The Human Touch: The History of
the Skylab Program
by Donald C. Elder
On February 8, 1974, astronauts Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue, after an eighty-four-day mission in outer space aboard an orbital laboratory named Skylab, boarded an Apollo command module and returned to earth. Their splashdown marked the end of a venture involving three separate crews that had set twenty-five International Aeronautical Federation world records and had managed to complete ninety major scientific experiments.1 It therefore surprised no one when two months later the Collier Committee announced that it had selected the Skylab program as the recipient of the 1973 Robert J. Collier Trophy. The official announcement of the award duly noted the importance of "the production of data of benefit to all the people on Earth," but had prefaced that praise by asserting that Skylab had proved "beyond question the value of man in future explorations of space."2 The Skylab program, then, had a great immediate impact in aiding the expansion of scientific knowledge, but also offered the long-range benefit of demonstrating the importance of the continuance of the human component in the American space program.
This essay examines the history of Skylab. The story begins with the first suggestions for a laboratory in outer space, then turns to a discussion of how such an idea gained official acceptance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Each of the missions will be considered, and the results they yielded will be assessed. Throughout the story, I will analyze how various groups competed with each other to control the design, timing, and function of the project. Although stressing the role technological innovation played in the eventual success of the Skylab program, I will demonstrate how the human element was crucial at every stage of this "exceedingly complex enterprise."3 Finally, I will suggest the ways in which the program resonated with, and still influences, the goals and objectives of NASA.
The Promise of a New Day
The idea of placing a vessel with a human crew into Earth orbit first appeared in 1869 when an American, Edward Everett Hale, wrote a short story about launching a brick structure large enough to house a crew of thirty-seven into outer space. During the first half of the twentieth century individuals from the scientific community, including Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth, took up the subject. The possibility of placing such an object into orbit seemed remote at that time, however, due to the absence of a viable launch vehicle.4
|The Skylab space station cluster in orbit. Note the solar shield, deployed by the second crew, which shades the Orbital Workshop. The OWS solar panel on the left side was lost on launch day. NASAs Skylab program, with special recogwition to program director William C. Schneider and the Skylab astronauts, received the Collier Trophy in 1973, for the production of scientific data about long-term spaceflight. (NASA photo no. 74-H 98).|
The prospects for an orbiting Space Station improved remarkably with the success of the German V-2 rocket program during the second World War. In the postwar years, the United States Army combined German technology with work done during the war by the jet Propulsion Laboratory to create successively more powerful rockets. Aware of the progress in this area, individuals from a number of countries soon made detailed proposals to take advantage of the launch capabilities rockets now offered. But in spite of the fact that launch vehicles by the mid-1950s had demonstrated great potential for lifting payloads into outer space, no government proved willing to commit itself to backing a venture to place an object into Earth orbit. A manned orbital laboratory therefore remained a distant goal.
But official interest in the concept of a Space Station soon came in the wake of the launching of Sputnik I in October 1957. To develop and guide a systematic American response to the Soviet accomplishment, in 1958 Congress passed a law which created a civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Shortly after NASA became operational, T. Keith Glennan, the agency's first administrator, announced that the United States would launch a person into outer space as part of its program of operations.5 Encouraged by this development, certain individuals at NASA soon began to explore the possibility of placing a Space Station and operations crew into Earth orbit.
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 215
This groundswell of interest soon found support from the higher echelons of the space agency. Appearing before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences on February 20, 1959, NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden and Assistant to the Director of Space Flight Development DeMarquis Wyatt discussed the missions the agency eventually hoped to accomplish; a Space Station and an orbital manned laboratory figured prominently in their plans.6 Indeed, NASA would request two million dollars for fiscal year 1960 to conduct a feasibility study regarding the building of a space laboratory. By the spring of 1959, NASA had definitely embraced a concept which two years earlier had seemed quite remote.
Other groups also began to express an interest in the idea. As part of a program to investigate the possibility of creating a military base on the moon, Wernher von Braun of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, in June 1959, suggested that a necessary step in such a venture would involve first building an orbital Space Station. As a "quick fix" to accomplish this first step, von Braun proposed using the final stage of a launch vehicle which had achieved orbit as the foundation upon which to build such a vessel. Although the Army would never implement such a program, von Braun's idea would figure prominently in shaping the thinking about the configuration of Skylab.7
One month after von Braun submitted his proposal, a meeting took place at NASA's Langley Research Center to define the goals of the space agency for the orbital space laboratory that Dryden and Wyatt had testified about in April. At this conference, held on July 10, 1959, the participants agreed that such a venture should serve three purposes. First, it should allow scientists to study "the psychological and physiological reaction" of a human being in outer space over a long period of time. Second, it would permit technicians to analyze how materials, power sources, and control mechanisms would function "in a true space environment." And third, a space laboratory would provide a test of "communication, orbit control, and rendezvous" techniques, and would allow the evaluation of a person's ability to gather terrestrial and astronomical information while in orbit.8
The minutes of this conference clearly indicate that by the end of 1959 NASA had taken significant steps toward creating a program to place a laboratory and crew in orbit. But the record also shows the agency recognized even at that early date that landing a person on the Moon might rank as a higher priority program in the American space program. Indeed, the participants at the July 10 meeting noted that they envisioned the space laboratory "as one of the initial steps in the actual landing of a man on the moon in 10-15 years."9 This focus suggests that from the beginning the agency saw an orbital laboratory as merely a component of a larger mission, rather than as a program which could stand on its own technical merit.
