Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

Today is the 40th anniversary of the launch of America's first space station, Skylab. Skylab wasn't the first space station ever (that honor goes to the Soviet's Salyut 1), but like many American cars of that same era, it was huge and comfortable in a way not seen since.

Skylab really was impressively sized; sure, many space stations since Skylab, like Mir or the ISS, have grown much bigger than Skylab, but those are assemblages of modules. Skylab was one massive unit, made from the upper stage of a Saturn V rocket, and enclosing 11,290 feet of habitable volume. Compare that to the largest single module on the ISS, Japan's Kibo Experiment Module, which encloses about 5977 cubic feet, is right about half of Skylab. Skylab was big.

And not just big; Skylab used all that space in a way never repeated in all of the, let's see, eight other stations that followed it. Where every other space station module ever built is laid out internally like, say, a trailer, longways, with a floor and a ceiling running longways down the pressurized cylinder, Skylab was arranged more like a skyscraper.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

That means vertically, with actual "decks" or floors of open metal framework set into it. There were two main habitable floors, with an additional module for the solar telescope array. The "upper" main module floor had so much room that it was used for indoor testing of a prototype NASA spacewalking mobility backpack. There's never been anything quite like it since.

Of course, like a number of other things built in the Malaise Era, Skylab was broken on delivery. During the launch, Skylab had a micrometeorite shield ripped off, which took one of Skylab's solar arrays with it, and prevented its other solar wing from deploying. This left the station vulnerable to intense heating from the sun and without power. Hot, dark, and useless.

It also gave NASA the opportunity for one of the first large-scale space station repair missions, where the trapped solar array was freed, and a crude-but-effective parasol was erected over the side of the module to keep from it becoming a massive orbiting astronaut-oven. The station was saved, and went on to house four record-setting crews.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

Skylab could also be considered the largest single recycling project ever, as the station itself was made from the upper stage of a Saturn V rocket that was left over from the later cancelled moon missions. Werner Von Braun had the original idea to re-use a rocket stage as a space station, but his original plan was that it would be a "wet" workshop. That means the interior of the space station would have been filled with rocket fuel or oxidizer, and then once that fuel was expended, the remaining vapors and whatnot would be outgassed into space, and the now-empty volume would be pressurized with breathable air.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

A great idea, though in practice Skylab didn't have to flood the living quarters with fuel since the lower stages were powerful enough to get it to the desired orbit. And I bet it would have made any hoagies or whatever left out on counters taste sort of funny.

Now for the part I teased you with in the headline. This was NASA's first truly long-duration vessel, and as such for the first time they actually had to consider what the interior living environment would be like. To help them tackle this tricky design challenge, they enlisted the help of Studebaker Avanti-designer and all-round industrial design hero Raymond Loewy.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

Loewy was retained by NASA as a Habitability Consultant, and as such Loewy and his team created a vast amount of mockups, diagrams, drawings, and suggestions of how best to live and work in space. In Loewy's book Industrial Design, Loewy outlines the three main criteria he was able to get NASA to agree to. Well, four, if you count his assistance in making sure there was a good-sized porthole on the station. Here's his three main contributions:

• Each astronaut should be allowed eight hours of solitude daily. (this concept led to the first private rooms in a spacecraft)

• Astronauts would be secured for meals facing each other, in a triangular layout. There were three crew members, and Loewy's layout prevented any hierarchal table-seating issues that could cause tension.

• Partitions would be smooth and flush to facilitate cleanup after the inevitable bouts of space sickness.

These three criteria, so common-sense seeming to our eyes now, nevertheless constituted an incredible revolution in space travel. None of these seemingly-simple concepts have ever really been applied to space travel prior to Skylab. Plus, Skylab had the first in-space shower, which I attribute to Loewy being such a wildly dapper man.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

Loewy's work on Skylab's interior ended up in what still feels like the most sci-fi of space station interiors ever. The Soviet/Russian space station lineage, which is really the one that eventually grew into the ISS, just never managed to have interiors that felt like something more than an orbital research facility. As much as I love those stations, their interiors always end up looking like the interior of a zero-G electronics surplus store.

The ISS interior looks like what it is, where scientists do important work. Skylab still felt like people of tomorrow living in space. I think this is because Skylab was the only time a truly outside designer was called in to help. Raymond Loewy, as we know from his automotive work, understood the emotional, gut-level feeling good design must give beyond the strictly practical matters. That's why when we look at the eating-station he designed, for example, even with the filter of ultra-low-weight construction and innumerable safety protocols, we still get a sense of the excitement of living in space. The more modern interiors, partially designed by psychologists with the goals of keeping astronauts from getting SPACE MADNESS and murdering everyone, just don't capture that feeling as well.

Why Skylab Was America's First And Best Home In Space

Skylab's also notable for being host to the first in-space prank to involve two separate crews, one the pranker and one the prankee. When the Skylab 3 crew left, they took three old flight suits, stuffed them with garbage, and made "heads" from paper bags and left them for the next crew to encounter. As it says on the BlogAboutNothingInParticular's excellent Skylab article:

Finally, the time came to open the hatch. They drifted into Skylab and discovered that the space station was already occupied by three silent crew members. The Skylab 3 crew had left a surprise for them by stuffing three brown flight suits, attaching some stuffed paper bags for heads and leaving them on Skylab’s lower deck. The crew was very busy at first, so they couldn’t find the time to dismantle and put away the dummies at first. Gibson commented, “I felt them staring at me, inspecting everything I did, but not lifting a hand to help. Eerie.”

Skylab's re-entry into the atmosphere in July of 1979 was really a huge loss. The plan was to keep it in orbit until the Space Shuttle was ready, when a reboost mission could be undertaken to salvage and re-fit the station. The station never really lived to its full potential. For example, it had two docking ports, and those could have been used for the sort of automated resupply missions like the Soviets developed for their Salyut 6 station, which allowed for potentially continuous, uninterrupted habitation.

Sadly, unanticipated solar activity increased the outer-atmospheric drag on the station, and she plummeted to earth, causing lots of silly Skylab crash parties and incredible mattress sales in her wake.

So, happy anniversary, Skylab. There'll never be another space station like you.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Astronautica, NASA, A Blog About Nothing In Particular)