It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman says the 50th anniversary of the Skylab space station demonstrates how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It wasn’t the world’s first space station. The Soviet Union won that laurel when it successfully launched Salyut 1 on April 19, 1971, to host a single 24-day mission. The three-man crew died of asphyxiation on their return trip to Earth.
Skylab’s launch on May 14, 1973, was not without drama. A meteoroid shield vibrated loose on takeoff, ripping away one of the station’s two main solar panels.
But workarounds were soon identified, and its astronauts trained in how to “make do”, which was the underlying point of the Skylab experiment.
“The Mercury and Gemini missions proved humans could survive in space. Skylab was designed to test how people could actually live in space,” says Gorman.
“Nobody knew how to go about daily activities, normal things like eating, cleaning yourself and working – how to do those in microgravity? These were the big debates of the time.”
It was also the first – and last – expression of “Space Race orbital lifestyle ideals.”
It was, says Gorman, “your grandparents’ idea of a space station”
Skylab was a modified Saturn 5 rocket shell. This was the era of the Apollo Application, a program designed to use all the tech developed for the Project Apollo moon missions, and the idea of habitability revolved around the need to keep military officers comfortable.
“They had a special wardroom with a dining table,” says Gorman. “And Skylab was the height of luxury in space living with great food like prime rib and Lobster Newburg.”
It had an enclosed shower pod with a traditional shower head. And individual sleep compartments.
“Skylab is an inflection point,” says Gorman. “Later, with the International Space Station, they’re no longer as interested in astronaut comfort or morale. That’s a secondary consideration.”
Skylab was built vertically, with a series of “decks” devoted to separate functions. The ISS, however, is horizontal – everything is connected via a crawlway.
“When we look at Skylab, they tried to separate work and personal spaces as we do on the ground,” says Gorman. “In the ISS, everything’s all mixed up together. They sleep where they work. They eat where they work”.
But behind Skylab’s lobster menu was a much less pleasant task.
The astronauts had to collect, measure, weigh and test all their bodily waste.
“They hated it,” Gorman says. “No astronaut since has ever been willing to undertake that degree of scientific rigour. But it changed how we understood space. We learnt that we lose bone density in microgravity and that calcium retention is a serious problem. That life in space isn’t easy.”
But the 1970s astronaut experience is once again attracting research attention.
They were highly qualified, daring explorers. And they struggled with the transition to becoming closely surveilled orbital lab technicians.
With the advent of space tourism, human comfort is suddenly relevant again.
The International Space Station Archaeological Project has been studying human emotional, social and physical needs and behaviours in orbit to advise on future space station and spacecraft design.
“Lesson one is definitely about windows,” says Gorman. “The ISS was built with the possibility of having tourists onboard. So they made a big deal about having big windows.”
Skylab had only a few small portholes as its engineers feared they would reduce the station’s structural strength.
“But the astronauts really, really wanted to be able to look outside,” she says. “And another issue aboard Skylab was the lack of colour. Everything was a monotone. The crew expressed a longing for a mix of colours. They needed more visual variety for their mental wellbeing.”
And then there was Skylab’s famous “strike”.
The legend goes that the Skylab 4 crew “mutinied” and turned off the station’s radio link with NASA in a dispute over “micromanagement” and working hours.
“People are once again starting to look at labour practices in space,” says Gorman. “With the expectation that there will be a lot more people up there, where do we draw the line between expecting sacrifice from the chosen few and how long a working day a porter on a space hotel should endure?”
“Skylab was the height of luxury in space living with great food like prime rib and Lobster Newburg.”Professor Alice Gorman
Such human debates are Skylab’s greatest legacy, says Gorman.
“I love Skylab because it was about everyday life,” she says. “I’m not a huge fan of all the heroics that goes on in space. But I really like the idea that these astronauts were trying to figure out how to live relatively efficient and harmonious lives. Just trying to get on with it.”
No anniversary of Skylab is complete without a reminder of how the about 80-tonne behemoth came down. NASA hoped it would splash into the Indian Ocean, and most of it did, between 10 and 14 July, 1979. It had been “manned” for 171 days.
As it turned out, it fell to earth on 11 July Eastern Australian time, with a large chunk landing in uninhabited plains in south-west WA, much to the delight of the locals. The local government council sent NASA a bill for $400 for the clean-up.
There is now a Skylab museum at Baladonia.