This evaluation of the potential priorities of the space agency seemed to be born out in the next three years. In 1960, NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan favored making a lunar expedition the priority of his agency after the completion of Project Mercury; in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of placing a person on the Moon by the end of the decade. Wernher von Braun and others argued for adopting a
216 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
mission configuration which would use an orbital vehicle as a staging base for a lunar mission; such a vessel, they reasoned, could also serve as a space laboratory between lunar missions.10 In June 1962, however, NASA officials opted for a plan involving a command module placed in orbit around the Moon. Such a scheme did not require a vessel and crew as a way station in Earth orbit, thus effectively shelving von Braun's concept for at least the duration of the lunar program (known as Apollo).11
Although disappointed by the decision, proponents of a permanent laboratory in space remained hopeful that NASA would eventually embrace that concept, and continued to plan for such an eventuality. On October 17, 1962, Joseph F. Shea, Deputy Director for Systems, Office of Manned Space Flight, asked the agency's centers to submit opinions on how NASA could use and benefit from an orbital vessel capable of sustaining a crew. The Manned Spaceflight Center (MSC) quickly responded to Shea's request, putting together a proposal detailing the areas on which private contractors would have to do studies to determine the feasibility of such a venture. By March 4, 1963, work completed in this area allowed Hugh Dryden to testify before Congress that a manned laboratory in Earth orbit had become an "obvious candidate" for a place in the space agency's program (named the Apollo Extension System) after the completion of Apollo. 12
Reflecting the optimism of the deputy administrator, the MSC in June 1963 engaged the Douglas Aircraft Company and the Boeing Company to do studies on possible configurations for such a vessel. Additional support for the concept of an orbital space laboratory came in October 1963, when officials from the Department of Defense and NASA agreed to explore the possibility of jointly developing plans for such a vessel. Although nothing ever came of this proposal, it did aid NASA officials in more clearly defining their aspirations regarding such a program.13
Up until this point, all of the work done on projects to succeed Apollo had a classification of "advanced study programs." But these feasibility studies and reports, suggesting the potential benefits from such efforts, soon began to change the perspective of the space agency. Moreover, the realization that without concrete plans in the very near future much of the Apollo workforce would be idle for a significant period of time prodded the NASA hierarchy to consider immediate steps to provide continued work for them. Accordingly, in August 1965 NASA officials decided to change the status of the post-Apollo program to that of "project definition." As part of this process, one month later the agency changed the name of the project to the Saturn-Apollo Applications Program (AAP).
George E. Mueller, NASA Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF), had known for some time that the future of his Apollo workforce depended in large measure on the viability of the plans which would come out of this office. He also had seen the erosion of support in Congress for a continued space program on the scale of Apollo. Quickly recognizing that an orbital space laboratory represented the proposal of the AAP with the best chance of earning congressional approval, he began to accelerate work on finding an acceptable configuration for this idea.14
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 217
Mueller considered a number of possibilities, but soon chose an idea suggested jointly by the Douglas Aircraft Company and the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). Ironically, it involved embracing the idea, first suggested by Wernher von Braun, of making a laboratory out of the final stage of a launch vehicle that had expended its fuel and had gone into orbit. A second launch vehicle would take a crew of astronauts into outer space to rendezvous with the spent stage; these individuals would then flush any residue out and put in the components of the laboratory. The concept, known as the "wet workshop," had technical merit, but also had an economical appeal as well. Mueller recognized that the rapid progress on the Apollo program meant that NASA would not need all the Saturn rockets it had originally ordered, therefore freeing him from the necessity of purchasing additional launch vehicles for the AAP. At a time when the financial demands of the Vietnam War had just started to compete with NASA's budgetary requests, such potential savings from AAP had great appeal to the agency. NASA Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans gave Mueller his approval for the proposal in March 1966, and in November Mueller made a formal presentation to NASA Administrator James E. Webb.15 Official backing came when Congress, acting upon Webb's recommendation, appropriated approximately $450 million for the AAP in the 1968 Fiscal Year budget.
With initial funding secured, Mueller then turned to the task of deciding what scientific experiments to conduct aboard the orbital laboratory. NASA officials saw a potential for investigations to yield information in seven areas: life sciences, solar physics, Earth observations, astrophysics, materials science and manufacturing, engineering and technology' and student experiments.16 Mueller soon decided that one of the experiments should involve photographing solar activity. Originally NASA had intended to use a satellite called the Advanced Orbiting Solar Observatory for that purpose, but budgetary constraints had forced the cancellation of that project. Mueller felt that the crew of a space laboratory could complete those photographic tasks, and had directed AAP efforts to develop a telescopic mount for such a purpose. After extensive work at a number of NASA Centers, on September 19, 1966, NASA's Manned Space Flight Experiments Board (MSFEB) accepted the plan to include such a device, known as the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), in the space laboratory program.17
While the idea of the ATM had moved steadily from proposal to approval, the selection of other experiments took much longer. Although those in the AAP knew of over 100 experiments being considered by individuals at the various space centers, a lack of fluids and supporting manpower prevented many of these potential contributors from moving quickly to solidify, plans for such endeavors. But energetic work involving visits to the various centers by Douglas Lord, head of the Advanced Manned Missions Office Experiments Division, spurred interested individuals to complete their feasibility studies. By the end of 1966 the MSFEB had received and approved fifty-two such proposals.18
Individuals involved in preparations for a manned laboratory in Earth orbit felt quietly optimistic as 1967 began. They had seen the AAP receive formal approval from President Johnson, and knew that the program had become a line item of NASA's budget. Although some experts in the field questioned the timetable, the AAP team believed that
218 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
NASA could place a space laboratory into orbit by the middle of 1968.
