Was NASA Serious about Trying to Rescue Skylab?


Skylab in orbit, 1973-1974.

Skylab in orbit, 1973-1974.

On the May 19, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live, the path-breaking comedy program that everyone who was anyone watched, John Belushi played a science commentator for “Weekend Update,” its faux news segment. Belushi began with a staid report on NASA’s announcement of the forthcoming uncontrolled reentry of Skylab, the orbital workshop launched by NASA into Earth orbit in 1973, but quickly became unhinged, smashing to bits a model of the spacecraft on a globe and talking about how the largest segment would be no heavier than about 5,000 pounds, “landing right on the head of poor little Johnny Belushi as he hides, scared, in his basement with an Army helmet on his head!”

A brilliant satire on the repercussions of the uncontrolled reentry of the first U.S. space station, this performance reflected the apprehension felt by many about its demise on July 11, 1979, when it broke up and landed throughout the Pacific, including a few pieces in Australia. It also foreshadowed a negative perspective on NASA that would remain with the space agency thereafter and prompt its officials to ensure that such an incident never occurred again.

The Skylab reentry became the butt of jokes throughout the world, and not a little ingenuity in turning the reentry into an economic boon. One company marketed the “Skylab Survival Kit,” consisting of a hard hat. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a political cartoon that offered a multiple choice test asking readers to “pick the best example of good ol’ American know-how; Three Mile Island, DC-10, Skylab, Pinto, mass transit.” All of these items, of course, represented fundamental problems with American technology and management. Skylab became representative of American failure, and NASA took criticism about the propriety of spaceflight if people were likely to be killed by falling objects.

Fortunately, Skylab’s return to Earth proved less catastrophic than predicted by virtually everyone, thanks to maneuvers by NASA to help the spacecraft reenter the atmosphere over relatively uninhabited portions of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this effort, the debris dispersion stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia. In reality, while NASA took sufficient precautions so that no one was injured, its leaders had learned that the agency could never again allow a situation in which large chunks of orbital debris had a chance of reaching the Earth’s surface. It was an inauspicious ending to the first American space station, not one that its originators had envisioned. And it portends important lessons for the future when considering the ultimate fate of the International Space Station (ISS) currently intended to orbit until at least 2020.

Might it have turned out differently? Over the years, there has been considerable debate over how serious NASA might or might not have been about preventing the Skylab orbital workshop from reentering the atmosphere. The prospect of saving the $14 billion (in fiscal year (FY) 2013 dollars) workshop would have seemed appealing, given the knowledge that NASA could never launch another module of that size after the retirement of the Saturn V following the 1973 launch of the Skylab workshop. It has been no secret that NASA engineers undertook studies about the potential of flying the Space Shuttle to Skylab and reboosting and reoccupying the workshop.

How serious NASA was in those studies has been the subject of conjecture and myth since then. Most commentators on the subject note that the issue was moot because developmental problems with the Space Shuttle and unanticipated solar events caused Skylab to come crashing back to Earth before the shuttle was ready for flight.

In reality, NASA officials pursued the potential of Skylab reboost and reoccupation aggressively, expending more than $100 million (in FY 2013 adjusted dollars) on the proposed rescue mission. Not only did NASA develop shuttle scenarios to rescue Skylab but it also worked on a robotic reboost capability that went far in the mission planning process.

So what was “the rest of the story” of Skylab, the failed rescue attempt that might have altered fundamentally the trajectory of the space program in the 1980s and 1990s had it been successful? That is a story that I would like to pursue at some time. Stay tuned.

What do you Think? Was NASA serious about trying to rescue Skylab?  I would welcome your thoughts on this.

This entry was posted in History, International Space Station, Politics, Science, Space, Space Shuttle and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Was NASA Serious about Trying to Rescue Skylab?

  1. jim oberg says:

    Nice recap of my 1992 article, Roger. Here’s the footnote: http://www.astronautix.com/articles/skyyfate.htm

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    • launiusr says:

      Thanks for sharing the piece. I wasn’t aware of it.

