When the Skylab orbital workshop was damaged on launch, it lost its sunshield and started overheating. This is a story of Alyene Baker saving the station, and a story of never underestimating the importance of being able to improvise with a sewing machine.

Top image: Sewing a replacement sunshield for the damaged Skylab. Left to right: Dale Gentry, Elizabeth Gauldin, Alyene Baker, and James H. Barnet Jr. Credit: NASA

The Skylab orbital workshop was damaged during its uncrewed launch on May 14th, 1973. The lost micrometeorite shield also provided thermal protection: without it, the workshop was overheating. Before astronauts could live on the station, they needed to improvise a replacement.

Workers at the GE Building folding the sunshade. Left to right: Gerry E. Wood (wearing glasses), Glenn Hewitt, Pat Morrow, and Fred Le Donne. Image credit: NASA


The unexpected damage meant that Alyene Baker spent May 18, 1973 being assisted by a mix of GE and Johnson Space Center employees creating a replacement. In the GE building across the street from the Johnson Space Center, Baker sewed aluminum Mylar, rip-stop laminated nylon, and a bottom layer of thin nylon into a three-layered sunshield using a double-needle sewing machine.

The crew of Skylab 2 could easily identify the missing micrometeoroid shield visible and partially deployed solar array to the orbital workshop during their approach on May 25, 1973. Image credit: NASA


The replacement sunshield was folded and sent into orbit with the Skylab 2 crew. Astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., Joseph P. Kerwin, and Paul J. Weitz were originally scheduled to launch on May 15th, but were delayed until May 25th so they had the opportunity to practice repair techniques.

Astronaut Russell Schweickart developing a procedure to replace the damaged thermal protection cover. Image credit: NASA


Once the crew arrived at the station and took a break to eat, the highest-priority repair was to try and release a jammed solar panel to get the station back up to full power. Weitz used a 10-foot hooked pole to jab and tug at the array, while Kerwin held him steady. The efforts burned through a significant amount of Skylab's nitrogen manoeuvring fuel, and was totally futile.

Artist's concept of Conrad pushing up on the Beam Erection Tether in an attempt to free the stuck solar array. Image credit: NASA/Paul Fjeld


The next attempt was nearly two weeks later, when Conrad and Kerwin went on another EVA. This time they succeeded but with a jolt that flung them off the station, dangling at the ends of their safety tethers.

The bright orange replacement thermal shield was readily apparently to the departing crew on June 22, 1973. Image credit: NASA


After failing to repair the solar array on the day of their arrival, the astronauts tried to dock their craft to Skylab. The capture latches failed not once, not twice, but eight times when the frustrated astronauts finally partially disassembled the docking probe. Having finally gained entrance to the station, the astronauts stuck the improvised collapsible parasol through a smaller scientific airlock as a replacement sunshield. It deployed properly, fixing the problem and temperatures within the station were soon far more mangable.

The crew of Skylab 2 reflected on their repair job of rigging the orange parasol solar shield to act as a micrometeoroid and thermal shield when departing the orbital workshop on June 22, 1973. Image credit: NASA


The improvised sunshield replacement sewn by Baker and deployed by the crew of Skylab 2 was effective, stabilizing temperatures within the orbital workshop. It also added a bit of flare to the station, the wrinkly orange patch on the tin can station evoking a feeling of innovation and adaptation in keeping with the true spirit of space exploration.

Update: One of Baker's sons, Michael, has joined us in the comments with a bit more context, and a lovely reader has tracked down additional stories and photographs contributed by another of her sons, Herb.