Understandably, then, George Mueller considered the time right to reveal
his plans to the national media; at a press conference on January 26, 1967,
he spoke publicly, for the first time, about the ambitious space laboratory
program of the agency. But an event which occurred the very next day put
the hopes of those involved with the project on hold, and came close to
scuttling the idea entirely.
|Technicians at work on a piece of test hardware for the Apollo Telescope Mount for Skylab at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Called an ATM spar assembly this piece of hardware was made for heat tests in a Marshall Center vacuum chamber: Replicas of the ATM solar experiments and other equipment were mounted on the spar and a metal outside covering added. The ATM canister was tested in MSFC's Sunspot II vacuum chamber Working on the spar are, from the top left, Ronald Andrews and R.M. Freeman; J. B. Pendegraft, kneeling.- and J. R. Clift holding blueprint, all of the Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory. (NASA photo no. 69-H-1621).|
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 219
Battling Back From Adversity
In the late afternoon of January 27, 1967, a disastrous fire swept through an Apollo command module perched atop a Saturn launch vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center. The conflagration caused the deaths of astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, forcing NASA officials to reconsider many aspects of the Apollo program. This process of review meant that the agency would not move as quickly toward a lunar mission as originally planned, which caused the new director of the AAP, Charles W. Matthews, to recognize the impossibility of meeting the proposed orbital laboratory launch date.19
Unfortunately, the impact of the fatal fire did not end with the postponement. Congress, concerned about the efficacy of NASA programs and recognizing the increasing financial burden of the Vietnam War, appropriated only $300 million of the $457 million asked by NASA for the AAP in fiscal year 1968. This reduction forced officials in the AAP to further postpone the orbital laboratory schedule, which would involve three separate missions, back into the 1970 calendar year.
These setbacks put hurdles in the path of the space laboratory program, but paled in comparison to the challenge soon offered within the agency itself. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., visiting space centers in June 1967 to monitor activities in the wake of the Apollo disaster, found that many people in the agency wanted to express their strong reservations about the AAP mission design. Individuals at the MSC in particular believed that the idea of converting a spent booster stage into a laboratory in outer space posed too many potential difficulties. They asserted that building a workshop on Earth and then putting it into orbit offered a greater chance for success. Encouraged by the response of Seamans, personnel at the MSC decided to make a presentation on the subject at a conference to discuss plans for Earth-orbiting missions, scheduled for November 18.20
At the conference, both sides presented their views on the wet workshop proposal. George Mueller felt that the proponents sufficiently answered the objections to the AAP plans for an orbital laboratory, and reported favorably on the concept to Robert Seamans. But the top echelon of NASA management still had reservations based on the concerns voiced during Seamans' summer tour, and therefore NASA Administrator James Webb felt compelled to call for a total AAP review, which he scheduled for December 6. At that meeting Webb found adequate reasons for placing the wet workshop proposal on hold until the agency could conduct a total review.
To examine all the possibilities for NASA in the post-Apollo era, including the concept of a manned space laboratory, Webb convened a special committee in early 1968. This group, chaired by Langley Research Center Director Floyd L. Thompson, soon demonstrated agreement about the value of an orbital workshop. The members, however, recognized the limitations of the concept as then constituted. In March 1968, Thompson's group suggested that if the agency could not overcome the technical problems which beset the program it should consider "ground-assembling the workshop and launching it dry."21
This idea, which had circulated within the agency for some time, had great scientific merit. It would require the use of a powerful Saturn V launch vehicle, but would allow more flexibility in mission planning. Unfortunately, by the time of the Thompson committee report it had become apparent that Congress, beset by the increasing financial burdens of
220 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
the Vietnam War, Great Society efforts, and the space program, would not appropriate funds for such a modification. Moreover, NASA Administrator Webb, who at one time had strongly supported AAP, had by this time become a lukewarm proponent at best. Discussing AAP at a meeting with directors of the space Centers, Webb asserted that the program was merely "a surge tank for Apollo." Convinced that no other space agency program should demand funds which NASA Could spend on Apollo, Webb authorized only those expenditures for the space laboratory regarded as absolutely necessary.22 Many wondered if NASA would launch the workshop in any configuration, much less agree to a dry workshop program.
just as the prospects for AAP seemed to have reached the lowest point, however, a series of events transpired which revived the flagging program. First, NASA Administrator ,James Webb announced his retirement in the fall of 1968. His successor, Deputy Director Thomas O. Paine, had demonstrated a much firmer commitment to the concept of a manned space laboratory, and would become a valuable asset to the project. Second, NASA successfully flew a manned Apollo mission in October 1968, restoring public confidence in the space program in general. Finally, the memorable December 1968 flight of Apollo 8 seemed to have made Congress more amenable to NASA budgetary requests; by April 1969 NASA officials knew that they would have at least $252 million to spend on AAP. Thus reassured, they could plan for the space laboratory with confidence.
Revising the Configuration
With their hopes bolstered by the recent turn of events, NASA officials began to firm up plans for an orbital space laboratory. But as those involved in the project resumed their work, they noted a subtle change in the attitude of George Mueller. The man who had long championed the concept of a wet workshop now seemed determined to utilize the proposal of Floyd Thompson's committee as well. Indeed, at a conference on May 3 and 4, 1969, Mueller announced to those involved in the program his hope of developing a series of missions which would include both a wet and a dry workshop.
Mueller's plan struck many as impractical. Some pointed out the financial burdens of redesigning AAP missions, while others noted how adding a second type of workshop would delay the program. But it occurred to Leland E. Belew, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center's Saturn-AAP Office, that NASA could save time and money by merely replacing the plan for a wet workshop with one for a dry workshop. Mueller immediately saw the logic of this suggestion, and called upon those involved in AAP to voice their opinions. Gradually, a consensus emerged in favor of launching a prefabricated laboratory on a Saturn V rocket as the sole AAP effort involving a manned space workshop. Thomas Paine made the decision complete when he gave his formal approval on July 18, 1969.
Public notice of this change had to wait, however, until NASA officials could officially authorize the use of a Saturn V by AAP. James Webb had insisted upon a commitment of those launch vehicles exclusively to Apollo; until a successful landing on the Moon, therefore, NASA could not guarantee the availability of a Saturn V for any other purpose.23 But since the lunar module from Apollo 11 would touch down on the lunar surface only two days after Paine's action, Mueller felt confident that such official notification would come
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 221
shortly. In fact, on July 22, 1969, those involved in AAP received the word to proceed with the dry workshop program .24 With the goal of the Apollo program successfully attained, NASA could devote more of its attention to planning for the future. An indication of this shift came in February 1970, when the agency chose a name for the dry workshop proposal. After considering over 100 possible suggestions, the NASA Project Designation Committee selected the title Skylab, submitted by U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Donald Steelman. But it soon turned out that not everyone shared the optimism of the agency regarding the future of the American space program. Thomas Paine had hoped to use the success of the Apollo program as a springboard for funding more ambitious projects; much to his frustration, however, he found in September 1970 that the Nixon Administration hoped to cut the NASA budget substantially. On the fifteenth of that month, Paine resigned.
