Skylab, America’s first space station barely survived its own launch into space but became an orbiting oven that astronauts cooled with a jury-rigged parasol. Now came an even more dangerous challenge: Restore electrical power.
As recounted in two earlier stories, Skylab was launched and nearly lost on May 25, 1973. Its sun shield ripped away during ascent and tore off one of two solar power panels. The second one barely stayed, held in place, ironically, by the last bit of torn shielding.
But the array was jammed, and astronauts Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin were unable to budge it free as they flew their Apollo spacecraft dangerously close to the station. They docked and the next day extended a parasol from inside a small science airlock. Temperatures quickly dropped to the comfort zone and the crew was able to set up housekeeping inside.
But their work was limited. Skylab was limping along on the electricity provided by a windmill-like set of solar panels that powered the Apollo Telescope Mount. Getting full use out of the station required freeing the remaining solar array stuck to the side of the workshop.
Again, the Fates showed a sense of irony. Skylab originated as a “wet workshop” that astronauts would convert in orbit from a spent Saturn rocket upper stage. After trying his hand at a simulated spacewalk underwater at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, George Mueller, the associate administrator for manned spaceflight, decided there were too many kinds ofobstacles and drove home the decision to make Skylab a “dry workshop.” Now, to save it, the astronauts would have to stage the kind of spacewalk they had been avoiding.
Skylab had been designed for limited spacewalks, or extravehicular activity, (EVA) as it is properly called. Its workshop joined to the docking adapter by an airlock that reused a Gemini spacecraft hatch for economy. Two astronauts could exit through the airlock and work their way up the Apollo Telescope Mount to replace film magazines that were capturing priceless photographs of the Sun in was not possible from the ground.
Clambering down the side of the workshop was not in Skylab’s many game plans, but neither was a near-death experience during launch.
In the three weeks between launching Skylab and its first crew, NASA engineers equipped the crew with modified utility linesman cutting tool. They would use it like pruning shears to snip the bit of shade that pinned the solar array in place.
Astronauts Rusty Schweikart, who flew on Apollo 9, and Jack Lousma, who would be in the second Skylab crew and command the third Space Shuttle mission, worked in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator at NASA Marshall.
This was the same facility where Mueller had his revelation that astronauts would not be able to outfit the wet workshop. Working virtually around the clock, Schweikart and Lousma plus NASA and its contractor teams developed, tested, revised and retested procedures for freeing the solar array.
The NBS was one of those midnight engineering projects that NASA could pull off in the 1960s. Small tanks had been used for spacewalk simulations in the 1960s, but NASA Marshall thought bigger. They wanted to put the entire workshop underwater.
By reprogramming leftover construction funds, NASA Marshall was able to build what was for years the world’s largest such facility, 40 feet deep and 80 feet wide. In time, it would hold mockups of Space Shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope and forerunners of today’s International Space Station.
The concept is simple. Put a space-suited individual in the water, add lead weights, and he or she is neutrally buoyant, neither sinking nor floating. Tools are wrapped in foam blocks so they, too, are neutral. The work is demanding, requiring a great deal of upper body strength, because you are working against air pressure inside the suit plus water resistance outside. And you are still in 1g, not 0g, sometimes hanging by your armpits from the shoulder joints of the suit. At least in space there is no water resistance.
After many simulations, some afterhours when an irritated Al Shepard would shut down activities to keep the press at bay, a procedure was worked out. After some practice, Conrad and Kerwin ventured out on June 7, attached extension rods to the linesman’s cutter and edged the tool to the twisted metal.
The two were hampered by not having foot restraints in place Skylab was not designed for this. It took more than two hours of positioning and false starts to get the blades in the right place, and even then they refused to cut until Conrad eased himself more than 30 feet down and was about to work it by hand. Conrad snapped away into space, held only by a metal tether.
Still, the solar array only extended a few degrees. Conrad and Kerwin now hooked a tether to a hole in the boom, ran it over Conrad’s shoulder, and he stood as Kerwin pulled.
The array snapped open, and both astronauts were hurtled into space, again being saved by their own metal tethers, designed for just this purpose. The solar array wing extended and, as they warmed in the sun, the electricity-generating panels slowly extended. Skylab was alive and open for business.
This article draws from Skylab: A Chronology (NASA SP-4011) and ‘With Flying Colours’: The Revival of Skylab by Ben Evans at AmericaSpace.com. Dave Dooling is education director at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. He is a former space journalist and past recipient of the National Space Club’s Press Award and Goddard History Essay Award.
First Animals in Space
When most people are asked about the first animal in space, they usually name the monkeys and dogs that tested out the space environment before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard flew.
Those are good guesses, but they are wrong. The first animals in space were fruit flies that were sent aloft by the United States using a captured German V-2 rocket on Feb. 20, 1947. The rocket lofted the Blossom capsule to an altitude of 68 miles (109 km) on a brief suborbital flight. Blossom separated from the rocket and parachuted to Earth. Scientists discovered the fruit flies alive and well, unhurt by either the high acceleration or the radiation of space.
