Category The Story of Manned Space Stations


The sole objective of the flight of Soyuz 9 was to set a new spaceflight endurance record, and beat the previous best of fourteen days that had been set by Gemini 7 five years previously. The crew consisted of commander Andrian Nikolayev and flight engineer Vitali Sevastyanov. Nikolayev had previously flown on Vostok 3, and he was married to cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Sevastyanov was making his first flight. The Soyuz had been specially modified to undertake this long-endurance flight: its docking system had been removed, and a new larger life support system had been installed. The already cramped orbital module had also been fitted with exercise equipment and extra storage racks, as well as additional carbon dioxide scrubbers. The crew launched successfully on 1 June 1970, and immediately started work on their extensive suite of scientific experiments. Unfortunately, they devoted so much of their time to experiments that they neglected their physical exercise program, with the result that when they landed eighteen days later they were unable to stand and took several weeks to recover fully. Of course, the flight was not just about testing the ability of the human body to withstand weightlessness over an extended period, it was equally important that the Soyuz spacecraft prove itself to be capable of long stays in orbit because if it was to progress to acting as a ferry between the ground and an orbiting space station, it would have to remain in space for long periods. With the mission successfully completed, confidence in the Soyuz design was boosted. However, there was still much to learn about long-duration flight if cosmonauts on missions to space stations were to avoid the pitfalls of the Soyuz 9 crew.


The delivery of Kvant allowed some cargo to be brought to Mir as well; one of the items stuffed inside the new laboratory was a new set of solar arrays that the crew would locate on the base block of Mir. It arrived in two sections, so the crew would need to venture outside twice to finish the work. During the previous Extravehicular Activity (EVA), physicians on the ground had noticed irregularities in Faveikin’s heart rhythm which caused them some concern; however, after further studies it was decided to allow him to carry out installation assembly. The two spacewalks were carried out without incident, and the installation added about 2.5 kW of power to the station’s total supply. Unfortunately, the spacewalks allowed the doctors on the ground to further study Faveikin’s heart, and they came to the conclusion that they could not tell enough from the remote telemetry to perform a proper diagnosis. Poor Faveikin was told to try and relax, and a plan was put in place to get him home as soon as possible. The next crew would arrive in July, and would consist of Aleksandr Viktorenko, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, and a Syrian visitor, Mohammed Faris. In order to relieve Faveikin, Alexandrov would replace him on the permanent crew and Faveikin would return to Earth on board Soyuz-TM 2 with Viktorenko and Faris in July 1987.

Romanenko had now been in space for the best part of a year, and the end of his flight was approaching. He had hoped to increase the endurance record to a full year, but his increasing testiness with the ground and his crewmates convinced Soviet officials to bring him home short of his goal. He returned to Earth on board Soyuz-TM 3 with Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Anatoli Fevchenko who had been launched on a taxi mission toward the end of December. Fevchenko was another member of the Buran test pilot group and he, like Igor Volk, was flying to check the landing ability of a cosmonaut after exposure to weightlessness. Immediately after landing he was flown by helicopter to a Tu-154 civil airliner which he used to simulate Buran landings. The Buran program was in crisis, however, and faced cancelation at any moment. Despite this fact, Buran made its first flight, unmanned, in November 1988, completing one orbit before returning to the launch site under remote control, accompanied by a MiG-25 chase plane flown by Igor Volk. This flight was a sig­nificant achievement (the U. S. shuttle could not be flown unmanned, as it at least required a crew member to lower the landing gear) but it had come too late to save the program. The planned flight to Mir, which was scheduled for December 1994, was canceled, and the program itself was concluded in June 1993 by Boris Yeltsin.

It would fall to the very next crew to break the one year in space barrier. Vladimir Titov, finally breaking his jinx, and Musa Manarov, a rookie cosmonaut, were to fly to Mir on board Soyuz-TM 4 with Levchenko, and return to Earth 365 days later on Soyuz-TM 6. At the end of their marathon flight, Dr. Valeri Polyakov would begin the first of his record-breaking flights. The timing of his flight was important; he wanted the chance to observe Titov and Manarov whilst they were still in space to see for himself the medical effects of such a long flight, before he began one of his own. His mission continued well, and when Titov and Manarov returned to Earth he was joined by Aleksandr Volkov and Sergei Krikalev who, it was planned, he would finish the long-duration mission with. However, on the ground things were not proceeding so well. Volkov and Krikalev had been trained to receive the next new modules to expand the Mir complex, but the construction of those modules had slowed to a crawl; there simply was not the money to complete them, let alone launch them. Finally it was decided to bring the crew home and mothball the station for the next five months. Polyakov was devastated, despite having spent 240 days in orbit, and upon his landing immediately began canvassing for another, longer mission.

Aleksandr Viktorenko and Aleksandr Serebrov were the next occupants of Mir; they launched on board Soyuz TM-8 on 5 September 1989, and entered the station a few days later. The second Mir expansion module was now ready after the delays, and on 26 November it was launched to dock at Mir’s front port. The flight to Mir was not entirely smooth; one solar array initially failed to deploy, but was shaken loose by putting the module into a slow roll. Even when it arrived at the station, its Kurs automatic docking system aborted the first docking attempt; however a second dock­ing four days later was successful. Kvant 2, as it was known, then swung itself to an upper docking port by using its Ljappa “swing arm’’ to rotate itself 90 degrees before reattaching itself to Mir. When the cosmonauts entered the new module they found three new compartments. The nearest compartment gave the cosmonauts some new home comforts, a shower, and a second toilet. The middle area contained room for scientific experiments, but could also be used as a back-up airlock. The compartment at the end of the module was intended to be Mir’s main airlock; it had enough room to store extra spacesuits, and a wide outward opening. One of the reasons for the wider hatch was also contained in the area, the Soviet version of a manned maneuvr – ing unit, called Icarus. The first test of the Icarus unit, which was intended to be used later with the Buran space shuttle, would be slightly different from the one under­taken by NASA’s Bruce McCandless and Bob Stewart on the shuttle mission

STS-41B five years earlier. Serebrov and Viktorenko remained tethered to the station throughout their test, and whilst McCandless and Stewart had been able to fly free of the shuttle up to distances of 320 ft, the cosmonauts never reached more than 150 ft. The reason for this, of course, was the fact that if the unit had failed, the shuttle would have been able to go and collect McCandless or Stewart; Mir could not really go anywhere to retrieve anyone. This would prove to be the first and last use of the Icarus system, it was thought to be too complicated and risky to use, and eventually was left outside the station to free up space in the airlock.

Подпись: Mir as it appeared in 1993

The next new Mir module, Kristall, arrived at the station in June of 1990. Once again the first docking was aborted by the automatic system, and again the second attempt was successful. In the same manner as Kvant 2 before it, Kristall’s own small robot arm moved the module to its dedicated docking port on the node, directly opposite Kvant 2, giving the station a “T” shape. Kristall’s interior was very different from Kvant 2; it was mostly fitted out with furnaces to allow metallurgy and crystal – growth experiments. At the far end of the module was a docking unit to allow the Soviet shuttle Buran to dock; this would never be used by Buran, but it would be used once by a suitably fitted out Soyuz, and then much later and ironically, by the U. S. space shuttle. Although both of the new modules added significant internal volume to


Soyuz-TM 12 crew, with British astronaut Helen Sharman

the station, it was still a great deal less than Skylab had provided its crews, and the total weight of the complex was about 12 tons less than Skylab too.

Mir now settled into a period of long-duration missions intermingled with visits by international cosmonauts. Visitors from Japan, Great Britain, Austria, France, and the newly reunified Germany took place over the next four years.

The most significant long-duration missions were undertaken by Sergei Krikalev who spent 311 days in 1991/2 in addition to the 151 days that he had accumulated in 1988/9. Whilst he was there, the world below him changed. He was launched as a Soviet citizen, but the revolution that caused the Soviet Union to collapse also returned him to Earth as a Russian citizen. He was dubbed “The Last Soviet Citizen” by the press. He would go on to fly two more mission to the ISS, to bring his total time spent in space to 803 days; over 50 more than the previous record holder. At the time of writing Krikalev is due to return to the ISS as commander of Expedition 19 in March 2009.

However, the man to have spent the most time in orbit in a single mission is Dr. Valeri Polyakov. In January 1994 he returned to the station with Viktor Afanasyev and Yury Usachev on Soyuz-TM 18. Polyakov had managed to sell the idea of an ultra-long-duration flight to the space program officials on the basis that it would attract new international interest in joint missions, interest that would


Dr. Valeri Polyakov

bring much needed currency to the now Russian space program. On his arrival, he was welcomed by Aleksandr Serebrov and Vasily Tsibliyev, who were due to return to Earth a few days later. Tsibliyev was on his first space flight, and Serebrov his last after four missions. When they undocked from the station, Tsibliyev flew a fly-by to take photographs of Mir. Unfortunately, the Soyuz gave the Kristall module a glancing blow. Worse collisions were to come in later years for both Tsibliyev and Mir, but for now no damage was done, and the spacecraft returned to Earth without further incident. Polyakov could be forgiven for thinking that his much-wished-for mission might be over before it hardly began, but no damage had been done to the station either, and the mission proceeded. His stay, beyond being almost indescrib­ably long, was also uneventful, and on 22 March 1995 he climbed into Soyuz-TM 20 along with Aleksandr Viktorenko and Yelena Kondakova to return home. He had spent almost 438 days in orbit, and when his capsule landed in Kazakhstan he walked from it to a nearby chair, a tremendous achievement. He also stole a cigarette from a friend nearby, but could hardly be blamed for that. He sipped a small brandy and inwardly celebrated his mission. His record still stands today, and it is unlikely to be broken until man ventures to Mars.

Altogether, 28 “main expeditions” worked aboard Mir, and they were visited by many short-term crews. A total of 104 men and women visited Mir, including 42 Soviet or Russian citizens. The remainder comprised 44 from America, 5 from France, 3 from the European Space Agency, 2 from Germany, and one each from Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Japan, the United Kingdom, Austria, Slovakia, and Canada.

On 23 March 2001, Mir was de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean, with any hard­ware that survived the entry process falling harmlessly into the sea. It was truly the end of a remarkable era; for 15 years Mir had orbited the Earth, and whilst in its final years it may not have been pretty, it was the greatest single achievement yet in the history of manned spaceflight.