His acting replacement, George M. Low, tried to salvage as much funding as possible from the Nixon Administration. He succeeded in minimizing the cuts to the Skylab project, but Low knew that this would still necessitate a readjustment of that program's schedule. The Office of Manned Space Flight finally set the date for the first launch of Skylab for April 1973, and work on the program began in earnest.
In its final configuration, Skylab would consist of five components: a command module (which would join the other components in orbit), a service module, a docking adapter, an airlock, and a workshop. The workshop would itself have two separate sections. The upper compartment would house the work station and equipment for experiments, the frozen food locker, water containers, and film bins. The lower compartment would contain "the kitchen and dining room, bedrooms, an experimental work area, and the toilet." The workshop, forty-one feet long by twenty-two feet wide, would provide 10,426 cubic feet of work space for the astronaut crews. Satisfied with the design, NASA officials finalized contracts with private contractors for the various components.25
By this time, the Skylab program had lost one champion, but had gained another. George Mueller, the person who had guided the idea of an orbital laboratory through troubled times, had resigned from NASA in 1969. While he would be missed, William C. Schneider, who had become the director of the AAP in December 1968, had already demonstrated the same enthusiasm for the orbital workshop concept that Mueller had exhibited. Building on the foundation established by Mueller, Schneider worked steadily on ways to expedite the progress being made on the project. The former Apollo mission director found the NASA system of reviews, implemented during the Apollo program, of great help in keeping the program on schedule. The procedure, which involved formal assessments at seven different stages of development, insured that program officials could quickly identify potential difficulties.26 By the end of 1970, Schneider had approved the last of the modifications necessitated by the change to the dry workshop configuration, and had authorized the testing of the components for the project.
While the various contractors began the preparation of the materials to be used, NASA officials finalized their assessment of the habitability of Skylab. In the fall of 1969, Schneider had already authorized a number of modifications in this regard; the orbital laboratory would now have a room for the astronauts to both sleep and dine in, and an observation window for the viewing pleasure of the astronauts. By late 1970, the only serious question remaining about living conditions involved food. The MSC wanted a more
222 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
elaborate system for storing and preparing meals than the Marshall Space Flight Center felt the laboratory could accommodate. In the end both sides compromised, and Schneider faced no further controversy involving the habitability of Skylab.
Confident that agency officials had designed a workable program, Schneider then turned his attention to the private companies supplying two major components for Skylab. He knew that in April 1969 workers at the McDonnell Douglas Corporation's Huntington Beach, California, facility had started the process of converting a Saturn IVB final stage into an orbital workshop. Schneider soon found that the work of the company had fallen behind schedule. The vast number of pieces, many supplied by other contractors, involved in assembling the craft proved especially daunting. But by utilizing more efficient management techniques, McDonnell Douglas proved able to increase the pace and improve the quality of its efforts. Indeed, in 510 hours of tests during the summer of 1972 company technicians found only minor technical flaws. Confident about the finished product, in a ceremony on September 7 of that year, McDonnell Douglas officially presented NASA administrators with the completed laboratory. 27
One month later, NASA received the other major component of the Skylab vessel. Technicians at the space agency had designed a docking facility and airlock for inclusion in the project; these would allow a crew in an Apollo command module to rendezvous with Skylab in outer space and enter the orbital laboratory. In the summer of 1970, the Martin Marietta Company had built a multiple docking adapter and had sent in to the St. Louis facility of McDonnell Douglas where workers would connect it with the airlock they had constructed. On October 5, 1972, a NASA Super Guppy airplane flew this last component to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
As NASA technicians joined the various parts of Skylab together at KSC, agency officials finalized the process of preparing the astronauts who would eventually live and work in it. Initially, the selection of these individuals had created a controversy within NASA. In 1965 and again in 1967, the space agency had recruited a number of scientists for the astronaut program, and these individuals saw the Skylab program as a logical venue in which NASA could utilize their talents. They hoped that NASA would include two of their number on each mission. But Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations, had chosen to include only one scientist in each of the three three-person crews. In spite of strong protests from the scientific community, Slayton held his ground, arguing that the missions might need two individuals trained primarily in piloting. Backed by Rober Gilruth of the MSC, Slayton won his case, and NASA finalized the composition of the three crews. An all-Navy team of Captain Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., Commander Joseph P. Kerwin, and Commander Paul J. Weitz would fly the first mission. In September 1972 all the crews started a program of mission simulations, preparing for the schedule of launches.28
Personnel at KSC began working longer hours in 1973, getting all systems ready for the long anticipated May launch date. Inclement weather threatened to disrupt the schedule, but by May 14, 1973, conditions had improved sufficiently to warrant initiation of the countdown sequence. At 1:30 p.m. the 334-foot Saturn V carrying Skylab lifted off from its launch pad, ending the years of planning and preparation. Now the question became whether the program could deliver on the promises its proponents had made for it.
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 223
Saving the Program
Telemetry received at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) indicated that the powerful Saturn V had taken only ten minutes to place its cargo into orbit at a height of 270 statute miles. At that point various electrical systems aboard Skylab began to come to life .29 At first every indication suggested a normal process, but soon Flight Director Donald Puddy noticed readings that gave him pause for concern. After a few hours of investigation, NASA officials determined that two things had indeed gone wrong with the mission. First, the two solar panels, which would provide power for the laboratory, had failed to deploy properly. And second, it appeared that a shield designed to both protect against micrometeorites and provide shade for Skylab had been lost. Both of these developments posed serious, perhaps even mission-threatening, challenges for NASA officials to ponder.