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      • OM Frack Tuu says:

        …Mark Wade’s site is dangerous, in that those who haven’t been an avid follower – and on a couple of occasions actually submitted corrections – face the same trap that Eric Jones’ Apollo Lunar Surface Journals present: once you start reading, you can’t stop :).

        …That being plugged, two inputs I haven’t seen any comments on have been from either Fred Haise or Jack Lousma regarding just how much training – especially where RMS/Canadarm sim training was concerned – did they go through for their cancelled STS-2(A) mission. Some of the regulars on both sci.space.history and .shuttle had tried to contact both Haise and Lousma for more info, but had never received any replies, and the last time I pinged Mark on this one – frack, was that really almost ten years ago? – he hadn’t found any more info, which is reflected in the related articles.

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  2. Robert Law says:

    I think NASA was serius about trying to save Skylab 40 years on I find Skylab still amazing if they had launched Skylab B as NASA wanted in the mid to late 70s we could have had the biases of the ISS almost 30 years before and at a fraction of the cost ! This is what interests me about SLS as it opens the door to a future Skylab type space station post ISS

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  3. Roger:

    I think some within NASA (mainly MSFC) were serious about rescuing it; others (JSC) saw it as a possible barrier to a revolutionary new, JSC-managed, Shuttle-assembled Space Station. For the latter group, AAP/Skylab had since about 1969 been about creating a dead-end down which MSFC could be directed. They weren’t about to support Skylab reuse.

    MSFC, for its part, foresaw a more evolutionary future for NASA, one in which pre-existing resources would be adapted to play important roles. Turns out MSFC was for the most part right about NASA’s future, and the destruction of Skylab removed an important element of NASA’s evolutionary potential.

    I wrote a piece about this on my Beyond Apollo blog over at WIRED: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/06/evolution-vs-revolution-the-1970s-battle-for-nasas-future-1978/

    David

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  4. As Jim Oberg knows, I was in flight control at JSC at the time, assigned both to the Skylab reboost effort (I was assigned to the OMV (orbital maneuvering vehicle, the ‘robot’ you refer to) ); and then when it was clear we could not make the Skylab reboost mission work, even if it were on just the second shuttle program flight, I pestered the Skylab flight director to assign me as a Skylab Entry flight controller, which I was for its last seven months, right down to “splatdown”, as our T-shirts said. The effort to re-boost Skylab was very, very real; and being at JSC, I did not detect any lack of seriousness in the reboost effort, at all; we sure were working long enough hours on it.

    The reboost effort was considered an extreme challenge, and was ‘scheduled’ for STS-2, with a newly-developed OMV and RMS no less (not to mention the shuttle system itself!). I remember my more experienced mentors at the time thinking we really couldn’t pull it off (a common feeling on difficult, hurry-up, one-of-a-kind missions, even those missions like -51A where we in the end were able to pull things off). As it was, two things conspired against us: the slip in the shuttle schedule, so that STS-1 didn’t even happen until 1981; and, the increase in solar activity, which created more atmospheric drag and was definitely going to bring Skylab down in 1979.

    As for me, I never had such good training before or since. Being on a tiger team trying to develop and almost impossible mission with untested vehicles and procedures was one; but following that up by actually being on console as a Skylab systems flight controller, controlling (or at times, trying to control), a unmanned-manned space station that had so many brokes in it the books on the vehicle were (almost) worthless, was unprecedented in its learning potential.

    My personally favorite part: As Skylab’s orbit lowered in 1979, it got to the point where we needed to swap out battery power systems not only during the day shift, but in the middle of the AM as well. There was no money in the budget to bring in the entire flight control team – all five of us – in the AM to do the battery swap outs, so the flight director asked for a volunteer. My three electrical system compatriots – all married men with families – took a step back; 23 year old single guy that I was, I waved my hand energetically to volunteer. That’s how it came about that, every night for weeks (after having done a normal day shift), I would come into the Mission Control Center, alone, sometime between 1 am and 4 am each night; send the commands to power on the Skylab’s comm systems; do a quick assessment of the overall health of the bird, including deciding which battery modules to swap; send those commands; make sure everything was ok, and then send the command to turn off the transmitter and go home. To my knowledge I’m the only individual who, totally by himself, controlled a space station from a mission control center.