In 1959 Wernher von Braun and his team issued the Project Horizon report. This outlined the establishment of an entire lunar base by 1964. Von Braun at that time was with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and had yet to be transferred to the newly formed NASA. As part of the Horizon report, he advanced the theory that he had conceived years earlier for using a booster’s spent stage as a space station’s basic structure. The Earth orbital station was a major requirement for Project Horizon to succeed as there were no boosters on the drawing boards that could provide anything like the thrust needed to send the men and equipment for the lunar base to the moon under a direct ascent mode. An Earth orbit rendezvous would be required for refueling prior to flight to the moon. The “mode question’’ would of course later resurface when Project Apollo began. Project Horizon envisioned moving quickly to an early improved station constructed from 22 upper stage shells. Prior to any expansion of lunar outpost operations, sufficient tankage would have been placed in orbit to permit construction of two or three such stations. The orbital station crew strength was approximately 10; however, they would be rotated every several months. It was proposed in the report that the Earth-orbiting station created during the construction of the lunar outpost would continue as a separate program making use of the resources created rather than wasting them. The contributions that the space station would have provided were as follows:

• space laboratory, acclimatisation, and training capability for personnel;

• space laboratory for equipment;

• material storage space;

• low-altitude communication relay;

• Earth surveillance (perhaps a security consideration in this specific operation);

• space surveillance;

• meteorological surveillance;

• survey/geodesy data collection; and

• instrumentation for the test of Earth-to-space weapon effects.


After the disasters of the Soyuz 1 and N-1, and the continuing disagreements between Mishin and Chelomei, the Soviet government decided that the rival teams should pool resources, under the program name DOS, in order, finally, to get the space station project off the ground. The basic Almaz design was thought to be sound and was kept, but the TKS ferry was thought to be too complicated for rapid develop­ment, and so modifications were made to the Almaz design to allow it to accept a Soyuz as the crew ferry. Other changes included replacing Chelomei’s design for propulsion with the proven Soyuz engine module,

The result of this enforced collaboration was Salyut 1, the first chapter in the story of manned space stations.

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back

NASA had desired a space station since the demise of Skylab in 1979, but the financial and technical constraints of the space shuttle program had made such an undertaking impossible. As we have already seen, the Soviet Union had made great strides in space technology and usability, and were far ahead of the Americans in this area of manned spaceflight. NASA was eager to use the space shuttle to gain back some of the ground that had been lost.

Many attempts had been made by the then NASA Administrator James Beggs to persuade the President and Congress to fund development of a new space station but he had always been unsuccessful. Despite this fact, in 1982 NASA went ahead and obtained eight different designs from the big aerospace contractors of the time, hoping that one of them would finally convince Congress of the value of a new station. Most of the contractors, however, came up with designs geared toward servicing and launching spacecraft rather than purely scientific research stations.

Finally, in January 1984, despite great opposition from some of his advisors, President Ronald Reagan announced the new space station in his State of the Union address, and directed NASA to assemble it within a decade. International partners such as Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA) would provide hardware for the station, as well as technical support. NASA was to keep the first two years as a low-key definitions program in order not to incite the many scientists and military leaders who were against the project.

NASA had narrowed down the design options to four by March 1984, and the main baseline configuration chosen was the “Power Tower” design which had been submitted by Boeing/Grumman. The main reason for this choice was that it allowed the most flexibility for future expansion without adversely changing the stations overall mass; it kept NASA’s options open. The Power Tower provided a clear area for shuttle dockings, as well as predefined attachments for specific temporary pay­loads. It was thought that the entire assembly could be carried out by 12 shuttle launches over a З-year period, but other contractors doubted this. In late 1985 NASA

"We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic and scientific gain. Tonight, / am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade."

Freedom: The U. S. strikes backPresident Ronald Rengnn State of the Union Message January 25. 1984

Reagan gives state of the union message

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back

Rockwell “Dual Keel” design 1985

changed its baseline configuration, and abandoned the “Power Tower” concept that it had already spent a considerable amount of money on due to complaints from potential crews and engineers who felt that the design would not prove stable enough for scientific experiments. The “Dual Keel” design became the new baseline. It was based on Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas designs, and was chosen because it was felt that it would provide a much stiffer structure, and therefore a better microgravity environment for experimentation. The crew complement was increased to eight to allow more scientific work to be carried out.

In 1988, space station Freedom, as it was now officially known, was going to cost at least $14.5 billion and would require 10 or 11 shuttle launches to complete. And it was felt by many that NASA was playing down the true cost by not including all shuttle launch costs. In addition, there were doubts that the space shuttle could reliably service such a station. The space shuttle was, of course, central to the plans to construct the space station. Its unique capability to carry large payloads into orbit and have a crew on board capable of joining the pieces together meant that literally nothing else could do the job. The United States was seriously lacking an unmanned heavy lift launch vehicle; the shuttle had been imposed on all commercial and military customers as the only game in town. Consequently, the space station and all other launch customers were left in disarray by the disaster that befell the space shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986. The fact that the accident had largely been caused by NASA’s own mismanagement, as well as a flawed booster design, eroded confidence in NASA in other areas, and that included designing, building, launching, assem­bling, and maintaining a manned space station.

By far the biggest problem, however, was that NASA was trying to please everybody with the space station design. It was trying to offer a garage for assembly of interplanetary spacecraft, a massive variety of scientific laboratory facilities, including animal research, variable gravity, materials processing, life sciences and the like. The power requirements for all of these capabilities were massive, and would need solar arrays of the greatest quality. One station simply could not carry out all of these contradictory requirements; not without being a massively expensive leviathan, which is what it had become. The program was far too large for its own good, and NASA seemed more concerned with pushing the frontiers of technology instead of designing a station that they could actually launch and maintain within a reasonable budget. NASA needed to decide on the station’s primary use. Contradictions were caused because, for instance, animal research or spacecraft assembly would adversely affect the microgravity environment needed for materials processing or other scien­tific experiments.

The situation was not improved by the Department of Defense, which in 1987 demanded full access to the station to carry out military research. NASA’s partners were incensed, and the situation had to be quickly resolved to ensure continued involvement. By 1989 the estimated cost had grown again, to $19 billion; and this was after NASA had deleted some capabilities from the station and reduced its power requirements. In addition, a new program to improve the performance of the space shuttles solid rocket motors was required to launch the ever-increasing weight of the station, which increased the overall cost even further. This trend was to continue until 1990, when Congress demanded a major rethink. The existing design, as well as being overweight and a long way over budget, was also going to require far more main­tenance once it was built than NASA had planned for. It was estimated that around 3,000 hours of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) work would need to be carried out per year in contrast to NASA’s target of around 500 hours. The redesigned station, now nicknamed “Fred” by critics (to indicate that it was a cut down Freedom), was unveiled in March 1991, would cost around $16.9 billion and would take 23 shuttle launches to complete.

By the time the Freedom project was canceled in 1991, NASA had redesigned the station at least six times and spent over $11 billion without building a single piece of flight capable hardware. Valery Ryumin of Energia was heard to comment, “They’ve spent 10 years and $11 billion; if only we’d had a bit of that money. $11 billion and they haven’t done a thing; everything they’ve done in that decade was useless, none of it worked. Ten years and all they built was a wooden model.’’

Although canceled in May 1991, the space station plan was quickly revived only one month later; but with a dramatically cut budget. It was not until 1993 that President Bill Clinton really tackled the problem directly. He demanded three new station designs, options A, B, and C, costing $5 billion, $7 billion, and $9 billion

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back

Space station Fred—March 1991

respectively. Option A, which was based on a 1991 Freedom design, was chosen as the best compromise, and would cost $6 billion, but this would be without a habitation module that would be added later at additional cost. Nevertheless, the station’s critics in Congress remained skeptical, and a move to kill the entire project failed by a single vote. At this point, NASA introduced a new partner—Russia. Using Russian mod­ules and technology would make the assembly of the station more efficient. Clinton saw an opportunity to tie the Russians into a program that would keep its engineers busy, and therefore less likely to get involved with other countries more questionable activities. It was only when this agreement was reached (Chapter 11) that things began to move forward; mostly because the station now had an acceptable political face.

In reality, the same problems that had plagued Freedom would continue into the ISS. It was never very clear what Freedom or the ISS was actually for. What goals did it set? The Soviets had always had the goal during the many iterations of Salyut to make each station more independent, more self-sustaining, than its predecessor. This kind of technology and operational capability would be necessary for the longer, far – reaching space flights of the future, like a manned mission to Mars. With Mir, Russia had almost achieved the ultimate goal of a “closed loop’’ spacecraft. However, Freedom and later the ISS would not have the same goal; there was nothing “closed

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back

First ISS design—1993

loop” about the design, and this did not appear to be the goal in the future. When Ronald Reagan made his speech in 1984, he said, “America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic, and scientific gain.” This was not really the clear goal that NASA was looking for or needed, and it was not long before the old engineering maxim, “the better is the enemy of the good”, showed itself to be true.

The space station became far too big and complicated; NASA had designed a Rolls Royce when it only really needed a Mini.

Freedom: The U. S. strikes back


Sergei Korolev was the Chief Designer for the Soviet space program, although his identity did not become public until after his death in 1966. He was head of the OKB-1 design bureau that is now known as RKK Energia. In I960 he made the first of many attempts to get the Soviet government to fund a manned space station as a logical progression of the fledgling manned spaceflight program.

On 23 June 1960 Korolev wrote to the Ministry of Defense in an effort to obtain support for a military Orbital Station (OS), on which a decision had been deferred to the end of the year. The station would have a crew of 3-5 and orbit at 350-400 km altitude. Its role would be to conduct military reconnaissance, control other space­craft in orbit, and undertake basic space research. The first version of the station would have a mass of 25-30 tonnes and the second version 60-70 tonnes. Korolev pointed out that his design bureau had already completed a draft project in which 14 work brigades had participated, and so had a detailed plan.

1971: Salyut 1—triumph and disaster

The successful launch of Salyut 1 on 19 April 1971 was a truly historic event. Salyut had not always been its name, indeed the word Zarya was written on the side of the station. Just before launch the official name became Salyut, apparently to prevent confusion with a ground station already named Zarya. After so many years of dreams and plans, humankind had an orbiting space station, and it was ready to accept its first crew. The launch was particularly noteworthy for the Soviets as it came a full two years before America could launch its planned Skylab. This had been one of the main motivations behind combining the Almaz design with Korolev’s Soyuz ferry vehicle. As with many of the Soviet’s spaceflight achievements, political considerations had pushed the space station program forward faster than it might have on its own. This first station was not huge, weighing about 18 tonnes and measuring 20 m in length, and certainly not luxurious, but it represented a milestone in manned space exploration.