Analysis by engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center revealed that the loss of the micrometeorite shield would cause the temperature inside the orbital laboratory to rise to 190 degrees fahrenheit when bathed in sunlight. This heat, they realized, could damage the photographic film and food aboard Skylab, more ominous still, it might melt plastic inside the laboratory, releasing toxic fumes. The mission control team could change the attitude of the orbital laboratory to reduce the angle at which the rays would hit it, thus reducing temperatures, but that adjustment would also limit the amount of sunlight reaching the solar cells of the ATM —Skylab's major remaining source of power. The attitude finally chosen by NASA lowered the temperature inside Skylab to 130 degrees and allowed the generation of 2800 watts of power, but NASA officials believed that they would have to arrange for some sort of sunscreen to protect Skylab if they hoped to save the mission.30
After NASA postponed the launch of the first crew of astronauts for ten days, individuals at the JSC and Marshall immediately began to explore possible methods for providing a sunscreen. After discarding a number of suggestions, NASA officials finally narrowed the range of options to three. One came from Jack Kinzler of the JSC's Technical Services Division, who suggested creating a collapsible parasol out of aluminum-coated mylar supplied by the G.T. Schjeldahl Company. Kinzler felt that the astronaut crew could deploy such a device through the scientific airlock of Skylab after docking. A second suggestion involved having the astronauts affix a twenty-two-by-twenty-four-foot sunscreen to the outside of the laboratory while standing in the hatch of their Apollo command module. Finally, a third idea envisioned attaching a "twin boom" frame to the ATM and then hoisting a sail between the two rods. While finally favoring the Kinzler recommendation, NASA officials decided to have Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz take all three devices with them aboard the Apollo command module.31
NASA officials also hoped that the astronauts could salvage some power capacity from the solar panels. Data received from Skylab indicated that one of the panels had remained attached to the laboratory, but had not deployed. If debris from the micrometeorite shield had trapped it, Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz might have a chance to free the panel. To facilitate these repair efforts, the agency requisitioned specific tools from the A.B. Chance Company and included them in the cargo which the astronauts would take into outer space.
The astronauts lifted off on May 25, 1973. After achieving rendezvous with Skylab and
224 THE HUMAN TOUCH THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
eating a meal, the crew began the planned repairs. Conrad took the Apollo command module away from the docking port and placed it next to the remaining solar panel which, as it turned out, had not deployed because of a strap from the micrometeorite shield which had become wrapped around it. Weitz attempted mightily to free the solar array panel, but had no success. Finally abandoning that endeavor, Conrad decided to dock the command module for the crew's rest period. But this time when he attempted the procedure, Conrad found that the latches of the respective entry ports would not engage. He tried a number of other docking techniques, but these too failed. As a last resort, the astronauts effected a manual modification of their craft's docking port, which allowed Conrad to finally couple the vessels. After a twenty-two-hour day, the crew went to sleep in the command module.32
When the crew awakened, Weitz entered Skylab to determine if the high temperatures had generated toxic fumes. Finding no such danger, the crew then entered the laboratory and prepared to deploy the parasol they had brought along. Working carefully, they managed to unfurl the device, and noticed an immediate cooling inside the laboratory. The temperature inside Skylab would soon stabilize at ninety degrees. The parasol did not cover as wide a surface area as originally hoped, but it would allow the crew to begin the schedule of experiments in relative comfort. Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz would waste no time in initiating these efforts.
The "Can Do" Spirit
The crew soon established a regular schedule which involved carrying out experiments, exercising, eating, maintaining the vessel, and sleeping. They found no difficulty in adjusting to the sensation of living in outer space, experiencing no motion sickness, but found the pace of the tasks assigned to them very demanding. Within days Conrad suggested revising the time allotments for experiments and other duties, and his crew soon settled into a comfortable routine.33 But the crew soon recognized that insufficient power levels might not allow the completion of a number of the proposed experiments. NASA officials concluded that the astronauts would have to make another attempt to free the remaining solar panel.
NASA officials had prepared Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz for their extra-vehicular repair effort by having them train in a zero-gravity neutral buoyancy simulator. Kerwin, however, had not found the technique practiced on Earth any help to him in his first repair attempt. Therefore, NASA officials assigned a group headed by Russell "Rusty" Schweickart (the commander of the back-up crew for the first mission) to devise another method for deploying the solar panel. The team finally recommended using a twenty-five foot long cable cutter to free the panel and a tether to maneuver it, once freed, into proper alignment. Ground control relayed instructions on the procedure to the crew, and on June 7 Kerwin and Conrad left the workshop to make another attempt.
It became immediately apparent to the two astronauts that the actual repair efforts in outer space would differ significantly from those practiced on Earth. To begin with, Kerwin found that he could not establish a firm foothold on the solar observatory antenna as Schweickart had done; cables prevented him from getting close enough to secure his feet. Every time Kerwin attempted to position the cutter he simply drifted off until the
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 225
|Skylab Ultra-violet Stellar Astronomy-A special airlock in the wall of the Workshop allowed the crew to Perform several "outside" experiments. Here, a camera equipped with calcium fluoride transmission optics to pass ultra-violet light is aimed at stars in the Milky Way field. (NASA photo no. 72-H-891).|
226 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
cord connecting him to the antenna restrained him. Moreover, when Conrad attempted to place the hooks of the tether into holes on the solar array panel he found them smaller than those on the panel on which Schweickart's team had practiced. He managed to fit one hook onto the restrained device, but wondered whether he could exert sufficient force to free it with only one clasp. Kerwin then began to cut the strap, but after thirty minutes of work the astronaut had not made any progress toward accomplishing his goal.34
At that moment, however, Kerwin had an idea. He took the line connecting him to the antenna and shortened the length until he had secured his position. Having thus gained leverage, within ten minutes Kerwin proved able to cut the strap. The solar array panel then swung open at an angle of about twenty degrees. At that point, Kerwin and Conrad began to pull on the tether connected to the device, but with no success. Finally Conrad stood up and slung the tether over his shoulder, while Kerwin continued to pull. This technique worked almost too well-the recalcitrant hinge broke loose suddenly, sending the astronauts flying off into space. When the restraining cords stopped their motion, Kerwin and Conrad saw the panel almost fully deployed. Within days the astronauts could report that power levels had almost doubled.