    Dave Huntsman

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    • launiusr says:

      This is a great set of recollections. Thanks so much for sharing them.

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      • Fascinating stuff, Mr. Huntsman. One question which has vexxed me; I have JSC-generated Shuttle mission manifests for the period of the reboost effort, and none show anything that has to do with Skylab. You may have solved my conundrum, however; most of the manifests start with the seventh mission of the STS, because the first six missions were going to be OFT missions (test flights). (As you know, we flew four of those.) If you don’t mind, please let me confirm: you are saying that the Skylab rescue mission – launch of the teleoperated booster, basically – was to have occurred on the second OFT. That is, the second test flight.

        I still think the Skylab rescue effort wasn’t supported at higher levels in JSC, for the reasons I have given. I have spoken with many NASA senior managers (Loftus, Covington, others) over the years who have told me that JSC had no interest in saving Skylab and in fact saw it as a possible source of interference with JSC station plans (at the time, the Space Operations Center).

        David S. F. Portree

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  5. Archibald says:

    This topic has been discussed many times at nasaspaceflight.com forum. There is still a huge amount of “resent” and miscomprehension about the non rescue of Skylab. My question will be: did Martin Marietta ever considered launching the reboost module on an ELV and proceed with an automated docking ?

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  6. I just read Compton & Benson’s “Living and Working in Space: The NASA History of Skylab” and am now reading “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” by Hitt, Garriott and Kerwin. It sure seemed like a lot of people at NASA wanted to be able to return to Skylab with the Shuttle but the continued delays of the shuttle program and the higher than expected solar activity and the resulting expansion of our atmosphere ended those desires. According to these sources the Skylab Program was over after the last crew closed out the station in early 1974. So the question was can we return to control the reentry of Skylab. The sad aspect is reading about how we had a second, fully functional Skylab that could have been used but funding was cut and it was set aside to collect dust before finally being shipped off to the National Air & Space Museum in 1976. It would have been nice to pay for one more Saturn V launch and 3 more Saturn IB launches rather than having left over, paid for hardware that became museum pieces. Oh well, such is a space program in a democracy. If we could just figure out how to sell the space program as a “defense program” we will finally get the steady funding we need to get out of LEO.

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  7. If you don’t mind, please let me confirm: you are saying that the Skylab rescue mission – launch of the teleoperated booster, basically – was to have occurred on the second OFT. That is, the second test flight.

    David, yes, the STS-2/OFT-2 flight was what we were working to for the Skylab reboost effort for the (relatively) brief time we were seriously working on it.

    Dave Huntsman

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    • Thank you for that confirmation. A follow-up question, if you don’t mind: did it strike you as odd at that time to be planning a fairly sophisticated (seems to me, anyway) rendezvous and teleops mission for what was meant to be the Shuttle’s second test flight? (Seems especially ambitious given that the flown STS-2 was cut short.)

      David

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      • As I previously mentioned, while for that short period of time people were diligently working the reboost mission, the more experienced folks felt it probably couldn’t be done by STS-2; the entire shuttle system was too new, prox ops with the orbiter was untried, the RMS would have been untried, the OMV untried, etc. etc. I personally thought it was fun while it lasted….but I was only 24 at the time, naive and with limited experience, having only worked one other mission, the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. But one has to wonder whether, if the shuttle schedule and solar activity hadn’t conveniently made the decision for us, whether the powers-that-be would have truly gone full-bore and launched the mission to save Skylab, given the very real risks to the crew and the new system of trying to accomplish so much so fast.

        Dave Huntsman

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      • Dave – sorry I didn’t pick up on that earlier. I think the answer is no, they didn’t really want to save it, for the reasons I’ve given. I wonder whether the Shuttle optimism level was high enough at that time – pre-Challenger – that folks weren’t too worried about the risks (because they didn’t see them yet, not because they were reckless). It seemed to me that, when NASA dropped the fifth and sixth OFTs, they displayed a lot of confidence in the STS.

        David

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