The crew of Soyuz 10 would be the first to inhabit this new outpost in orbit. The crew comprised commander Vladimir Shatalov, flight engineer Aleksei Yeliseyez, and researcher Nikolai Rukavishnikov. They were launched four days after Salyut 1 had successfully made orbit, and rendezvoused with the station shortly after. The docking was carried out without any problems, Shatalov having exploited his previous experience of docking Soyuz 4 and 5. Unfortunately, despite a hard docking having been achieved, the crew were unable to swing back the Soyuz docking probe that had to be removed before the crew could access the tunnel that joined the two craft. It was later determined that a failure in the Soyuz docking port’s electrical system had caused the problem. The crew of Soyuz 10 had no choice but to undock from the station and return home, having filmed the Salyut docking port for later analysis on the ground.

The back-up crew for Soyuz 10 consisted of commander Alexei Leonov, with flight engineers Valeri Kubasov and Pyotr Kolodin, and they were now advanced to the prime crew for Soyuz 11. For Leonov this was a significant event. In the three

1971: Salyut 1—triumph and disaster

Soyuz 10 back-up crew

1971: Salyut 1—triumph and disaster

Soyuz 11 crew

years following the historic Voskhod 2 flight that had made him the first human to walk in space, he had been training for a flight around the moon in a Zond spacecraft. The flight of Apollo 8 in lunar orbit in December 1968 and a less than successful unmanned test of Zond, had led to his flight being canceled. Ultimately, the entire Soviet manned lunar program was canceled, and Leonov was promoted to lead the training of cosmonauts for the Salyut program. However, fate was to intervene in Leonov’s career once more when Kubasov developed a lung infection shortly before launch. This was later determined to simply be an allergic reaction, but that did not help Kubasov at the time; he was removed from the Soyuz 11 crew and replaced with Vladimir Volkov, his back-up. Then, just eleven hours before launch, it was decided to replace the entire Soyuz 11 crew as a precaution against Kubasov’s lung infection having been passed on to the rest of the them. Leonov was replaced by Gyorgy Dobrovolsky, and Kolodin by Viktor Patsayev. Volkov remained on the crew. The replacement crew for Soyuz 11 were as shocked as Leonov by the decision. They had only been training together for a few months, and had not expected to be launched on an actual mission for several more months, and were concerned that they were not ready. Leonov’s crew were sent away for a holiday before they began training for a flight to Salyut 1 upon the return of Soyuz 11.

The launch, rendezvous, and docking of Soyuz 11 all went smoothly, and the crew were able to enter the station with none of the problems that had affected the previous flight. Despite their concerns and relative lack of training, the flight pro­ceeded well for 12 days until 18 June when the smell of burning was detected and a small electrical fire was found. The crew were very alarmed by this and urged the ground controllers to let them evacuate the station and return to Earth. In preparation, they powered up the Soyuz ferry vehicle, but returned to the station when it was realized that the danger had passed. Nevertheless, this incident had badly dented their morale, and although they continued their work, it was with less passion and drive than before. After a week, the ground controllers decided to let the crew come home early, and on 29 June they packed the Soyuz for the return trip. Their mood was significantly lifted as they strapped themselves in and undocked from Salyut 1, thereby bringing to an end the first mission to a manned space station, which had originally been planned to last 30 days, but was cut short to 23 days.

The Soyuz re-entered the atmosphere as expected and parachuted to a soft landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The recovery team opened the hatch to find all three men dead in their couches.

The Soviet people were horrified by the deaths of three brave men that they had come to know well from their nightly broadcasts from the Salyut station, and they now mourned their loss as they would a family member. The crew were interred in the Kremlin wall alongside other space heroes such as Yuri Gagarin, Sergei Korolev, and Vladimir Komarov. The inquest soon determined that a pressure relief valve designed to equalize the internal pressure in the capsule as it descended through the atmo­sphere had opened prematurely, possibly when the explosive bolts that separated the descent module from the orbital and propulsion modules were fired after the de-orbit burn, prior to entry into the atmosphere. It would probably have not been immedi­ately apparent to the cosmonauts that the valve had opened; and even if it had, the

1971: Salyut 1—triumph and disaster

Soyuz 11 undocks from Salyut 1 (computer image)

valve was not easily accessible by the crew, although there was evidence to suggest that they had tried to stem the flow of air from their craft. This failure would not have been a problem except for one important fact, the crew did not have pressure suits; Soyuz crews simply wore flight overalls. As the pressure inside their capsule vented, the crew slowly lost consciousness, and eventually died from embolisms in the blood due to the vacuum. The Soyuz landed automatically as if nothing was wrong. Alarm bells rang throughout the spaceflight community. NASA even contacted the Soviets to determine if the long duration of their mission had been a factor in their deaths. Clearly, changes needed to be made to the Soyuz design to prevent a future cata­strophe, and Salyut 1 would not be able to be inhabited in its lifetime again, so it was commanded to de-orbit by firing its engines to initiate a ditching in the Pacific Ocean in October 1971.

The redesign of the Soyuz spacecraft turned out to be substantial. It was clear that in the future cosmonauts must launch and land wearing pressure suits, and this would require more room than was currently available in the descent module. The only way to accommodate the newly designed Sokol K1 spacesuits, along with the extra equipment needed to support the space-suited crew would be to remove one man from the Soyuz configuration. This had implications for future space station designs, as a crew of two would obviously have more work to do. The Soyuz 11 crew had spent much of their 23 days aboard Salyut 1 simply looking after the station’s systems; two men would be even more pressed to keep up with a station’s needs.

Alexei Leonov was assigned to command the first crew to occupy the next Salyut station, along with Valeri Kubasov, but his luck was to betray him again. The next Salyut was actually the back-up for the Salyut 1 mission, and therefore identical to its predecessor. Unfortunately, only two and a half minutes after launch on 29 July 1972 one engine on the Proton rocket’s second stage failed, and the vehicle crashed into the Pacific Ocean, taking the Salyut with it. Officially it was never called a Salyut or anything else; only in later years would it become apparent that this launch had taken place.

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

The Shuttle-Міг program was born in July 1991 when President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement for a Soviet cosmonaut to fly aboard the space shuttle, and a U. S. astronaut to fly a Soyuz-TM mission. The two great powers had wanted to build on the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975 for some time; there had been suggestions that a Soyuz would visit Skylab, but that was deemed unpractical because of the differences in the docking interface between the two craft. There had also even been a suggestion in 1984 that the shuttle dock with Salyut 7 in a sort of simulated space rescue, but nothing ever came of the idea.

This agreement was expanded upon in October 1992 to include a shuttle mission to the Mir space station, and a long-duration stay by a U. S. astronaut on Mir. The mission to Mir by the shuttle was made possible by the availability of the docking adapter that originally had been built for the Soviet shuttle, Buran. That adapter would now be fitted to the shuttle Atlantis. For the first time in its history the shuttle had somewhere to go, although the shuttle’s original designers surely had no idea that its first such mission would be to a product of the Soviet Union!

In 1993 it was decided that the shuttle would in fact dock with Mir ten times, exchanging crews and allowing U. S. astronauts several long-duration missions. It was additionally agreed that more than one Russian would fly on the shuttle. By this time, of course, Russia was a partner in the newly redesigned International Space Station (ISS), and so the new program was divided into three phases. Phase 1 would see the ten Mir-Shuttle dockings, involving at least five long-duration flights by NASA astronauts on board the Russian station for which NASA would pay a fee. There would also be at least two flights by Russians on board the shuttle. Phase 2 would signal the beginning of construction of the ISS with launches from the U. S. and Russia of station elements, that would lead to a permanent three-man crew. Phase 3 would complete construction with the elements from other partner nations such as Japan and the ESA.

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

STS-60 inflight crew portrait

Sergei Krikalev was chosen along with Vladimir Titov as the first Russians to train for a flight on the shuttle as mission specialists. Krikalev became the prime candidate, and he flew on STS-60 in February 1994. This mission had nothing to do with space station operations, but it allowed Krikalev to discover how Americans flew in space, and that flying on the shuttle was very different to flying a Soyuz to the Mir station. This mission lasted a mere eight days; a short sprint in comparison with the months he had spent on board Mir. Activities were far more intense and scripted than his time on Mir, and it proved that the NASA mission planners would have to change their strategy considerably when it came to mounting both the long-term Mir missions and future mission to the ISS.

To underline this message, Vladimir Titov flew on board the shuttle Discovery on mission STS-63 in February 1995. This was not a docking mission, but it was planned to rendezvous with Mir as an engineering demonstration. Although the mission did suffer from some unfortunate malfunctions including one that postponed the flight and another, a thruster leakage, which nearly cancelled the close approach to the Mir station, valuable data for the future docking missions was obtained.

The next part of Phase 1 to be fulfilled was the first long-duration flight by a NASA astronaut to the Mir space station. Additionally this astronaut, Norman Thagard, would be the first to be launched aboard a Soyuz-TM spacecraft. Thagard was an experienced flyer with four shuttle flights under his belt, but he and NASA quickly discovered what Krikalev and Titov had on their shuttle missions, which was

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Thagard in his sleep restraint on Mir

that a space shuttle mission and a long-duration flight on a space station are two very different things. The Mir mission required much more flexibility, both from the crewmember and from those on the ground, but NASA seemed to have forgotten the lessons learnt twenty years previously with Skylab. Thagard was dismayed to discover that his ground controllers were programming every minute of his day from waking in the morning to going to bed at night. Much the same frustrations that had plagued the Skylab 4 crew now manifested themselves in Thagard. The problem was exacerbated by the cultural differences for Thagard; he was completely cut off from his compatriots, and often went for days without speaking any English or speaking to his friends and colleagues.

The historic docking of the space shuttle Atlantis with the Mir space station echoed that of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. Atlantis launched on 27 June 1995 and docked with Mir two days later. The crew consisted of five U. S. astronauts, and the new Mir 19 crew of Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin, so that Mir now had a combined crew of 10, the largest in history, beating the previous record of 8 on shuttle mission STS-61A, which flew the first German Spacelab mission. Atlantis also had a Spacelab module in its payload bay to take advantage of the opportunity to study the physiology of the three existing Mir crewmates whilst still in space. Atlantis had brought plenty of supplies to Mir, far more than the Progress freighters could carry, and better, it allowed many things to be returned to Earth from Mir, something that could only be done in small quantities in the Soyuz spacecraft. It allowed the Russians to return faulty equipment to allow diagnostics by Russian engineers; it also allowed experiment results to be returned quickly. Perhaps the most important item delivered by the shuttle was water. Mir was able to recycle about 60% of its own water, but most of that was not fit for drinking. Atlantis was able to deliver half a tonne of water from its fuel cells, where water is a natural by-product and would normally be dumped overboard. It was during all of this back and forth from Mir to Shuttle that it was realized that the ISS would need very careful stock control in order to determine what was on board the station, where it was, and its current status. Mir had not benefited from this kind of control and consequently many items that were unknown, or at least forgotten, were crammed into every available space, often behind wall panels.

