How Space Stations Work

Skylab: America's First Space Station
Skylab 1 in orbit after its repairs -- note the gold sunshade.
Skylab 1 in orbit after its repairs -- note the gold sunshade.
Image courtesy of NASA

The United States placed its first, and only, space station, called Skylab 1, in orbit in 1973. During the launch, the station was damaged. A critical meteoroid shield and one of the station's two main solar panels were ripped off and the other solar panel was not fully stretched out. That meant that Skylab had little electrical power and the internal temperature rose to 126 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius).

The first crew, Skylab2, was launched 10 days later to fix the ailing station. The crew consisted of Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin. The Skylab 2 astronauts stretched out the remaining solar panel and set up an umbrella-like sunshade to cool the station. With the station repaired, the astronauts spent 28 days in space conducting scientific and biomedical research.

Modified from the third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket, Skylab had the following parts:

  • Orbital workshop - living and working quarters for the crew
  • Airlock module - allowed access to the outside of the station
  • Multiple docking adapter - allowed more than one Apollo spacecraft to dock to the station at once (However, there were never any overlapping crews in the station.)
  • Apollo telescope mount - contained telescopes for observing the sun, stars and Earth (Keep in mind that the Hubble Space Telescope had not been built yet.)
  • Apollo spacecraft - command and service module for transporting the crew to and from the Earth's surface

Skylab was manned by two additional crews. Skylab 3 consisted of Commander Alan Bean and astronauts Jack Lousma and Owen Garriot. They spent 59 days in space. The final crew, Skylab 4, consisted of Commander Gerald Carr and astronauts William Pogue and Edward Gibson. This crew spent 84 days in orbit, conducted experiments and photographed comet Kohoutek.

Skylab was never meant to be a permanent home in space, but rather a workshop where the United States could test the effects of long-duration space flights (that is, greater than the two weeks required to go to the moon) on the human body. When the flight of the third crew was finished, Skylab was abandoned. Skylab remained aloft until intense solar flare activity caused its orbit to decay sooner than expected. Skylab re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned over Australia in 1979.

Next up, Mir -- the first permanent space station.