The Apollo Space Program: Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz

The Apollo Space Program: Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz
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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.

Skylab launch on last SATURN V

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.

The crippled space 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.

Skylab renewed

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.

Skylab solar image

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.

Skylab’s Kahoutek images

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.

The Final Chapter

The last Apollo and SATURN 1B

The end of Skylab seemed to be the end of Apollo, but we had entered the era of ‘Glasnost.’ The U.S. and the Soviets had decided if they couldn’t cooperate on Earth, perhaps they could in space. A joint Apollo/Soyuz mission was developed. The two totally dissimilar craft would connect up in orbit.

On July 15, 1975, Apollo 21, the final Apollo flight, lifted off from Pad 39B on the last SATURN 1B ever to fly. Flying this farewell mission were Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton. In the Soyuz were Alexei Leonov and Nikolai Rukivishnikov. The two craft docked on July 17.

Soyuz liftoff

Stafford and Leonov swapped positions in their respective craft for a time, and both crews performed experiments together and ate together.

Soyuz from Apollo 21

After 44 hours, the two craft separated. There was another brief docking, then the two pulled away for good. The soviets remained in orbit for five more days, the Americans for nine. Then Apollo reentered for the final time. Its time in history was at an end.

Apollo with docking adapter

In that history, 51 astronauts flew in the craft. Three died on the pad. Nine circumnavigated the moon and 12 walked on the lunar surface. Nine spent a total of 121 days in space on a space station. Three met up with a Soviet space craft to prove two nations that couldn’t get along on Earth could do so in space.

It was a glorious legacy.



All Apollo photos: NASA

All skylab photos: NASA

This post is part of the series: The Apollo Program

President John Kennedy gave this country the goal of sending a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. The result was the Apollo program, which created a new series of spacecraft, launch vehicles, and even ground support equipment.

  1. The Apollo Program–Developing a Way to the Moon
  2. The Apollo Program - Chariots for Apollo, Part I
  3. The Apollo Program - Chariots for Apollo, Part II
  4. The Apollo Program–The Lunar Missions
  5. The Apollo Program–The Post Lunar Missions