At approximately 63 seconds into the flight of Skylab 1 on May 14, 1973, an anomaly occurred which resulted in the complete loss of the meteoroid shield around the orbital workshop. This was followed by the loss of one of the two solar array systems on the workshop and a failure of the interstage adapter to separate from the S-II stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle. The investigation reported herein identified the most probable cause of this flight anomaly to be the breakup and loss of the meteoroid shield due to aerodynamic loads that were not accounted for in its design. The breakup of the meteoroid shield, in turn, broke the tie downs that secured one of the solar array systems to the workshop. Complete loss of this solar array system occurred at 593 seconds when the exhaust plume of the S-II stage retro-rockets impacted the partially deployed solar array system. Falling debris from the meteoroid shield also damaged the S-II interstage adapter ordnance system in such a manner as to preclude separation.
Of several possible failure modes of the meteoroid shield that were identified, the most probable in this particular flight was internal pressurization of its auxiliary tunnel which acted to force the forward end of the meteoroid shield away from the shell of the workshop and into the supersonic air stream. The pressurization of the auxiliary tunnel was due to the existence of several openings in the aft region of the tunnel. Another possible failure mode was the separation of the leading edge of the meteoroid shield from the shell of the workshop (particularly in the region of the folded ordnance panel) of sufficient extent to admit ram air pressures under the shield.
The venting analysis for the auxiliary tunnel was predicated on a completely sealed aft end; the openings in the tunnel thus resulted from a failure of communications among aerodynamics, structural design, and manufacturing personnel. The failure to recognize the design deficiencies of the meteoroid shield through six years of analysis, design and test was due, in part, to a presumption that the shield would be "tight to the tank" and "structurally integral with the S-IVB tank" as set forth in the design criteria. In practice, the meteoroid shield was a, large, flexible, limp system that proved difficult to rig to the tank and to obtain the close fit that was presumed by the design. These design deficiencies of the meteoroid shield, as well as the failure to communicate within the project the critical nature of its proper venting, must therefore be attributed to an absence of sound engineering judgment and alert engineering leadership concerning this particular system over a considerable period of time.
The overall management system used for Skylab was essentially the same as that developed in the Apollo program. This system was fully operational for Skylab; no conflicts or inconsistencies were found in the records of the management reviews. Nonetheless, the significance of the aerodynamic loads on the meteoroid shield during launch were not revealed by the extensive review process. Possibly contributing to this oversight was the basic view of the meteoroid shield as a piece of structure, rather than as a complex system involving several different technical disciplines. Complex, multidisciplinary systems such as the meteoroid shield should have a designated project engineer who is responsible for all aspects of analysis, design, fabrication, test and assembly.
The Board found no evidence that the design deficiencies of the meteoroid shield were the result of, or were masked by, the content and processes of the management system that were used for Skylab. On the contrary. the rigor, detail, and thoroughness of the system are doubtless necessary for a program of this magnitude. At the same time, as a cautionary note for the future, it is emphasized that management must always be alert to the potential hazards of its systems and take care that an attention to rigor, detail and thoroughness does not inject an undue emphasis on formalism, documentation, and visibility in detail. Such an emphasis can submerge the concerned individual and depress the role of the intuitive engineer or analyst. It will always be of importance to achieve a cross-fertilization and broadened experience of engineers in analysis, design, test or operations. Positive steps must always be taken to assure that engineers become familiar with actual hardware, develop an intuitive understanding of computer-developed results, and make productive use of flight data in this learning process. The experienced "chief engineer," who can spend most of his time in the subtle integration of all elements of the system under his purview, free of administrative and managerial duties, can also be a major asset to an engineering organization.