Researchers soon moved on to larger animals — although not always with such good results. A Rhesus monkey named Albert died during a flight in 1948 when his capsule’s parachute failed. Albert II was sent to an even higher altitude of 83 miles (134 km) on June 14, 1949. Sadly, it suffered the same fate as the parachute failed.
The following year, the United States launched a mouse aboard a V-2. That flight also suffered a parachute failure, killing the subject. However, researchers obtained photographs of the mouse’s behavior in zero gravity.
The U.S. Air Force made a crucial parachute breakthrough on Sept. 20, 1951. A monkey and 11 mice were successfully recovered after a flight that reached 44 miles (71 km). Although it didn’t reach the 50-mile limit of space, this marked the first time the United States had recovered a higher life form from spaceflight conditions.
The Air Force continued to launch dogs and mice into space until 1952 when the program was suspended. It would not be revived until 1958 after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.
While the United States was experimenting with mice and monkeys, the Soviet Union was focused largely on launching dogs. On July 22, 1951, engineers sent Tsygan and Dezik on a suborbital flight and recovered them safely, making them the first higher life forms to survive a trip into space. The Soviets launched a dozen dogs on suborbital flights throughout the 1950s.
The first animal to enter orbit was Laika, which the Soviet Union launched aboard Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957. Laika had been a stray dog living on the streets of Moscow when she was caught and put into training for the space program. Her flight was brief; she died only hours after reaching orbit. Her capsule was not designed to be recovered, so Laika’s death was inevitable.
The Soviets would launch at least 10 other dogs into orbit before the first successful manned space mission by Gagarin on April 12, 1961. On one of those flights, the nation sent the first rabbit, Marfusa, into space.
The United States restarted its program of sending monkeys into space in 1958. Able and Baker became the first monkeys to survive spaceflight after they were launched in the nose cone of a Jupiter rocket on May 28, 1959. Two years later, a chimpanzee named Ham flew aboard a Mercury capsule, paving the way for Shepard’s successful flight on May 5, 1961.
First Spaceship on Venus
For millennia, the planet Venus was an enigma. Known as Earth’s twin because of its striking similarity in size, it is covered with an impenetrable layer of clouds that obscures the surface. Lacking any direct evidence and with only the Earth to compare it to, speculation ran wild about what lay beneath. Scientists and science fiction writers alike imagined a swampy world lashed by constant rain and inhabited by dinosaur-like creatures and even humanoids.
It was not until the 1960’s when space probes were sent to Venus that scientists realized that conditions on the surface were much worse than anyone imaged. Venus is a planet with a greenhouse effect run amok: surface temperatures reach 860 degrees Fahrenheit (460 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead. Atmospheric pressure at the surface is 92 times that on Earth. Nothing could live on the surface — at least not anything we recognized as life.
The harsh conditions on the surface of Venus made landing there extremely difficult — but it didn’t stop anyone from trying.
The Soviet Venera (Venus) 3 was the first spaceship on Venus, crashing onto the surface on March 1, 1966. Although it was the first vehicle to impact on another planet, its communications system failed before it was able to return any data during descent.
Venera 4 did better, entering the atmosphere on Oct. 18, 1967, and returning valuable data about the atmosphere while descending under parachute. The spacecraft’s instruments included two thermometers, a radio altimeter, a barometer, atmospheric density gauge, 11 gas analyzers, and two radio transmitters. The spacecraft continued to transmit date until contact was lost 15.5 miles (25 km) above the surface.
It was not until 1970 that the Soviets successfully soft landed the first spaceship on Venus. Venera 7 entered the atmosphere on Dec. 15 and jettisoned its landing capsule. Aerodynamic breaking and a parachute system were used to slow the capsule down to landing speed. An antenna was deployed, and Venera 7 transmitted data during a 35-minute descent.
The spacecraft’s parachute failed just before landing. The capsule crashed down at 38 mph (65.5 km) and toppled over. Venera 7 transmitted 23 minutes of very weak signals before its batteries died, becoming the first spacecraft to transmit data from the the surface of another planet.
The Soviets successfully landed seven additional Venera spacecraft on Venus over the 11 years that followed. Launched in 1975, Venera 9 was the first to return a photo of the surface, a 180-degree panoramic view of the landing area that revealed large rocks under a cloudy sky. Venera 11 and 12 were not so lucky; they landed successfully, but the lens caps on their cameras failed to release.
Venera 13 lasted the longest on the hellish surface, 127 minutes, well in excess of its 32-minute design life. Venera 14 had a robotic arm to test the surface; however, it ended up sampling the lens cap from one of the probe’s cameras that had dropped directly below the arm. The Venera series put the first spaceships on Venus and is one of the most successful planetary exploration programs in history.