Skylab and our Golden Era – Part Two – Living in Space
6 Dec 2012 Nuradmin 0
SKYLAB AND OUR GOLDEN ERA – Part Two – Living in Space
by Ed Gibson
Some of my thoughts are not universal; there are many others who have spent time living on Skylab or other space stations who will offer confirming or alternate insights.
Skylab was damaged goods before anyone ever reached it. One solar panel was ripped off during launch and now lies at the bottom of the AtlanticOcean, which later left Skylab looking like a one-winged bird. The micro-meteoroid shield, which also provided thermal protection, was also ripped off. Thus, when the first crew arrived, they were greeted with an inside temperature of about 140oF. Before liftoff we had told them, “Don’t worry, it’s a dry heat.” Immediately they erected an awning through an airlock that brought the temperature down close to acceptable levels. The second crew would later deploy an even superior awning. The first crew also erected the one remaining large solar panel that was locked almost fully closed by debris from the micro-meteoroid shield. Once they had it fully deployed, the station electrical power came up to workable levels. Alongside the HST repairs, I believe their work was the most difficult yet successful repair operation ever performed on a spacewalk.
Skylab was large, about the size of a three-bedroom home (14,000 cubic feet). The diameter of one module was 22 feet and one straight-line unobstructed path was over 60 feet in length. It was so large, in fact, that my two crewmates actually lost me one morning. I was down in one compartment behind a large freezer to locate some old procedures where the previous crew had stowed them. They confirmed that the Command Module, our ride home, was still docked to the station. No, I hadn’t left by myself. Eventually, I drifted back into view.The Earth scenes that continuously came over the horizon proved to be addictive. After a few weeks, we each could tell what part of the Earth we were over not by time, map or land mass outline but rather by the colors, patterns and textures of land, sea and clouds. Earth became known like the face of an old friend.
Living and working in zero gravity also became addictive. Once we accepted that everything had to be restrained, and it became a habit, the 3-D freedom became enjoyable and useful. One night while looking out a window, I felt the sensation that the space station had a heart. That is, the structure that I was lightly gripping with my fingertips pulsed at a rate of about 50 beats a minute. When I gripped harder, the sensation ceased. I smiled as I realized that it was the blood pulsing in my arm and fingertips that gave me this sensation. I learned later that it has the jaw-breaking name “the ballistocardiographic effect”.
Meals were handled a bit differently in zero gravity than on Earth. All drinking fluids had to be in closed containers and extracted through spigots. Meats had to be cut with care to ensure they did not meander away. And soups came out of a container as jiggling spheres on the end of a spoon. Sneezes had to timed.
The shower worked as well as we could have expected. It took place in a three-foot diameter, six-foot high enclosure. The water heater was limited in volume so that it was somewhat like taking a shower a Windex bottle. What water there was did not run off but pooled on our skin. Thus, a few strong dog-like shakes were needed to shed most of the water before reaching for a towel.
In the lavatory, air flow replaced gravity, which worked well. However, there was a mistake that any crewman would make only once—forgetting to turn on the flow.
In addition to the scientific and technical data that was returned, we learned lessons about the long-duration reliability of space station systems and how to best utilize and support humans working in that environment. Eventually, our mode of operations became more like that on Earth than the highly planned and rigorously specified operations in critical flight regimes such as liftoff or re-entry. Although sometimes difficult, the crew and the ground control team shifted to specifying what should be done at a particular time or orbital ephemeris and a prioritized shopping list of other required tasks, which provided for more personally rewarding and relaxed yet productive operations.
In the late seventies there was an effort to use the Shuttle to save Skylab by boosting it to a higher orbit and perhaps put it back into limited use. However, the Shuttle was late in its development, and Skylab re-entered earlier than expected. The abnormally high solar activity heated and expanded our atmosphere slightly, which increased the drag on Skylab and brought it down before a Shuttle could reach it.
Although it might not appear so based on its metal internal surfaces, Skylab was a comfortable home for sure. I would’ve been content to live there for many years, if I had friends and family along… and maybe a good pizza delivery.
Whether we look at the challenges and accomplishments of all of the outside and inside repair work or the results from the onboard solar physics observatory, earth observations platform, medical experiments and corollary experiments, Skylab was an unqualified success.