Skylab: Why don't we live in space yet?

Commander Pete Conrad in zero gravity on Skylab Commander Charles 'Pete' Conrad undergoes a dental examination in zero gravity on Skylab

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The first US space station, Skylab, was launched forty years ago with a simple but far-reaching brief: expand man's knowledge of the Sun and prove that humans can live and work in space for extended periods. Three separate crews successfully achieved that, so why aren't more of us living in space yet?

On May 14th 1973 NASA launched the Skylab space station into orbit. After a decade defined by lunar exploration and the Apollo programme, space travel was moving into a new age, one of space stations.

"Skylab will represent a milestone of paramount importance in the American space programme," wrote Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, Associate Director of Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Leland F. Belew, Manager of the Skylab programme, in 1973.

A brief history of space exploration

Sputnik 1
  • 1957 - The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, is successfully launched into space by the USSR
  • 1961 - Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space
  • 1961 - JFK declares US objective to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade
  • 1968 - Apollo 8 is the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon
  • 1969 - Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon
  • 1973 - Skylab, the first US space station is launched
  • 1981 - The shuttle era launches with the successful maiden flight of Columbia
  • 2000 - A US and Russian crew starts living aboard the International Space Station

"It may turn out to be the beginning of Man's permanent foothold and settlement in space."

Ambitious project

Weighing 77.5 tonnes, Skylab was the largest craft yet to be launched into space. It needed to be, to house the well-equipped laboratories and living quarters for three astronauts, suitable for extended periods of time.

David S. Akens, a member of NASA's historical staff, stated at the time that "Skylab is the most ambitious project in space to date".

11 days later, the first crew left Earth, heading for Skylab. They were led by Commander Charles 'Pete' Conrad, a veteran of three previous space missions.

The crew immediately had difficulties to contend with. During the space station's lift-off, a crucial meteoroid shield had been ripped off, along with a solar panel. Temperatures inside the Skylab workshop, which was facing the Sun, had reached a sweltering 52°C.

The crew managed to deploy a parasol sunshade, which lowered temperatures to 24°C. By June 4th, 10 days after they had arrived, the workshop was fully operational.

Collectively, three separate Skylab crews spent 171 days in space - each new crew breaking the previous crew's spaceflight duration record.

It was a remarkable achievement. NASA had begun operations less than 15 years previously, and the first rudimentary designs of Skylab had been sketched out in 1966.

Skylab space station concept drawing Skylab concept drawing from August 19th 1966
Integrated Space Plan

Optimism at NASA continued well into the 1980s, with the launch of the space shuttle. Designed to be reusable, the shuttle could transport crew to any orbiting space station and back again.

In 1989, a US aerospace company, Rockwell International, mapped out where all this would lead. The Rockwell Integrated Space Plan - an immensely detailed vision of humanity's future in space - began with the shuttle programme, and outlined the next 120 years of human space flight.

According to the Integrated Space Plan, an International Lunar Base would be established by 2009. By 2029, mankind was expected to have engineered an operational Mars base.

And around 2100, large-scale human expansion into the cosmos would begin.

Dara O'Briain discusses the Rockwell Integrated Space Plan on BBC2's Science Club.

Slow progress

In reality, the pace of progress has been somewhat slower.

In its 1960s heyday, NASA's budget was more than 4% of the total US federal budget. In 2013, this figure stands at less than 0.5%. The budget for Roskosmos, Russia's space agency, is much smaller still, much reduced from the sums spent at the height of the Cold War, in real terms.

Jon Agar is a Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at UCL and editor of the British Journal for the History of Science.

"The Cold War was a very important context for space exploration. When Sputnik was launched in 1957, it was seen as much as a dramatic display of Soviet military capabilities as achieving the first artificial satellite.

The Cold War

Berlin Wall

"Until very recently it has only been governments that have aimed and planned to go into space. The pace [of space exploration progress] decreased after the 1960s for two reasons. Partly the Cold War stagnated to some degree but more importantly the symbolic battle had been won with Apollo."

The end of the Cold War has been significant in the relative lack of progress in manned space flights, he suggests. Even by the 1970s, the Soviet Union was approaching economic stasis. The US had already beaten them to the moon. The race was over and the political will to fund the runners was waning.

"Large-scale, very expensive space activities such as human missions have been hard to justify," Agar explains, "and the payback from international collaborations, even the International Space Station, is not large enough to encourage progress."

However, NASA has not abandoned plans for human settlement in space.

In 2003, former NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin, told Congress that "the single overarching goal of human space flight is the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond."

Seven years later, Barack Obama committed to an additional $6 billion in funding for NASA, with a clearly stated goal.

"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

Ben Ford holding model rocket

Launch a rocket with physicist Ben Ford

But the Skylab experience remains a pertinent example of the difficulties in achieving those goals. In 1979, just six years after launch, the space station was allowed to fall to Earth. Its orbit had decayed faster than anticipated, and the shuttle missions needed to nudge it into a higher orbit were delayed by engineering complexity and cost.

The space station broke up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, scattering debris across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.

Whether modern governments will be able to overcome the challenges ahead, and have the willpower to stick to their ambitious plans, without the impetus of the Cold War, remains to be seen.

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