Having lost a significant portion of the four week duration of the mission to repair efforts, NASA officials hoped to salvage as much of the experimental schedule as possible. Forced to prioritize the investigations, they decided to give the highest ranking to medical experiments. During the time remaining in orbit, Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz managed to achieve nearly 100 percent of the projected goals that medical officials had set forth for the mission.35 Of particular interest to the medical community was the fact that weightlessness allowed the skeletal structure of the astronauts to fully extend, increasing their height by an inch. It also balanced fluids within the body more evenly, thus making the faces of Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz appear fuller. With a regular regimen of exercise the astronauts remained in outstanding physical condition throughout the duration of the mission, proving the adaptability of humans to living in outer space.
The crew also managed to accomplish a high percentage of the assigned tasks involving the observation of solar activity, eventually taking over 25,000 pictures of the sun. This endeavor proved a highly challenging one for the crew, given the complicated nature of the control equipment. Located in the docking adapter, these instruments activated the ATM telescopes. Kerwin later asserted that the pace of mission experiments kept him from ever completely mastering the control system.36 He found the procedure for observing solar flares especially frustrating. NASA technicians had developed a sensor which would alert the crew to solar flare activity, but the radiation field over the eastern section of South America would frequently trigger the alarm system. After many false warnings, the crew despaired of ever observing a solar flare. But after deciding to spend the entire work day of June 15 in hopes of witnessing such an occurrence, their patience paid off. Weitz proved able to record a flare of impressive magnitude for over two minutes. Although the crew may have felt that their work involving the observation of solar activity had not met up to expectations, astronomers proved genuinely pleased with the results, which they considered to have met eighty percent of pre-mission expectations.
The scientific aspect which suffered the most from the compression of the mission schedule involved earth resources experiments. NASA officials had included cameras and other devices to provide a more detailed analysis of geological, meteorological, and agricultural features than could otherwise be gathered by conventional methods. The equipment
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 227
|The Sun's hot outer atmosphere, or corona, color-coded to distinguish levels of brightness, reaches outward for millions of miles. A coronagraph, one of Skylab's eight telescopes, masked the Sun's disk, creating artificial eclipses. It permitted 8-1/2 months of corona observation, compared to less than eighty hours from all natural eclipses since use of photogrophy began in 1839. (NASA photo no. 74-H-97).|
which these experiments utilized required a significant amount of power and, because of this, NASA officials had to postpone a vast number of them at the beginning of the mission. The first crew never fully caught up, but still managed to complete an estimated 60 percent of the planned earth resources experiments.37
Ironically, the crew might not have done as many earth resource experiments as they did had the astronauts not completed an in-flight repair of the power system. During the mission, the device which collected power from the ATM panels failed to function properly, causing concern at JSC. NASA technicians, remembering that they had overcome the same difficulty in ground tests by delivering a sharp blow to the device, recommended a similar procedure to the astronauts. Conrad, wielding a hammer, soon had the power conditioner operating properly again, and mission experiments continued.38
As the end of their mission drew near, the astronauts began their preparations to depart from Skylab. On June 22 the crew boarded their command module to fly back to earth. After 404 orbits and twentyeight days in space, the astronauts made a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 800 miles west of San Diego. Picked up by the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, the astronauts soon received a hero's welcome when they reached the
228 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
|This photo of the Sun, taken from Skylab on December 19, 1973, shows one of the most spectacular solar flares ever recorded, spanning more than 588, 000 kilometers (367, 000 miles) across the solar surface. The flare gave the distinctive impression of a twisted sheet of gas in the process of unwinding itself. The solar poles are distinguished by a relative absence of supergranulation network, and a much darker tone than the central portions of the disk. Several active regions are seen on the eastern side of the disk. This photo was taken in the light of ionized helium by the extreme ultraviolet spectroheliograph instrument of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. (NASA photo no. 74-N-434).|
United States. Encouraged by the success of the first mission, but concerned that further mechanical difficulties occurring with no crew aboard to rectify them might jeopardize the status of Skylab, NASA officials decided to advance the launch date of the second mission by three weeks. Attention would therefore turn again to KSC.
A Commitment to Excellence
As the second mission began on July 28, 1973, the crew —Navy Captain Alan L. Bean, Marine Major Jack R. Lousma, and civilian Owen K. Garriott— soon realized that their experience would differ in at least one respect from that of the first crew: Lousma reported nausea only one hour into the flight. The other two soon experienced the same malady. The
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 229
crew attempted to work through their infirmities, but motion sickness slowed down the pace of activity during the first few days, prompting concern among medical officials at NASA. These officials, after reviewing the timing of the occurrences among the crew during the day, recommended that Bean, Lousma, and Garriott eat six small meals rather than three larger ones each day. Whether because of this procedure or simply through an adjustment to space, within days the crew reported that they felt back to normal.39
This return to good health came just in time. In addition to assigned tasks involved in making Skylab operational, the crew also had the responsibility of deploying another sunscreen over the laboratory. NASA officials had chosen the parasol concept for the first crew to use because of the speed with which the astronauts could deploy it, but had recognized that ultraviolet rays would soon cause the fabric of that device to deteriorate. They therefore decided to have the second crew deploy another device considered for use by NASA during the original mission: the twin boom frame sunscreen. Bean, Lousma, and Garriott had practiced extensively on the necessary construction techniques in the neutral buoyancy tank at Houston, and with their health vastly improved they felt ready to begin the task on August 6.