Bonnie Dunbar had originally been due to be left behind by Atlantis for a long – duration mission of her own, but this plan had to be abandoned to allow the European Space Agency (ESA) to carry out a long-duration mission by Thomas Reiter of Germany. At this point in time, with the ISS construction running late, many nations wished to fly experiments and people on Mir to gain experience. This meant that finding space on Mir’s increasingly busy schedule was difficult. Reiter joined the Mir crew on Soyuz-TM 22 in September 1995, and expected to stay on board for 135 days, although his mission was eventually lengthened by a further 42 days. His presence on the station meant that NASA could not carry out a long- duration mission of their own at the same time, as that would mean there were four permanent residents on the station, and the Soyuz lifeboat only carries three.

Therefore when Atlantis undocked on the 4 July, Dunbar was still on board along with the Mir 18 crew, including Norm Thagard. The old Mir crew rode back to Earth in new prone seats on the mid-deck. This basically involved the crew lying on their backs on the mid-deck floor with their feet in the storage lockers in front of them; it was felt that this was a better way for the long-duration crews to return to Earth. Nevertheless, Thagard broke the medical rules for his flight by walking out of the shuttle to the waiting astrovan.

Atlantis’ mission to Mir had been made possible, as mentioned previously, by the Russian docking adapter. However, the corresponding adapter on the Mir was attached to the end of the Kristall module. In order for the shuttle to dock there without coming too close to the solar arrays, Kristall had to be moved from its normal position—on the docking node at right angles to the Mir base block—to the end of the Mir base block’s docking node. In order to get around this necessity for future missions the next shuttle would bring an extended docking port which would be attached to the end of Kristall in its normal position. So it was that the shuttle Atlantis flying mission STS-74 arrived at the station in November 1995 with the new docking module in its payload bay. Two extra solar panels for Mir were transported affixed to the sides of the docking module, and were to be fitted to Mir at a later date by the resident crew. The Atlantis crew delivered many items to Mir, again far more

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Shuttle docking adapter installed in Atlantis

than could be achieved by a Progress, and in fact more than the previous Atlantis mission, due to not having to carry Spacelab into orbit. The cargo consisted of food, water, replacement lithium hydroxide canisters, many items for future NASA research, plus many personal items for the Mir crew including a guitar that was put to good use by Canada’s Chris Hadfield in a song describing Miss Dolly Parton!

NASA now had the opportunity to fly a further six astronauts on long-duration flights aboard the Mir station. Perhaps surprisingly there was not a great rush of volunteers to fill these positions, and NASA struggled to find 12 astronauts (including back-ups) who were willing to undergo the training in Russia for a year or more, and that fulfilled the criteria that the Russians had laid down for Mir crewmembers. The initial schedule for NASA’s missions to Mir or increments as they liked to call them looked like this.

NASA increment





Shannon Lucid

John Blaha

5 months


Jerry Linenger

Scott Parazynski

4 months


John Blaha

Wendy Lawrence

6 months


Scott Parazynski

Wendy Lawrence

4 months

Norm Thagard had two different back-ups during his training cycle for the first NASA increment—Bill Readdy and Bonnie Dunbar. Bill Readdy was apparently persuaded to be Thagard’s non-flying back-up on the understanding that he would fly a later mission to Mir in which he would be launched by shuttle, but return to Earth in a Soyuz, something that no NASA astronaut had done up to that point. Ultimately Readdy was convinced to take up the position of Director of Operations (DOR) at Star City and later he commanded the mission that retrieved Shannon Lucid from Mir and delivered John Blaha.

Scott Parazynski was the first astronaut to fall foul of the Russian system. He had been training as back-up to John Blaha for the third U. S. increment aboard Mir when it was found that he was fractionally too tall for the existing Soyuz capsule. A new design of Soyuz was in the pipeline that would allow crewmembers of his stature, but this would not arrive soon enough, and he was removed from the program. Wendy Lawrence was doubly unlucky. She was initially removed from the program because she was too short for the Soyuz. And although she was reinstated in the program to succeed Michael Foale on the sixth increment to Mir, it was decided after the catastrophic events during Foale’s flight that a crewmember capable of carrying out an EVA was required, and she proved to be too short to wear a Russian Orlan spacesuit, plus she had never been EVA trained at NASA, so she was removed from the crew rotation again to be replaced by David Wolf. This meant an accelerated training program for Wolf, as he had never served as a back-up crewmember, but he made the best of the situation and crammed his training in before launch. James Voss came into the breach as non-flying back-up for two of the increments, but he had already been assigned to an early ISS crew, and would make good use of his Mir training experience. After these changes the flight schedule now looked like this.

NASA increment





Shannon Lucid

John Blaha

6 months


John Blaha

Jerry Linenger

4 months


Jerry Linenger

Michael Foale

4l months + EVA


Michael Foale

James Voss

5 months + EVA


David Wolf

Andy Thomas

4 months + EVA


Andy Thomas

James Voss

41 months

The remaining seven shuttle missions to Mir all followed the same pattern. The shuttle would bring the next replacement NASA crewmember and/or return with the old one. The shuttle would be fitted with a SpaceHab module in its payload bay to transport more supplies than previous shuttle flights to Mir, including experiments, food, clothing, water, and bring back experiment results and obsolete equipment, thus alleviating Mir’s clutter problem slightly.

Shannon Lucid was the next willing volunteer for a long-duration mission to Mir. She was delivered aboard the shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-76 arriving on 24 March

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

STS-76 crew portrait, Lucid middle back row

1996, and was scheduled to stay aboard until Atlantis returned to collect her in early August.

A veteran of four previous shuttle missions, Lucid had eagerly volunteered for her mission to Mir, and undertaken the training in Russia with great zeal, seeing the chance to live on board a Russian space station with two Russians as a unique opportunity. Just over a month into her mission the final module, Priroda, to be added to the Mir complex, arrived. The contents of Priroda had been provided by many nations including Russia, America, Germany, France, and Canada, and truly reflected Mir’s increasing role as a melting pot of international collaboration. Lucid’s time on board Mir seemed to run more smoothly than had Thagard’s before her. She was free to work at her own pace as she worked her way through the four-day task list that was updated by her NASA colleagues on the ground every day, she was also able to send and receive e-mails from friends and colleagues which helped to ward off any feelings of isolation. In mid-July Shannon was told that her mission would have to be extended to mid-September due to problems with the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that had been stacked for Atlantis’ mission to retrieve her (STS-79). A previous shuttle mission, STS-78, had experienced a problem with erosion of the field joints in its SRBs, which was a problem not dissimilar to that suffered by Challenger during its fateful flight in January 1986. It was thought that this erosion had been caused by a change in the type of adhesive used during assembly of the SRBs, and the boosters for STS-79 had been assembled in the same way. It was therefore decided to replace those boosters with the ones that had been set aside for STS-80, which used the original type of adhesive.

When the crew of STS-79 did dock with Mir on 19 September, Shannon had already broken two space records. On 7 September she had broken Elena Konda­kova’s female duration record of 169 days, and on 17 September she broke the visitors (i. e. non-Russian) record of 179 days, which had recently been set by Thomas Reiter. The change of crew between Lucid and new arrival, John Blaha, was done in much the same way as the Russian crewmembers. They exchanged the seat liners for the Soyuz lifeboat capsule, and Lucid briefed Blaha as to the status and location of her many experiments and offered tips on living aboard the station. When Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center Lucid had also set a new American duration record of 188 days. She adapted to Earth gravity more rapidly than expected, walking off the shuttle to the crew transport vehicle before later meeting with President Clinton.

Within NASA and the Phase 1 program there seemed to be two distinct camps of opinion on the collaboration with the Russians. Some felt that it was a business deal, pure and simple: NASA paid the Russians, plus offered the occasional seat on the shuttle, and in return the Russians provided training and room and board on the Mir station. Others believed that it was a proper partnership, or that at least it ought to be. With proper give-and-take on both sides, decisions being made jointly, and perhaps most importantly lessons learned on both sides, including language and working skills, organization of long-duration flights, and technology transfer between the two nations. This segregation within the program seemed to extend to the astronauts in training for the upcoming missions to Mir. Shannon Lucid for example, was definitely a member of the latter group; she saw the whole joint program as a massive opportunity, both for NASA and for her personally. She threw herself into her training, taking care to learn the Russian language and customs, and making sure that she integrated well with her assigned crew. This attitude served her well when time came to fly her mission, especially when it was extended. It was less clear which group John Blaha fell into; he was the only pilot-astronaut assigned to a Mir mission, and his background in the U. S. Air Force could certainly have given him reason to harbour a certain amount of distrust towards his Russian colleagues. Certainly his attitude cannot have been helped when the crew that he been training with—commander Gennadi Manakov and flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov—were removed from the flight just one month before his launch to Mir owing to a problem with Manakov’s EKG. The pair were grounded and replaced with their back-ups, commander Valery Korzun and flight engineer Aleksandr Kaleri. Blaha did not even know who Kaleri was, but the insertion of Korzun worried him. He had carried out his winter survival training with Korzun and Michael Foale, and found the man to be condescending in the extreme; he could not imagine what spending four months under his command would be like. Blaha’s troubles had not started there; for months he had struggled with the lack of support from the Phase 1 office at NASA. He had also become embroiled in an argument with both sides about carrying his own personal set of notes to Mir. His lack of expertise with the Russian language only added fuel to the fire, and all in all his training cycle had been a very difficult one. When launch day finally arrived for Blaha and the crew of STS-79, he was already exhausted.

Unfortunately, things did not get any better when he arrived at the station. Korzun and Kaleri welcomed him warmly, which made him feel a little better, but when he tried his first science experiments, with the shuttle still docked at the station, he immediately hit problems. As many astronauts and cosmonauts before him had discovered, it takes a lot longer to do even the simplest things in space, than it does on the ground; despite what it might say in the checklist. His first experiment was supposed to take only 1^ hours to complete, start to finish; it ended up taking him 5 hours just to find all of the components in the sprawling cluttered station and put them together. In short, the reality was nothing like the organized straightforward training on the ground; things were not where they were supposed to be, and even if they were, there was no guarantee that they would be in working order. For a goal driven achiever, this was simply unacceptable, and the ground could not, and it seemed to Blaha, would not, help him. The ground support team acted as if Blaha was flying a shuttle mission, where everything is carefully cataloged and in its proper place; they did not seem to understand how it could be possible to not find something in a closed vehicle. Because of this lack of understanding, Blaha began to work longer and longer hours in his efforts to catch up with the timeline, which remained rigid and unaltered despite his pleas for it to be relaxed. Now, this may all sound very familiar in the light of the problems faced by the third crew aboard Skylab (they are in fact exactly the same problems) but nearly 30 years down the line, and on board a Russian station instead of an American one, with the additional issue of the language barrier only making the situation worse. It seems amazing to consider that NASA appeared

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

John Blaha portrait

to have learnt nothing, but it seems no-one from the Phase 1 program had paid any attention to the lessons of Skylab, and worse still, even when Phase 1 did learn from its mistakes, the newly learned lessons were not passed on, or not listened to, by the Phase 2 people.

