Why did Skylab die?

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Skylab came up in conversation the other day. And then I ran into Amy Shira Teitel’s video. So, naturally, a quick blog post.

Skylab was brought down, ultimately, by interaction with the upper reaches of the atmosphere, which was in turn made more likely by solar activity. But, both the nature and extent of solar activity of this type, and its effects on the atmosphere, were not understood when Skylab was being designed and deployed. Indeed, understanding this set of phenomena was a contribution made by Skylab science. Had Skylab been launched after, rather than before, this was better understood, it may have been put into higher orbit, or it may have been equipped with boosters (like the International Space Station is) to periodically raise the orbit.

Anyway, eventually, the orbiting research lab came down, and you may (or may not) remember all the press, the jokes, the anxiety, the fun…

Anyway, Amy has this piece on what NASA did and didn’t do about Skylab’s demise.

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5 thoughts on “Why did Skylab die?

  1. That’s the “how”, but as the “why”, I’ve always wondered if Skylab “got in the way” of the ISS development, just as the Saturn V “got in the way” of the Space Shuttle development. (Whoops! Dropped my smartphone and broke it! Now I’ll just have to buy another, ..um, new model. With those nifty whiz-bang features… mine… didn’t… have. Heh, heh.)

    After all, the Saturn V builder documentation “kinda got lost” while being transported from one NASA storage facility to another. (Whoops! … Just have to, ..um, build a new… something. Heh, heh.)

  2. Didn’t know there was almost a rescue mission but makes sense. Good article thanks Greg Laden.

    Incidentally, Western Australia actually sent NASA a fine for littering because of with Skylabs remnants crashing down there if memory serves!

  3. @1. Brainstorms : I really don’t think so because the International Space Station came a lot afterwards. Back around that time Russia was doing a lot with space stations; – several Salyuts and later Mir. There was some talk a fair while after Skylabs demise of a USA “space station to be named “Freedom” or something but it never eventuated or ended up morphing into the International Space Station when the Berlin wall came down and Cold War ended in the early 1990’s.

    Oh & a bit of wiki checking shows my memory ain’t wrong least not on that – see :

    http://www.skymania.com/wp/2009/07/nasas-litter-bill-paid-30-years-on.html/691/

    The night-time re-entry scattered fragments over western Australia. Parts fell on Esperance, a small town 360 miles east of Perth.

    Town officials decided to fine NASA for dropping litter – and sent them a bill for the equivalent of 400 US dollars to cover the cost of the clean-up.

    Thirty years later a radio campaign raised the money for NASA to pay – wonder if there any late fees added too!?

  4. Yes, it did come a lot later, but I’m also aware of the VERY long lead times NASA takes to actually put something in orbit — years, and in some cases decade+.

    Skylab only got up as quickly as it did because they designed it around a spare Saturn IV booster stage. (Apollos 18-20 were planned and the rockets for 18 & 19 were built but eventually ended up only “flying to the museums”.)

    But that “quick & dirty” solution undoubtedl also introduced a number of compromises that NASA didn’t want to live with. And as I pointed out above, a “proper” space station would take a decade+ to plan, design, line up contractors, etc.

    First, though, was the need to preclude those pesky responses from Congress along the lines of “No, you cannot have the money, NASA, because you already have a space station…”

  5. Long ago, one of the Apollo managing engineers, Don Sullivan, told me about the Skylab mess. Budgets were cut and management was politicized to the extent that basic physics and engineering requirements were not understood. Lots of senior talent fled the agency, Don included.. He recounted a high level meeting where upper management was essentially saying ‘screw this gravity stuff, just figure out a way to save Skylab’. Too late, of course.

    Don was a very, very smart guy, and very much old school. He was a materials engineer and started out in chaff after WWII and eventually was the managing engineer of the LM.

    He was great fun to talk to. I could ask about the Snark or the Dyna-Soar (models I built as a kid) and he would know someone who worked on it, and all sorts of interesting design or operational details. A relatively small community of engineers worked on these projects.

    Don managed lots of contracts. This really impressed me: if a proposal was submitted without a reasonable amount of staff training time, he would reject it. Technical disciplines age quickly, and he felt it was important to proactively keep staff current- important enough to pay for it. I wonder how that goes these days?

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