As frequently happened, this activity did not go exactly as planned. Garriott and Lousma soon recognized that the size of the components which they were using differed slightly from those they had practiced with on Earth, forcing them to make a series of adjustments while out of the vehicle. But patiently keeping at their task, the astronauts eventually managed to assemble the frame and raise the sunscreen shade. Lousma and Garriott then replaced film in the ATM, gathered data from previous experiments, and checked on a potentially threatening situation involving the rocket thrusters of the Apollo module. After six hours and thirty-one minutes the two returned to Skylab, having established a record for the longest period of extra-vehicular activity in outer space.40
After completing the necessary repair, the crew resumed the regular experimental schedule. As with the first mission, the observation of solar phenomena had received a high priority. From August 10-20 in particular, the astronauts devoted a significant portion of their work days to capturing solar activity on film. On August 21 the crew witnessed a gigantic bubble develop on one side of the Sun and watched it grow to a size nearly three-quarters that of the Sun itself. In all, the second crew would spend over 300 hours engaged in solar-related activity; their efforts received unqualified praise from the scientific community, and many had an opportunity to speak to the crew directly from Houston.
This approbation did not go unnoticed. Indeed, reporter's covering the Skylab program asked NASA officials at a press conference on August 10 why the second crew seemed to find greater favor with the scientific community. Dr, Ernest Hindler of the High Altitude Observatory of Boulder, Colorado, asserted that the first crew had actually paved the way for the rapport with the second crew. By pointing out the flaws in the program, Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz had helped the second team avoid problems on their mission. But, he conceded, the second crew also seemed more amenable to an interactive dialogue with scientists at ground control than the first had.41
While solar observations took much of the time of the astronauts during the first part of the mission, Earth resources observations also merited considerable attention. All three astronauts would participate simultaneously in these efforts, with each operating a particular piece of equipment —six major instruments in all. NASA officials planned to utilize the first and last segments of the mission for Earth resources observation, knowing that atmospheric conditions would limit visibility during the middle period. In spite of certain
230 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
difficulties, the crew managed to take almost 16,000 photographs of Earth and load data onto 18 miles of magnetic tape .42
After the first period of earth resources activity ended, the crew then took up what NASA officials called "corollary experiments." These involved space technology, space physics, and observations of stars. Although the exploits of two spiders (named Arabella and Anita) overshadowed these experiments in the eyes of the American public, the crew in fact produced a wealth of important data.43
The endeavors of Arabella and Anita certainly certainly caught the fancy of the people on Earth, but the astronauts themselves proved able to capture their attention as well. Lousma provided amusing commentary about the mission on the twenty-four-hour-delay communication channel B, and Garriott conducted a number of experiments which gave vivid televised visual illustrations of scientific principles. But the crew's most famous exploit involved a mysterious voice. One day the ground control team at JSC heard a female voice speaking to them from Skylab over the public air-to-ground channel. Houston hesitantly responded, and the conversation with the unidentified person went on for a few minutes. Finally, Garriott aboard Skylab burst out in laughter; he had brought along a tape recording of his wife's voice for this bit of levity.
While these activities illustrate that the second crew certainly liked to have fun, they should not overshadow the fact that Lousma, Garriott, and Bean more than met the expectations set forth for them at the beginning of the mission. While illness and repair efforts had put them well behind schedule for the first ten days, the astronauts soon caught up and in fact began to ask for additional tasks. Indeed, Bean asked Houston to lengthen the mission by at least a week to give the crew more opportunities for meaningful research. JSC declined this request, but the astronauts still proved able to supercede expectations by fifty percent during their mission.44
On September 25, 1973, after fifty-nine days in space, the crew boarded the command module and began their return to Earth. At 6:20 p.m. EDT, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 300 miles from San Diego. Picked up by the U.S. S. New Orleans, less than forty-five minutes later, the astronauts received accolades for their impressive accomplishments. Encouraged by their efforts, NASA officials eagerly began final preparations for the third, and last, Skylab mission.
A Series of Challenges
NASA officials had hoped to launch the third crew, consisting of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Carr, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Pogue, and civilian Edward Gibson, on November 11, 1973. Flaws in the launch vehicle temporarily postponed the mission, but on November 16 the Saturn IV blasted off, taking the crew to a rendezvous with Skylab. After initial difficulties, Carr managed to dock the two crafts. Under orders from NASA, the crew would wait until after a rest period to begin the activation of the laboratory.
To minimize the chances of having the crew suffer from space sickness, NASA medical personnel had ordered the astronauts to take anti-nausea pills. Unfortunately, this precaution did not help Pogue, who soon became quite ill. Gibson and Carr pondered what to do about this incident; if they reported the full extent of Pogue's distress (which included vomiting), NASA officials might alter the schedule of the mission. They chose, therefore, to reveal to Houston only that Pogue had experienced some nausea, but would withhold any mention of the vomiting.
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 231
This information would not remain a secret for long, however. The crew had forgotten that NASA officials would hear their deliberations; an onboard taping device had recorded their discussion word for word, and when doing a routine review of the conversations ground control soon discovered the coverup. Upset by the lack of candor displayed by the crew, NASA chief of astronauts Alan B. Shepard sternly warned them not to repeat their mistake. The crew admitted their error, and promised better behavior.45
Individuals at ground control soon found another reason to criticize the crew. After beginning the process of activating Skylab, during which they made a number of mistakes, the astronauts complained about the pace of the activities planned for them. It seemed to some at NASA, however, that the astronauts simply did not want to work as hard as they should. In defense of the crew, it should be noted that none of the astronauts had any space flight experience, thus making their adjustment to the mission more difficult. In addition, NASA officials had added a number of experiments to the mission in the period after the return of the second Skylab crew, which left little time for Pogue, Carr, and Gibson to learn the new procedures. Finally, the astronauts often could not find gear aboard Skylab where NASA officials had told them to expect to find it. In spite of these reasons, NASA flight planners continued to regard the third crew as not working up to maximum capacity.46
Matters came to a head on December 30. The crew initiated a frank discussion with capsule communicator Richard Truly, hoping to make NASA officials aware of their objections to the pace of activities set forth for them. Carr proved especially critical of the fact that NASA mission plans had allocated virtually no free time for the astronauts directly before and after the sleep periods. Truly attempted to mollify the astronauts by praising their efforts to date, but subtly suggested that NASA felt that the crew could work at a faster pace during the last half of the mission. After almost an hour of discussion (punctuated by a 20-minute break in the communications link) Truly ended the conversation by telling the crew that he was "very happy with the way you're doing business." Both sides seemed satisfied that they had clarified their respective points of view, and in the days to follow, ground control noted a new sense of responsiveness on the part of the astronauts.