Blaha soldiered on for the remainder of his four-month stay, and found, just as the Skylab 3 crew did, that things did improve over time. He became more adept at finding things on the cluttered Mir station, and the ground controllers eventually learned to relax their grip on the flight plan and leave some of the planning to Blaha himself. Nevertheless, he was quite relieved to hand over the reins to his replacement Jerry Linenger, who arrived aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-81. Linenger was different from the previous Mir residents from NASA in that he had

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Linenger before launch

only flown one shuttle mission, and he had been assigned hastily to comply with the Russian requirement that all astronauts for Mir be flight experienced. The plans for his increment were slightly different too; he was to carry out an EVA, the first by an American in a Russian Orlan spacesuit, and he was to spend the longest time on the station at that time. His attitude towards his Russian hosts was noticeably different from his predecessors too. He seemed to feel that NASA was paying the Russian Space Agency for a service, one that they were only barely providing. He seemed to have little interest in integrating himself into his two different Mir flight crews he would serve with. His main priority was to carry out his mission, and everything else

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Soyuz-TM 25 crew, Tsibliyev, Ewald, and Lazutkin

was secondary (at least) to that goal. This attitude seemed likely to put him on a collision course with his Russian crewmates, and so it proved to be.

The Mir resident crew when Linenger arrived were still Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri, and they welcomed Linenger just as warmly as they had John Blaha. As Linenger settled down to life on Mir, and began his schedule of experi­ments, Korzun and Kaleri noticed that he kept to himself and did not often join them for meals or other “social” occasions, but they let him be as the end of their increment slowly approached. In March 1997, a Soyuz arrived with the replacement Mir crew; it also carried a cosmonaut researcher, Reinhold Ewald from Germany, who would stay on board the station during the handover period.

Mir became a little crowded and cosy with six men on board, especially at meal times when all six would float around the table in the base block. The extra three-man crew on Mir required that the oxygen supply be supplemented by use of solid fuel oxygen generators (SFOG) into which tanks containing a chemical which produced oxygen when it was heated were inserted. These tanks were commonly referred to as “candles” by the cosmonauts. One evening as most of the crew gathered in the base block for the final meal of the day, Sasha Lazutkin, one of the new arrivals broke from the meal and went into the Kvant module to carry out the final candle burn of the day. Almost immediately he realized something had gone wrong. The candle started its burn in the normal way, but then he heard the tank hiss and, almost unbelievably, it burst into flames. Lazutkin was momentarily frozen by the sight before him, and even when he tried to shout a warning he was not heard. It was Ewald who saw the fire and screamed “Fire” in Russian. The rest of the crew finally realized what was happening, and Korzun dived into the Kvant module with Lazutkin. However, they quickly realized that it was not going to be easy to put out a fire in weightlessness that was being fed by the chemical reaction taking place in the candle. Fire extinguishers proved to be almost useless, and the fire continued to burn despite the efforts of the crew until slowly the solid fuel was consumed. By this time, the base block was almost filled with smoke, and the crew all donned oxygen masks; except Jerry Linenger, who was not in the base block. The fire alarm finally went off alerting Linenger in Spektr, he rushed into the node between Spektr and the base block and tried to find an oxygen mask for himself, the first mask he tried failed to work, the second was more successful. It was realized later that several of the emergency oxygen masks tried by all members of the crew were faulty. In addition, the first fire extinguisher that Linenger tried in Priroda was securely fastened to the wall and would not come off. The new commander, Vasily Tsibliyev, also tried to take an extinguisher from Priroda, but it too was securely fastened to the wall. It turned out that the transport straps put in place for Priroda’s launch were never removed once the module reached orbit over a year and half previously. Emergency evacuation procedures called for the crew to prepare the two docked Soyuz spacecraft for departure, but one of the ships was on the other side of the fire, docked at the end of Kvant; this was the ship reserved for Korzun, Kaleri, and Ewald. Clearly, there was no way for anyone to reach it until the fire was put out. By the time the fire was finally out, most of the modules of Mir were filled with dense smoke and steam, and as thoughts turned to the effects of smoke inhalation Jerry Linenger reverted to his profession as a medical doctor. Of primary concern were the chemicals that made up the contents of the candle, and the residue of those chemicals in the smoky air. When the oxygen masks ran out, the crew donned surgical masks in an attempt to filter out any contaminants. The smoke slowly cleared, and the crew did the best they could to clean up the interior of the station, after which they washed and changed into clean clothes. Linenger carried out a health check on all of the crew checking their lungs for the effects of smoke, none of them appeared affected. After reporting the fire to the ground, the crew attempted to get some sleep.

Frank Culbertson was in the middle of a deep sleep when he was woken by his telephone. The call was to tell him about the fire, but it was not a Russian voice on the other end of the line, it was the voice of one of his support crew working at the Russian control center. Nobody from the Russian space program had thought to notify the head of the U. S. side of Shuttle-Mir that 12 hours ago one of their astronauts had just lived through the worst fire in spaceflight history.

Safety in space has always been the primary concern of NASA and the Russian space program. Both agencies had faced emergencies during their years of manned space flight, and sadly, both had suffered fatalities. The central tenet of the agreement between the two agencies was that each was responsible for the safety of the others’ astronaut or cosmonaut crews. Missions on the shuttle and on Mir had taken place so far without incident, but the fire on Mir changed the perception of safety, especially in the minds of NASA, and the U. S. politicians and public. Suddenly, the perception was that Mir was risky and unsafe, and the Russian controllers were maverick and uncaring risk-takers. It did not help that many of NASA’s own engineers felt that there was nothing to be learned from the Russians that they did not already know. Bearing in mind that Phase 1 was supposed to be the beginning of a long-standing partnership with the Russians, and that many of the lessons learnt here should bear fruit during the construction of the ISS, NASA took virtually no notice of anything the Russians did until something went wrong. Nothing exemplified the difference between the NASA and Russian way of doing things more than the attitude toward the fire. The Russians really thought that it was no big deal; they had fires on previous space stations, and there had been no problem putting them out and carrying on as normal. NASA, in contrast, spent large sums of money ensuring that every precau­tion against fire was taken; wiring, spacesuits, and non-flammable clothing were all checked and double-checked before flights. NASA’s attitude was perhaps under­standable given the fate of the crew of Apollo 1, who died in their spacecraft on the ground, but the Russians too had lost a cosmonaut in a fire on the ground and they did not believe such precautions to be necessary. The official Russian press release only intensified the distrust between the two parties; it stated that a “micro­fire”, more likely described as a “small fire’’, occurred on the station for no more that 90 seconds, and that the crew easily extinguished it. Later, when both crews were back on the ground, this would be a major point of contention, Linenger was certain it had lasted about 14 minutes; other members of the crew thought it might have been about 5 minutes, perhaps more. Certainly none of them agreed that it was only one and a half minutes. As the days passed, the reactions to the fire began to calm down, but the seeds of discontent had been sown, both on the ground and on the space station Mir. The crew on board Mir, however, had plenty to occupy them. The resident crew, Tsibliyev and Lazutkin, were preparing a test in which they were to manually dock a Progress freighter. In itself, this was not an unusual occurrence; many crews had used the ability to manually dock Soyuz spacecraft and on occasion had used a remote control system to dock Progress ships from short distances when problems had surfaced with the automatic docking system. In this case, however, the crew was to attempt to dock the Progress from a range of about 8 km from the station. Tsibliyev would sit at the TORU controls that had been assembled in the base block, where he would maneuvre the Progress using two control sticks, one controlling its orientation, and the other imparting thrust fore and aft, left, and right. In front of him was a small screen, which transmited a view from the front of the oncoming Progress along with some simple radar information—that was all Tsibliyev had to judge the approach of the 7-tonne spacecraft as it hurtled toward the space station. Why, you might ask, carry out such a test? What contingency does it prepare the crew and station for? The answer has nothing to do with emergency scenarios or improving station operations, it has everything to do with money, a resource that the Russian space agency was desperately short of. The automatic docking system that was on board all Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, and the Mir space station was called Kurs, and it was manufactured in the Ukraine. Whilst the Soviet Union existed this was of no concern. But, since the break-up, and the independence of the Ukraine, it was now of utmost concern. The Ukrainian’s charge a large amount of money for this equip­ment, and it occurred to the Russians that maybe they could manage without it; after all, each Progress spacecraft never returned to Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere taking its expensive Kurs apparatus with it. Already the Soyuz were using Kurs that had flown and returned many times before, but the same could not be true for Progress. If they could find a way to allow the resident station crew to perform the rendezvous and docking manually it would mean they no longer needed to install Kurs in every spacecraft. The test started badly. Tsibliyev could see nothing on the monitor in front of him. He urged Linenger and Lazutkin to look out of every window to try and find the approaching Progress, but they could not see it. Finally, Lazutkin spotted the spacecraft as it emerged from behind the station’s solar arrays; it was close enough for Lazutkin to see the details of the craft’s antennas and arrays. The monitor in front of Tsibliyev finally came on and showed that Progress would miss the station by barely 200 m. The three members of the Mir crew were shaken and angry, the Progress had been out of control and could have ended up anywhere. The exact nature of the near miss, or even the reason for carrying out the test was never communicated to the U. S. side; neither did NASA officials ask about it. Eventually Russian ground controllers told the NASA engineers that they had simply decided not to continue with the docking due to some software problems. Linenger, surpris­ingly given his mistrust of the Russian system, said nothing in his communications with his ground-based team; he assumed that they must know what had happened and how close it had been, but they did not.

Work on Mir carried on as normal, although Tsibliyev’s attitude had noticeably changed. Linenger carried on with his schedule of experiments, his frustration with NASA’s minute-to-minute planning growing by the day. The various systems on board Mir were not co-operating either: the Elektron system that produced breath­able oxygen shut down, requiring the crew to burn more candles, which they were reluctant to do. The gyrodynes on the station—big gyroscopes that allow the station to be orientated without using thrusters—were proving temperamental, as were various power systems. Suddenly it seemed that nothing was working properly. The relationship between Linenger and his Russian crewmates had deteriorated, particularly with Tsibliyev. As the malfunctions on the station grew, it seemed to the Russians that Linenger was doing nothing to help; he would continue his personal routine regardless of anything else that might be going on. Tsibliyev resented that attitude. Russian ground controllers were concerned about the spacewalk that Line – nger and Tsibliyev are due to carry out together; they feared that the antagonistic relationship between them was not an ideal basis for carrying out such a task. The spacewalk went ahead as planned, but rumours were abound of a “fight” between the two men whilst outside the station, a rumour which both men later strenuously denied. Meanwhile, NASA was getting nervous about the condition of Mir, to the point that it was considering not flying the next astronaut, Mike Foale, to the station. However, the shaky partnership continued when Foale launched on board the space shuttle Atlantis and arrived at Mir to replace Linenger. Foale was confident that he could enjoy a far better relationship with the Russian crew than Linenger, and immediately settled into the station’s routine.

