an assembly crew launched separately over a 24 day period during February of 1974.
Once the assembly was complete, the larger station was capable of supporting two complete three person crews simultaneously — six astronauts total, at a time. The result was a station that could perform significantly more research with more astronauts involved.
Skylab II supported six missions from March 10, 1974 until May 5th, 1977. The fourth crew, that of the Skylab II-M4 mission, was a three man crew that broke the record for the longest stay in space of 426 days, or around 14 months.
The long duration habitation research of the latter Skylab I missions and the early Skylab II missions was critical in the evaluation of impact on the human body on long duration missions. This was critical research for both the upcoming Venus Flyby mission, but also for the planned manned bases on the lunar surface.
Skylab II was a huge overall success. While most of what it accomplished did not receive the media attention that the Venus Flyby mission received, it was extremely important in the ongoing space race with the Soviet Union over the control and ownership of low earth orbit.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union wasn’t sitting back and watching. Their first two attempts were major disasters. But on May 25, 1974, Salyut 3 launched. Salyut 3 remained in orbit for eight months. This was followed shortly after by a Salyut 4, Salyut 5, 6, and finally a Salyut 7. Overall, the entire Salyut program consisted of seven separate space stations. The last station in the series, Salyut 7, was launched in April of 1982 and was occupied for over two and a half years concurrently. Salyut 6 was in service for nearly five years!
Finally, on February 19, 1986, the Soviet Union launched and began space based construction on the Mir space station. This would be the first permanently manned space station in low earth orbit. Mir was continuously manned and operated for over fifteen years before it was finally retired and de-orbited in March of 2001.
Meanwhile, back in America, hot on the success of Skylab II, the United States was getting ready to launch Skylab III. Still based on Apollo technology, Skylab III was essentially three Skylab I modules fastened together. These three segments were launched from three distinct Saturn V rockets, and were assembled in orbit using two separate three person assembly crews over the course of nearly three months.
Finally, on Jun 4, 1977, the first habitation crew arrived at Skylab III and stayed on board for 301 days. Over the course of the next seven years, a total of eighteen crews would visit Skylab III. At one point in time, three separate, three person crews would inhabit the stations at once. Nine astronauts at once were on board the space station. Over the course of these missions, the longest duration stay by an astronaut was 522 days. That’s nearly 18 months, or a year and a half. The longest any human has spent in space.
The United States was learning how to live and work in space.
The Skylab program was extremely valuable to our developing knowledge about how to live and operate in space. The research from Skylab helped us understand the impact of long duration missions in space. This was critical not only for the Venus Flyby mission, but for the future planned missions to Mars and beyond, along with our planned long term habitation of the lunar surface.
And it was needed for our research, development, and launch of Space Station Freedom, America’s permanently habituated space station. Space Station Freedom was substantially larger than the Soviet Union’s Mir space station, and substantially larger than any of the Skylab stations, and it became a critical jumping off point for future lunar missions and deep space missions. Freedom was our first and most stable permanent home in space. But that is a story for another time. For now, it should just be known that Space Station Freedom would not have been possible without the research that was performed by the twenty five distinct crews on board the three Skylab space stations.
Skylab was a quiet but hugely critical success for the United States space program.
Skylab truly was invaluable in our gaining experience in space. It was critical to our future missions and future plans. It was critical to our long term success in space.
As mentioned in the documentary, Skylab led to Space Station Freedom, which gave us a permanent presence in space. Space Station Freedom was substantially larger and more stable than the Soviet Union’s Mir station. Mir was the Soviet Union’s last major space project. The space race would soon be over. Space Station Freedom, the Apollo lunar landings, the Venus Flyby, and the early lunar bases were all United States projects. While the Soviet Union was first in almost every goal of space exploration, it was the United States that ended up being the most successful and ultimately the leader.
But the push to space continued, even if the competition was less fierce. Joint projects between nations, including the United States and Russia, were starting to occur.
In real life, the manned space program only was built as part of a joint, multi-nation effort. The International Space Station was the largest, and the only, large scale manned mission in space. The United States did not continue with manned space missions, focusing instead on robotic missions.
But that was not the case in Belitopia. In Belitopia, the United States was the driving force for the continued exploration and exploitation of space by manned space missions. And later, after the eventual split-up of the United States, the leadership in space exploration and exploitation was continued by the Western Alliance of States and Providences, which included parts of the Western United States. We will continue to explore more of these missions in future episodes...of Belitopia.
If you enjoyed this documentary about the Skylab series of space stations, and would like more information about them, including mission milestones and timelines, ship diagrams, and plans, go to our website at https://belitopia.com/Skylab.