This incident illustrates an inherent tension that ran through much of the history of the space program. Beginning with the confrontation between the original seven astronauts and the designers of the Mercury capsule over the inclusion of a window in the spacecraft, astronauts had repeatedly disagreed with positions taken by the scientific and engineering community regarding the subject of space flight. To the crew of the third mission, it seemed as though flight planners felt that every mission could be treated like a computer ready to be programmed. Pogue, Gibson, and Carr had asserted the astronauts' view that flexibility had to be built into a flight plan to provide for the diversity of each human put into outer space. In the wake of their conversation with Truly, the astronauts felt that they had regained their individuality.
Pleased with their new freedom, the astronauts threw themselves back into their work. Gibson in particular demonstrated almost a compulsion to record a solar flare in its entirety, spending extra time manning the solar observation controls. His diligence was rewarded on January 21, 1974, when he witnessed an impressive solar event.47 Coupled with the observations already done on the comet Kahoutek, the third crew could therefore take great pride in their contributions to the field of astronomy.
Not much time remained for the third crew in space. The astronauts did a number of medical experiments in the days after January 20 and conducted their final televised press conference, but they also devoted an increasing amount of time to preparations for the
232 THE HUMAN TOUCH: THE HISTORY OF THE SKYLAB PROGRAM
eventual moment of deactivation. They experienced some difficulty in storing in the command module all the things they wanted to take back to Earth, but using ingenuity and a certain amount of force they succeeded in packing their craft. On February 8 the crew boarded the command module, but before disengaging from Skylab they used the thrusters of the Apollo spacecraft to lift the laboratory to a higher orbit. After accomplishing that task, Pogue, Carr, and Gibson headed for earth.
One final bit of adventure awaited this crew. When Carr attempted to maneuver the command module prior to reentry, he found that neither the pitch nor the yaw controllers worked. Momentarily nonplussed, he nevertheless quickly shifted to another system and resumed the landing sequence. Later, the astronauts revealed they had accidentally activated a set of circuit breakers, thus neutralizing the thrusters in question. Carr's rapid response had saved the day. As on the second mission, the Navy used the U.S. S. New Orleans to conduct the recovery operation for the final crew, thus bringing to an end the 171 days, 13 hours, and 12 minutes of space flight connected with the Skylab program.
The Mission in Retrospect
The February 8 splashdown marked the official termination of the Skylab program. Scientists would need a great deal of time to fully analyze all of the data that the three crews had gathered, but enough work in this regard had already been done to allow observers to appraise the value of the project. Of the seven types of experiments the nine astronauts had conducted, they surpassed expectations in all except the area of engineering and technology investigations.48 Many scientists, hitherto skeptical of the allocation of financial resources to the Skylab program, spoke in glowing terms of its value. Leo Goldberg, Director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, voiced the views of his profession when he asserted that the astronauts, "by their rigorous preparation and training and enthusiastic devotion to the scientific goals of the mission.... have proven the value of men in space as true scientific partners in space science research."49
Goldberg's observation provides a fitting epitaph for Skylab (which would disintegrate upon reentering the Earth's atmosphere in 1979). While the program unquestionably yielded valuable scientific information, its greatest value came from its demonstration of the importance of the human element in the space program. As John Disher, NASA Director of Advanced Programs in the Office of Space Transportation Systems, would later note, Skylab "turned around many people who thought men in space were a hindrance rather than a help."50 Echoing this sentiment, Program Director William Schneider stated that Skylab had shown that, regarding the space program, "the limit is only our resolve, not the ability of men to work, and not our technical knowledge."
In his statement, Schneider succinctly captured the essence of a central debate regarding the American space program. Many individuals had argued that scientific inquiry in outer space did not depend on a human presence in that realm; in the words of Homer E. Newell in 1958, "all we need is a few thirty-pound satellites in Earth orbits [to] furnish enough observational data to keep our space scientists busy for decades to come ."51 But the majority of the personnel at NASA had from the beginning believed that "the ultimate objective [was] manned travel to and from the other planets," and often
FROM ENGINEERING SCIENCE TO BIG SCIENCE 233
|Ralph Geiger (left) and Ralph Murphy check out equipment in the waste management and food management compartments, respectively, in a full-scale mockup of Skylab at the NASA Marshall Spare Flight Center. The Workshop was developed by Marshall Center for three Earth orbit missions in 1972, the first lasting 28 days and the other two 56 days each. This view of the living area shows the "telephone booth" type doors used and the grid floor that separates the living area from the laboratory or working area making up the 10, 000 cubic feet of space inside. joined to the Workshop main body to form the "cluster' configuration was an airlock, multiple docking adapter Apollo Telescope Mount and the Apollo command/service module, All of the components were to be launched by a Saturn V with the exception of the command/service module, into an Earth orbit of about 250 statute miles. Several days later NASA Planned for the astronauts in the command/service module to be launched by a Saturn 1B rocket for rendezvous and docking with the multiple docking adapter. The cluster of spacecraft was used to conduct experiments, scientific and medical, and for Photographic studies of the Sun. (NASA photo no. 69-H-1645).|
focused planning efforts in this direction.52 The Skylab program, therefore, provided crucial and timely evidence to support the predominant NASA position.
Fittingly, the Collier Trophy Committee decided to present the 1973 trophy of their organization to the director of the Skylab program. Although the Committee noted the contributions of the over 26,000 individuals who had worked on the program, the members felt that William Schneider should receive the trophy on behalf of the three crews because of his leadership in the extraordinarily difficult venture. When Vice President Gerald Ford presented the award to Schneider on June 4, 1974, it provided an apt climax to an American space project which had proved without question the value of "the human touch" in space endeavors.