Michael Foale’s outlook on his mission, and the whole partnership with the Russians was very different from Jerry Linenger’s. From the very beginning of his

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

STS-84 crew (Mike Foale front right)

training he had ensured that he did the best he could to integrate himself into the Russian culture. As he learnt Russian, a difficult language that all NASA Mir candidates found hard, he made sure that he learnt more than just the technical vocabulary that was necessary for his job. He made friends with Russian colleagues, invited them to his home, and they in turn welcomed him into theirs. His conversa­tional Russian became excellent, and the Russians appreciated the extra effort he was making. At the same time, Foale realized that working with the Russians was never going to be easy; the culture and attitude was so much different from that of the U. S., that complete trust and co-operation was never going to happen, at least not for many years. As soon as he arrived on board Mir he was determined to integrate himself fully into the Russian crew; it would mean biting his lip occasionally, but he wanted to gain the confidence of Tsibliyev and Lazutkin, and be trusted by them. There was certainly plenty of work to do, Mir was still suffering from malfunctions and coolant leaks, and Tsibliyev and Lazutkin were as busy as ever trying to catch up with the growing list of problems. Foale helped where he could, but the Mir crew were beyond exhaustion from the stresses and strains of the previous months, and still the problems with Mir’s hardware continued.

Unbelievably, the Russian controllers decided to repeat the Progress docking test that had almost ended in disaster more than three months previously. Just as unbelievably, NASA officials who were this time informed of the upcoming test, said nothing, and Foale was not informed about it either. The lines of communication between the partners of this new space enterprise were virtually non-existent, and even the little that was being communicated was not being understood. Only a few days before the test was due to take place did Foale begin to question his commander about it. Tsibliyev, perhaps understandably, was reluctant to go into details, but, when pressed, Tsibliyev explained more about what was planned, and what had happened the last time they had tried. The reason for the repeat of the test was that the Russian engineers thought they knew the reason why the TORU monitor had failed to show any display. They reasoned that the Kurs radar signals, which had been turned on during the first test, had somehow interfered with the monitor’s signal. The solution was simple to them; turn off the radar signals, and try again. Now the image from the camera on the front of Progress, if it worked, would be Tsibliyev’s only source of information as he attempted to dock the 7-tonne spacecraft with Mir.

At the start of the test, the Progress craft was 7 km away from Mir and Tsibliyev was required to bring the spacecraft to a point about 50 m away from the Kvant docking port; all of this to take place whilst Mir was out of contact with controllers on the ground. To begin with, Tsibliyev was happy, at least the monitor was working this time, but he found it hard to make out the station from the clouds of the Earth behind it. Once again, his crewmates had their faces pressed against the windows searching for the Progress cargo craft, but they saw nothing. Lazutkin was the man that eventually spotted the Progress; it was very close and this time it was heading straight for the station. Tsibliyev ordered Foale into the Soyuz evacuation spacecraft. Moments later the Progress hit the Mir space station, the master alarm rang through the station, Foale felt his ears pop and it was clear to him that the hull of the station has been breached. He dived toward the Soyuz and prepared it for immediate departure, but Tsibliyev and Lazutkin remained on the station. Lazutkin knew where Progress had hit the station; he saw it with his own eyes. The Spektr module was now leaking its precious atmosphere, and the only course of action was to seal it off from the rest of the station. Unfortunately, this was not a simple exercise. Spektr, like all of Mir’s modules, had cables and tubes snaking through its open hatchway and these needed to be removed before the hatch could be closed. Some cables were easy to remove, but Lazutkin could not find the attachment points for others, so he cut through them with a knife until finally the hatchway was cable free. Meanwhile Tsibliyev had begun to “feed the leak’’ by opening canisters of oxygen that were stored in Kvant 2; this action would keep the air pressure at a survivable level, for now. Lazutkin then tried to pull the inner hatch of Spektr closed, but even with Foale’s help they could not do it, the air rushed past them and out of the puncture in Spektr’s hull, making pulling the hatch closed impossible. The only other option was to find the original “lid” hatch cover that was in place in the node before Spektr docked; fortunately, these covers were stored in the node, and Lazutkin quickly grabbed one from its storage place on the wall— it was immediately sucked into place by the same escaping air that hampered their earlier efforts. The station had been saved from the immediate threat of depressurization, and the crew were safe, but the drama was not yet over.

Frank Culbertson barely had time to reflect that early morning phone calls had become something of a feature of the Phase 1 program, as he answered yet another

one. Once again, he was amazed that a NASA astronaut had survived a life threat­ening accident, and no one from the Russian space agency had contacted him.

The drama aboard Mir was far from over, Spektr was now sealed off, and there was no immediate danger to the crew, but the impact of the Progress freighter had imparted a rotation to the station that could not be corrected as the attitude control computer was offline due to a lack of power. As the station drifted, the solar arrays could not track the Sun and generate power, the station’s batteries took over the load, but they only had a limited life, and they were draining fast. Before communication with the ground was restored all power was lost, the lights went out, the gyrodynes and air circulation systems stopped; they established radio contact with the ground but expected to lose that at any moment. The crew turned on the radio in the Soyuz, which would be their only means of communication with the ground. The problem was that with the station still rolling, and no power to any of the station’s systems, they appeared to have no means of stopping the roll and realigning the solar arrays with the Sun. Foale suggested that they use the Soyuz thrusters to regain control of the station, Tsibliyev was not keen on that idea; he had been been taught to preserve the Soyuz and its fuel at all costs, but the ground controllers finally agreed that this was the only option. After several attempts, the Soyuz was able to stop the roll and stabilize the station. Fortunately, when the station stabilized, it happened to be pointing its arrays at the Sun, and the batteries began to charge, it was a slow process, but Mir finally cames back to life.

The Phase 1 program was at the end of its tether. The feelings of distrust and hopelessness overwhelmed Frank Culbertson and his team, pressure from U. S. poli­ticians as well as from within NASA began to tell; the message seemed to be “we just can’t trust the safety of our astronauts to the Russians’’. The first meaningful partner­ship between the space superpowers was at a crossroads, and most of NASA wanted to stop right there. In Russia, things were completely different; to the officials of their space program this was simply another bump in a long road. Salyut 7 was a good example of the kind of repairs that cosmonauts could accomplish. That station had literally been brought back from the dead, and it was obvious to them that they could do the same thing again. NASA continued to consider its options including having Foale return to Earth with Tsibliyev and Lazutkin on board the Soyuz instead of waiting for a shuttle to pick him up. The implications of their future actions were plain to see, if they removed Foale early, Phase 1 was over, and so too, almost certainly, was the future co-operation for the ISS. Foale’s safety was obviously important, but it would be naive to think it was the only concern. For the first time, NASA was not in control of the destiny of one of its own; they had to trust com­pletely the Russian space agency’s ability to keep their man safe, and they were not sure that they did. As much as they tried to impress upon the Russian officials their concerns, and their opinions, the truth was that the Russians would continue to do things as they saw fit; it was, after all, their station.

Over the next few weeks, the station experienced several power drops, resulting in the station again drifting out of control, and the Soyuz had again to be used to regain the station’s attitude. NASA officials were worried that a further shuttle docking would not be possible; if such a fault occurred during the last phases of docking, it would be disastrous. Russian officials, such as Valery Ryumin, were determined to press ahead with their schedule for the station. This included sending a guest cosmo­naut, Leopold Eyharts from France, to the station with the next long-duration crew. NASA felt that would put an unnecessary drain on Mir’s limited resources, and should be postponed, but Ryumin would hear nothing of it; the French had paid for their mission, and he saw no reason to cancel it. Part of the preparations for the French mission was the repair of Spektr, which would be carried out by means of an internal spacewalk by Tsibliyev and Lazutkin. They were to enter Spektr in space – suits, which would be cramped at best, and find and repair the hole made by the Progress collision. It was important that power be restored from the Spektr solar arrays to run the French mission experiments.

The Russian Mir crew of Tsibliyev and Lazutkin meanwhile, felt sure that they would take the blame for the whole affair. Tsibliyev in particular, was certain that he would never be allowed to fly in space again, Lazutkin was less sure of that, but equally certain that their flight pay and bonuses would be affected, perhaps even lost entirely. With this pressure already on their shoulders, and the weariness they had borne with months of failures, repairs and the consequent lack of sleep, they did not feel up to the task of repairing Spektr, although they did not say so outright to the ground. To add insult to injury, Tsibliyev suffered from a heart arrhythmia during an exercise period designed to test his health for the upcoming repair. This effectively ruled him out of the work, and put Foale in the spotlight as the only other man who could join Lazutkin to carry out the repair. The final straw for Tsibliyev was when he was told that he could not participate in the spacewalk; he broke down. Lazutkin and Foale did what they could to console him, but his depression extended beyond their capacity to help. Later, Lazutkin was preparing cables for the upcoming repair work, and a badly written checklist caused him to disconnect the power to the main station computer; again the station lost attitude control, and tumbled. The recovery process was long and tiring for the crew, and now they really needed to come home; they had been through more than any crew in history, more even than the crew of Apollo 13. Finally realizing that the crew were at the end of their tether, Russian ground controllers reassigned the repair work to the next crew. Although somewhat dis­appointed, Tsibliyev and Lazutkin were also relieved, and the mood on the station lightened. Tsibliyev joked with the ground when asked about Foale’s new haircut, “I told him I would cut his hair when the cargo ship comes; it came and he said, ‘well, one has come and it hit us, so cut my hair’.’’ They were ready to come home.

