This Sketch Captured the Key Aspects of Skylab 2,460 Days Before it Launched

August 19, 1966: The details may be lacking, but all the major components of this concept sketch made it into the creation of Skylab, NASA’s first space station.


1966: Concept sketch of Skylab. Image Credit: NASA/George E. Mueller

The sketch was created by NASA’s associate administrator for Manned Space Flight, George E. Mueller, during a meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center. All the station’s major elements are in the sketch, even though the technical details certainly needed some fleshing out before it launched. Even in this early sketch, it was clear NASA intended to reuse as much technology from the Apollo programs as possible to reduce development cost.

1972: Cutaway illustration of Skylab and docked Command/Service Module. Image credit: NASA


After the initial uncrewed Skylab 1 mission launching the space station on May 14, 1973, Skylab had three crewed missions, all that year. Skylab 2 in May focused on repairing launch damage, including deploying a parasol sunshade and jiggling free a stuck solar array. Skylab 3 in July performed major maintenance and deployed a twinpole solar shade. Finally, Skylab 4 in November observed and photographed the comet Kohutek. The astronauts on all three missions conducted a series of experiments in space science, life science, space technology, and Earth resources, as well as kicking off the tradition of running student experiments that continues on the International Space Station today.


June 22, 1973: Photograph of a damaged-and-repaired Skylab by the departing first crew. Image credit: NASA

NASA had plans to refurbish and reuse the space station, including the Skylab 5 mission to use the space shuttles to either boost it into a higher orbit or set it on a path for a controlled reentry. A period of intense solar activity led to heating of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, increasing drag on the space station. This paired with development delays in building the space shuttles scrapped the plan, and Skylab made a semi-controlled return to Earth on July 11, 1979. Although most of the space station burned up on reentry, chunks of debris landed in Western Australia and earned NASA a $400 fine for littering in the Shire of Esperance.



Top image: Concept sketch of Skylab in 1966, and actual photograph of Skylab by a departing crew in 1973. Credits: NASA

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