With the lunar program at an end, NASA looked for a way to keep man in space. The agency’s solution was a space station. It would be called Skylab. This would dwarf the Soviet Mir station in orbit at the time.
Skylab was constructed inside a S-IVB fuselage. That made it 22 feet in diameter and 118 feet long. The interior volume--living and working space--of Skylab was 10,000 cubic feet. That was a lot of space in which NASA could put a lot of equipment and experiments.
On May 14, 1973, the last SATURN V ever to fly lofted Skylab into orbit. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for the station. Vibrations ripped a micrometeoroid shield off and that took one of the solar panels with it. A piece of the shield wrapped around the other solar panel and prevented it from deploying. It seemed that before Skylab was ever inhabited, it was doomed.
But NASA never gave up that easily. In an intense 10 day period, the first crew—Chuck Conrad, Paul Weitz, and Joe Kerwin—trained to make repairs on the crippled station.
On May 25, 1973, a SATURN 1B lifted their Apollo 18 to a rendezvous with Skylab. Not only would they be the first Skylab crew, they would be the first (of many to come) space repair crew. The three made all the necessary fixes, including replacing the missing solar panel, and meteor shield in three EVAs of six hours and 20 minutes. They also installed a solar parasol to block the sun’s rays to keep the station cool.
This first crew spent 28 days on the space station.
The next crew flying Apollo 19—Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott—spent 59 days aboard the station. These three made the first observations of solar activity, which are impossible from Earth because of the atmosphere.
The third crew in Apollo 20—Gerald Carr, Bill Pogue, and Ed ‘Hoot’ Gibson—spent 84 days aboard. They made significant observations of the comet Kahoutek.
NASA originally planned to keep Skylab flying and manned for years. There were even preliminary plans to launch another Skylab module and connect the two to enlarge the station.
But once again, Congress, in its wisdom, saw fit not to continue funding the program. Skylab was left for its orbit to gradually deteriorate and reenter the atmosphere. It broke up on reentry and parts of it impacted on land—fortunately in uninhabited areas.