Skylab and our Golden Era – Part One – Liftoff
6 Dec 2012 Nuradmin 0
SKYLAB AND OUR GOLDEN ERA – Part One – Liftoff
by Ed Gibson
Project Mercury started it; the Shuttle ended it—our Golden Era of Human Space Exploration. Skylab, our Nation’s first space Station, came after Apollo and ten years into this era. May 14, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of Skylab’s liftoff.
It was my good fortune and honor to fly with Jerry Carr and Bill Pogue on the final mission to Skylab. Our liftoff on a Saturn IB booster occurred on November 16, 1973 and returned on February 8, 1974. As Americans, we are proud that we set the world record of 84 days in space. It was also an American record that lasted for 21 years. In our time aboard Skylab, as did previous crews, we gained valuable information about our home planet, our sun and our own bodies as we adapted to our new home in zero gravity.
Following are a few recollections of the experience itself and reflections on the type of leadership that made our Golden Era in space so successful.
Liftoff, it’s an exciting time, and any crewperson who is not excited, doesn’t really understand what’s about to happen.
One crisp cool morning, you take a ride in a van with a few of your friends out to a 37-story building, just as you’ve done many times before. It’s all so familiar. You take an elevator to the top floor of the building, walk to the end a long hallway, and wait to enter a small room.
As you lean against the structure, you feel it popping and creaking and groaning under the weight and frigid temperatures of a million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen poised in the belly of the building. You see lights blinking, computers flashing, and gases venting and you realize that today, finally, this building’s come alive!
You struggle to erase the smile from your face as you slip into that small room, lie in a couch and stare at a very familiar scene. After a few hours, one of your friends outside starts counting backwards from ten, and you hear a tremendous sucking sound as propellants are ripped into combustion chambers. Then, far below and lasting about a second, you feel eight engines ignite in a ripple fire, and you creep off the pad.
The front of your mind is intently focused on gages and potential abort procedures even as a whisper seeps up from the back of your mind, “Your basement just exploded.”
The first stage is noisy and rough, like a high-speed train with square wheels. At about one minute into the flight, you go through the speed of sound and also reach the maximum of the aerodynamic forces and turbulence. The vibration becomes severe; you feel like a fly glued to a paint shaker. Then it smoothes out a little until staging at two minutes, which jolts you like a head-on crash quickly followed by a second sharp impact from the rear.
In contrast, the second stage resembles a long, smooth elevator ride that accelerates ever faster as the mass of the propellants burn away. Eventually, you weigh five times your normal weight, which is not bad because your heart is at the same elevation as your head and you suffer no loss of blood from your brain; i.e., no gray out. But it’s hard to lift a hand, and you notice your cheeks and ears sliding towards the back of your head.
Then, at a little over eight minutes, the engines cut off— sharply! Immediately, everything floats. Your spacecraft, which they worked hard to keep clean at the Cape, fills up with dirt and debris that floats up from hiding places on the floor. In short order, the air conditioning cleans it all up.
Outside you see the curved horizon and the coast of Florida receding. “Hey, this is the best simulation yet!” You look back in at the gages and throw a few switches to get ready for the rendezvous with the Space Station. When you glance out again you see Italy drifting underneath and understand what it’s like to travel at five miles a second.
Soon… our windows will be filled with Skylab.