Michael Foale would not be coming home with them, but the question of who should succeed him, if anyone, was well underway. Wendy Lawrence was due to replace Foale with the launch of shuttle Atlantis on STS-86, but should her seat remain empty to allow Foale to return home, or should the program continue? It now seemed unlikely that NASA would pull out of Phase 1 entirely. In the event, Lawrence was not chosen to replace Foale. Much earlier in the program it had been identified that Lawrence was too short for the Russian EVA spacesuit; this had not been seen as a problem since no EVA was scheduled for her increment, but the problems on Mir had changed that. Now it was decided that each NASA crewmem­ber had to be capable of carrying out an EVA if it became necessary, and Lawrence could not. She would have to be replaced. This was not to prove as easy as it may of sounded. NASA astronauts that wanted to be a part of the Shuttle-Mir program were extremely thin on the ground, especially after the recent events on Mir. In fact, the only man that they could find was David Wolf, who had previously flown on STS – 58, a Spacelab life sciences flight lasting 14 days, which seemed perfect experience for a flight on board Mir. Unfortunately, Wolf’s career had taken something of a down­turn since then. The occasional brush with the law, and his love of good living meant that he was not likely to be assigned to a shuttle flight for a long time, if ever. For Wolf the choice was straightforward, it was Mir or nothing. The choice was not a trivial one however. Having never served as a back-up to a Mir mission mean that Wolf was starting from scratch, and with much less time to train than all of the previous long-duration crewmembers. If Wolf was not ready in time, or simply could not fly because of illness or injury, Shuttle-Mir would probably be over, and Culbertson and the rest of NASA knew it.

Tsibliyev and Lazutkin’s long mission neared its end on 8 August 1997 when Soyuz-TM 26 docked with Mir bringing with it the next expedition crew of Anatoli Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov. The old crew packed the existing Soyuz with items to be returned to Earth, and prepared for re-entry. Even the landing of their Soyuz was not without incident. The rockets that were designed to fire moments before the capsule hit the ground, to soften the landing, failed to do so, and the crew landed hard, fortunately without injury to either of them. Tsibliyev knew that now the inquisition could begin.

On board Mir all eyes were now on the repair of Spektr. The plan called for the new crew to install a new hatch to replace the cover hurriedly put in place by Foale and Lazutkin. This new hatch incorporated electrical connectors to link up Spektr’s solar arrays; the loss of the power from these arrays had significantly reduced Mir’s overall power stores. Whilst the crew were inside Spektr, they would also try to find the puncture for future repair.

When the internal spacewalk did take place, it was mostly successful. Vinogradov initially had a problem with his suit, and when they did get inside Spektr it took longer than anticipated to connect up the cables to the new hatch, but eventually they managed to do it, and power flow from the solar arrays was restored. Unfortunately, the crew were not able to find the source of the leak from inside the module, and it was decided that Solovyov and Foale would later try to discover the puncture from outside. That EVA also failed to find the leak, and reluctantly, following further failed attempts to find the leak by the shuttle crews of STS-86 and STS-91, Spektr was abandoned.

STS-86 launched on 25 September 1997 and carried a crew of seven, including Wendy Lawrence and David Wolf; only Wolf would get to remain on the station. Foale was overjoyed to see his friends and colleagues after such a long mission, and they were relieved to see him safe and well.

Wolf’s expedition to Mir seemed boring and incident free compared with both Linenger’s and Foales, but he did carry out an EVA with Solovyov, and despite some initial difficulties with the strict Russian commander, he came to be respected by his Russian crewmates.

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Vinogradov adjusts the hermaplate hatch leading to Spektr

Andy Thomas had never expected to fly to Mir, he had simply been Lawrence’s and then Wolf’s back-up; but when Wendy could not fly, he found himself in the last seat to the space station. He gladly accepted the opportunity, and launched on STS-89 Endeavour’s first and only docking with the Mir space station. His flight increment was the smoothest of all of the Phase 1 missions; he got on well with his crew of Talgat Musabayev and Nikolai Budarin, and enjoyed the postponed visit of Frenchman Leopold Eyharts. As he says himself, “I think [my mission] was probably the most placid of all of them. The first person, Norm Thagard [had] … a lot of problems to do with the fact that he was the first, and [I don’t think he had] a lot of the things that you need to sustain yourself. So that must have made it tough for him. I don’t think they had the email situation worked out…

“Shannon [Lucid’s] flight got extended—because of shuttle problems, actually. So she had to stay up there six months instead of four, and that would have been tough, I think. She has a very good spirit about it, though…

“For Jerry [Linenger] there was the fire, of course, and for Mike [Foale] there was the depressurization. So they had some exciting times on theirs. [And] David [Wolf] had a number of power failures during his.

“Mine,” Thomas concludes, “was fairly placid by comparison, which I think is testimony to the capability of the Russians to restore operations, to bring the system

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

Foale reunited with family after landing

back on line, which I think they did well, because I think they recognized… that they were on the world stage and needed to prove that they could do it, and they did that.” Space shuttle Discovery collected Thomas at the end of his increment, and marked the end of the Phase 1 program with the final shuttle docking to Mir. Valery Ryumin was a member of that final crew, his first space flight for 18 years; he reported back to Russia with first hand information on the current state of the Mir space station. Andy Thomas returned to Earth having completed the final Mir increment successfully, he now looked forward to flying to the ISS once it was built. Frank Culbertson too wanted to fly a long-duration mission to the ISS; he had certainly earned it after a long and hard experience as head of Phase 1, butting heads day to day with Ryumin and other Russian officials, as well as those within his own organiz­ation. For Tsibliyev and Lazutkin their concerns proved well founded: initially Tsibliyev was blamed completely for the collision, but Culbertson and others felt strongly that Russian ground controllers and trainers were at least as responsible. Eventually, the officials caved in and exonerated Tsibliyev of all blame, and both cosmonauts were paid their full flight bonuses. However, neither were to fly in space again. Tsibliyev was promoted to command the cosmonaut training division, and

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

STS-91 and Mir-25 in-flight crew portrait

Shuttle-Міг: Real co-operation

NASA’s Mir astronauts

Lazutkin was grounded for unknown medical reasons following several assignments to ISS back-up crews.

Shuttle-Mir proved to be a vital component of the future plans for the ISS. Vital too for the part it played in allowing two disparate nations to settle their differences, and solidify its synergies ahead of the greatest joint program of space history, the International Space Station.


The TOSZ—Heavy Orbital Station of the Earth—was Korolev’s 1961 project for a large military space station. The draft project was completed on 3 May 1961, and marked the beginning of a long struggle throughout the 1960s to get such a station built and launched. Such a station required, of course, the N-1 rocket, the only rocket with anything like the payload lifting capacity required for such a large and heavy object.


Work on the OS-1 began on 25 September 1962. Following a meeting between President Nikita Khrushchev and the chief designers at Pitsunda, Khrushchev ordered that a 75-tonne manned platform with nuclear weapons be placed into low-Earth orbit (dubbed elsewhere as “Battlestar Khrushchev’’). Korolev was authorized to proceed immediately to upgrade the three-stage N-1 vehicle to a maximum 75-tonne payload in order to launch the station. By 1965 the mock-up of the huge station had been completed. By 1969 the OS-1 had evolved to this configuration, as described in the official RKK Energia history. In 1991 engineers from Energia and other design bureaus taught a course on “Russian Manned Space” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Vladimir Karrask, the first chief designer for the UR-500 (Proton), told of a shroud that he designed for the N-1. The shroud was cylindrical—6 m diameter x 30 m long—with a very “Proton-like” blunt conical top. He indicated that it had flown on the N-1. Another engineer, S. K. Shaevich, stated that flight hardware (including a back-up) was ready for the N-1 flights. There are those who believe that the last two N-1 flights had the Karrask shroud, and possibly the OS-1 station. It is not known if any OS-1 stations actually reached any stage of completion. Although plans for the OS-1 had to be constantly deferred until the N-1 booster proved itself, this did not prevent the design team from undertaking an even more grandiose study—the MKBS—in which OS-1 derived modules would form mere subunits of a huge space complex. At any rate the termination of the N-1 launch vehicle program ended any possibility of launching the station—unless it was reincarnated as the “Mir 2” jumbo space station that was planned for launch by the Energia booster in the 1990s.

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

In March 1970, the Skylab project received official approval by President Nixon when he referred to it during a speech about America’s goals in space for the coming decade and beyond. However, this was a difficult time for NASA, they had achieved President Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon before 1970, indeed they had done it twice with Apollo 11 and 12, and now they faced the inevitable post­success anticlimax, and the people of the United States lost interest. The Soviet threat to the moon landings had failed to materialize, and the risks of further moon landings were all too clearly demonstrated during the flight of Apollo 13 in April 1970. NASA’s budget had been slowly reducing for years now, and finally they had to cut flights: two Apollo missions were deleted from the program that would now end with Apollo 17 in 1972. It was at this time that the first hint of co-operation with the Soviets became apparent, with a suggested docking of a Soyuz with the Skylab workshop. This was at a time, of course, when the Soviet’s plans for their Salyut stations was completely unknown to the Americans until Salyut 1’s launch in 1971. NASA then suggested that perhaps an Apollo CSM could dock with a Salyut station, but the Soviets were not keen on this idea, and NASA had already decided that a Soyuz docking with Skylab was also not an option any longer. These discussions continued, and eventually an Apollo-Soyuz docking was suggested, and this would lead to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) of 1975.

In 1971 Chief of Flight Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, began the process of selecting crews for the upcoming Skylab missions. At that time, three missions were definitely scheduled with the possibility of two more. It had also been suggested that the crews should consist of one pilot/commander, preferably a flight experienced astronaut joined by two scientist-astronauts in order to maximize the scientific output from these flights. Slayton quickly put a stop to that idea; his feeling was that Skylab was a totally new kind of mission, and he wanted two pilot astronauts on each crew in case something went wrong. He came up with the following crew assignments based on those criteria.





Skylab 1


Pete Conrad

Paul Weitz

Joe Kerwin


Rusty Schweickart

Bruce McCandless

Story Musgrave

Skylab 2


Al Bean

Jack Lousma

Owen Garriott


Vance Brand

Don Lind

Bill Lenoir

Skylab 3


Gerry Carr

Bill Pogue

Ed Gibson


Vance Brand

Don Lind

Bill Lenoir

Skylab Rescue


Vance Brand

Don Lind

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab 3 and 4 back-up crew

Even these initial assignments had undergone some change. Walt Cunningham had originally been assigned as back-up commander for the first flight, but he choose to leave NASA rather than stick around for another two years as only a back-up. He was replaced by Rusty Schweickart, who in turn was replaced on the Skylab 2 and 3 back-up crews by Vance Brand. Also added at a later date was the possibility of a Skylab Rescue mission. This was the first time that planning a rescue mission had even been possible in NASA’s space program. It involved flying a special Apollo Command and Service module fitted with two extra couches underneath the outer­most couches already installed; this was a small area that had been used as a sleeping space during Apollo moon missions. This modified CSM would be flown by a crew of two, and come back with five crewmembers after docking with the second port on Skylab.

