Skylab: America’s First Space Station
Skylab isn’t necessarily the first thing people think of when the subject of NASA and America’s space effort comes up. The Mercury Project, the Apollo moon missions, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station are more likely to be mentioned. However, Skylab was America’s first space station, an underdog built from spare parts left over from the Apollo project that went on to set endurance records and make valuable contributions to solar and life sciences.
On The Drawing Board
Space stations were not a new concept. Science fiction writers often included them in their stories and real proposals dated back to at least 1923, when rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth wrote The Rocket into Interplanetary Space. Rocket engineer Doctor Wernher von Braun, the man who had led the Huntsville team behind the Atlas and Saturn rockets for America’s early space program, popularized the idea when he helped Disney create a series on ideas for space exploration. This series included one early plan for going to the moon, in which the space station could be used as a refueling station. He also made sketches of a proposed “wheel” that could hold up to 80 crewmen and be used for scientific experiments.
The refueling station never materialized due to real world events that included Congress slashing NASA’s budget. In the interests of saving time, the infrastructure which would have been needed was never built. Instead, NASA officials decided to use Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous rather than the Earth Orbit Rendezvous that Doctor von Braun favored. While it certainly had its effect on NASA’s long term efforts, it also met the short-term goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the 1960s.
Initially, the space station that became Skylab would have been part of something much larger. A space station known as Project Olympus was on the drawing board. Project Olympus would have held up to 24 crew members and remained in orbit up to five years. The Apollo Applications Program was meant to make use of existing Apollo technology for long-term scientific missions and preparation for a possible Martian mission. Both were whittled away due to budget cuts and the fact that the space station was very low priority at the time.
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