It was at this point that some confusion entered the Astronaut Office concerning the design of the mission patches for Skylab. The official designation for the three manned flights was SL-2, SL-3, and SL-4, with the first unmanned launch of the lab itself designated SL-1. The crews had designed their patches according to this numbering, but were later informed by the Skylab Program Director that in fact their flights were being referred to as Skylab 1, 2, and 3, so the patches were changed. When the patches were submitted for official approval, they were rejected by NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Spaceflight, Dale Myers, because of their numbering, and he ordered them to revert to the original designations. However, it was too late for the crews to do this, as their clothing for their upcoming missions had already been stored on board Skylab ready for its launch. It was deemed far too expensive, and unnecessary to change the clothing and labels at this late stage, so although the office designations for the missions remained, the patches are labeled, 1, 2, and 3. Such are the difficulties of managing a space program!

With the flight crews and launch dates now defined, some modifications were required to the launch pads to support the launch of the Saturn IB rocket. This had been used only once previously for a manned launch, when Pad 34 had been used for the Apollo 7 mission. As that pad was no longer available, it was decided to modify Pad 39B to accept the Saturn IB, and leave 39A largely as it was to launch the last ever Saturn V booster with the Skylab workshop on board. Given that most of the upper connections on the much shorter Saturn IB were the same as for the Saturn V that Pad 39B had been designed for, it was decided that the easiest modification to the pad would be to build a 127 foot high pedestal for the Saturn IB to sit on. This pedestal became known as the milkstool.

The Skylab workshop itself had undertaken quite a journey. Built originally as the second stage of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, it now had to be converted into a useable orbital workshop. S-IVB second stage number 212 had been built in 1966 by McDonnell Douglas, and its accompanying J-2 rocket engine built and tested during 1967 and then installed into stage 212 later that same year. At that point in time this stage was not assigned to a specific mission, so it was put into storage at McDonnell’s Huntingdon Beach assembly plant until March 1969. At the end of this period it was identified as being ideal for refurbishment as the Skylab orbital workshop. As 1969 progressed, the J-2 engine, thrust structures, and various other parts were removed to

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe


leave the stage consisted only of its two fuel tanks. It took a further two years of work to prepare the interior of the hydrogen tank for human habitation in space. The second smaller tank, originally intended for liquid oxygen, would be used by the crew for storing all of their trash. By the end of 1972 the Saturn S-IVB stage 212 was ready to be launched as the primary Skylab workshop. At the same time, another S-IVB stage, number 515, this time from a Saturn V, had been identified as the back-up Orbital Workshop and had gone through the same conversion process as stage 212. It never flew, of course, and it was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution for display at the Air & Space Museum in Washington D. C., where it has been since July 1976.

Before any of the announced crews could visit the station, it was decided to run a full mission length simulation on the ground. This simulation would allow all the experiments and equipment aboard the station to be tested before launch. It would also help to alleviate any medical fears regarding the crew’s long-term exposure to a artificial closed ecological system. If there were any problems, it would be better that they happened first on the ground. In order to run the simulation as accurately as possible, a complete mock-up of the Skylab interior had to be built in an altitude chamber in order that the correct pressure and mixture of gases could be used. It was

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

SMEAT crew

decided to use the 20 foot diameter chamber at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. The program was known as SMEAT, which stood for Skylab Medical Experiments Altitude Test. Originally planned to consist of two simulations, one lasting for 28 days and a second lasting for 56 days, it was decided to limit the program to just one 56-day test. The crew for the SMEAT test was to be selected from the pool of existing astronauts, but not to include any of the selected Skylab crews, their back-ups or support crew. Bob Crippen was selected as commander, with Karol Bobko as pilot and Bill Thornton as science-pilot. They designed their own mission patch, which featured the cartoon character Snoopy with a tightrope around his neck; this was said to reflect how they felt about some the medical experiments that were to be performed on them.

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

SMEAT patch

On the 26th July 1972 the three men prepared to start their marathon simulation with a medical check before beginning a long pre-breathing period to purge nitrogen from their blood. During the “mission” the crew participated in all the experiments that the actual crews would perform in flight. This allowed them to discover any problems with procedures, and to set a baseline for the experiments that were to be performed in orbit. The test ended on 20 September 1972, and undoubtedly made a massive contribution to the success of the Skylab missions.

By the end of 1972 the Skylab program was ready for its first launch. The thirteenth and final Saturn V booster to be launched would be used to haul the Orbital Workshop into space, where it would be visited and lived in by three separate crews launched by Saturn IB boosters from an adjacent pad. With the crew of the first mission watching, the Saturn V lifted itself from Pad 39A, and at first, everything appeared to be quite normal.

Unfortunately just as the vehicle was passing through Max Q (a term for maximum aerodynamic pressure) about 70 seconds after launch, the first signs from telemetry showed that the booster was in trouble. The telemetry showed that the micrometeoroid shield and the number two solar array had already been deployed. This, of course, should have been impossible, for the Skylab workshop was still surrounded by the aerodynamic launch shroud. In fact, the shroud enclosed only the structures atop the OWS. The skin of the OWS was the S-IVB, which was exposed to the airflow. However, the Saturn V continued its pre-programmed path and delivered Skylab to orbit. It now remained to be seen what condition the lab was in. Initial telemetry suggested that there had been a major problem with the solar arrays, as the amount of power being generated by them was a small percentage of what it should have been. Clearly if the station could not generate enough power, it could not be occupied for any length of time. After more detailed investigation by NASA officials, it was determined that a design imperfection had caused the micro­meteoroid shield to move away from its flush location against the workshop, and aerodynamic forces had then ripped the entire shield away, taking the left-hand solar array with it. It was uncertain whether the right-hand array had been similarly lost, or was trapped against the lab by debris from the departing shield. It was hoped that the

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab ready for launch

latter was the case. Pete Conrad’s crew were stood down until they could be trained to free the trapped array. Unfortunately, the micrometeoroid shield was to have served as the thermal shield to keep the interior of the workshop cool. With its demise, the internal temperature was climbing steadily to the point where it would exceed the limits designated safe for human habitability. The obvious thing for ground con­trollers to do was to maneuver Skylab such that the area of bare skin was pointed away from the Sun in order to keep the internal temperatures under control. How­ever, this also meant facing the remaining solar arrays, which were located on the Apollo Telescope Mount, away from the Sun, thus depriving the fledgling station of power. Eventually the Skylab controllers alternated the station between different attitudes in an effort to find the best compromise. A further complication caused by the increasing internal temperatures was the condition of the food supplies aboard the station for all three of its future crews. The temperature had risen to 54°C but it was determined that all of the canned food on board would survive such temperatures for quite a while if necessary. Further concerns affected the medical supplies and film—it was decided that the crews would carry fresh supplies with them.

Ultimately, however, it would fall to the first crew to make repairs to the station if the entire planned program was to be carried out. Many possible solutions for both the shield and the solar array problems were put forward, but most were not prac­tical. Eventually 10 solutions were shortlisted, and after further deliberations this list was cut to two. It was decided to supply the first crew with both solutions. An improved Sun shield solution would be made ready for the second crew to install after the first crew had reported on the condition of the station. Testing of the components to be used by Conrad’s crew was carried out by Schweickart and Kerwin in the neutral buoyancy water tank at the Marshall Space Flight Center, to develop proceedures and verify that the equipment would function as anticipated. The Extra­vehicular Activities (EVAs) planned for Conrad’s crew were arguably the most complex, and the requirement to undertake them so early in the mission by a rela­tively untrained crew was greeted with nervousness by many within NASA. A simpler method for deploying a replacement temporary Sun shield was therefore devised that would enable the crew to remain inside the workshop, but for the stuck solar array there was no choice but to proceed with the planned EVA. The command module for the first crew would therefore be crammed with improvised and off-the-shelf tools to aid in the freeing of the remaining solar array.

Pete Conrad and his crew lifted off from the milkstool on Pad 39B on 25 May 1973, their destination the damaged Skylab Orbital Workshop. The rendezvous proceeded normally, and the first order of business was to fly around the workshop to carry out a visual inspection of the damage. After first docking with Skylab in order to conserve station-keeping fuel, the crew undocked to carry out a stand-up EVA. Conrad drew the command module up to the damaged solar array for a closer inspection; which revealed that a couple of metal straps were preventing the still intact array from deploying. They depressurized the command module and Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin prepared to attempt to free the trapped wing. The procedure was for Kerwin to remain in the hatch and hold on to the legs of Weitz, who was hanging out of the hatch with a long-handled cutting tool. Every time Weitz

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab 2 crew

attempted to cut the metal straps he would inadvertently pull the command module nearer to the hull of the Skylab, which meant Conrad at the controls had to fire thrusters to prevent a collision, which in turn made Kerwin’s task difficult. It just was not going to work. The crew now attempted to dock their spacecraft with Skylab’s axial docking port again, but this time they had trouble, only completing a successful docking after they had disassembled the command module’s docking mechanism and carried out repairs. Mission Control decided that this would be a good time for the crew to have a meal and a sleep period before entering the station.

When the crew did enter Skylab the next day, they found the temperatures to be extreme, about 125°F; Conrad likened it to the engine room on an aircraft carrier. Entering the workshop in short shifts and returning to the command module to cool off, the crew set about deploying the makeshift parasol. Making use of a small scientific airlock in the wall of the workshop on the sunward-facing side, they deployed the temporary sunshade in the fashion of a chimney cleaner extending his brush by adding a new section of rod and pushing it further up the chimney. Conrad and Weitz carried out the deployment, whilst Kerwin watched their progress from the command module. Once the parasol had been fully extended, it began to flatten itself in the warmth of the Sun, and soon the temperatures in the workshop

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

View of Skylab from Skylab 2 CSM

began to drop; although it took about a week for the temperature to drop below 70 ° F. The workshop was now habitable, and the crew moved their belongings into their individual cabins and began to unpack the contents of the station in preparation for carrying out their assigned scientific duties.

Power, however, was a big problem; with only the solar arrays on the telescope mount available, Skylab had less than half the power it required. The crew would have to venture outside and attempt once more to free the trapped solar wing. Conrad and Kerwin ventured outside with the various tools that had been loaded on board their command module. One tool was a very-long-handled cutter of the type used by telephone repair men to remove branches that interfered with telegraph poles and wires. The crew had decided after their earlier inspection that this tool would be ideal to cut the metal straps that restrained the solar wing. However, when Kerwin tried to use it he found that it was impossible to place the cutting jaws precisely where he wanted them, partly owing to the length of the handles, but mainly because he was unable to get the leverage he needed for his own body in the weightless conditions. After many exhausting attempts, he noticed an attachment point on the hull and by connecting his dual tethers to this point, and one other, he discovered that he could “stand” on the hull with the tethers strained against him. This gave him the leverage and positioning that he needed, and he was able to snap first one of the restraining straps, and then the other. Almost unbelievably, the solar wing refused to deploy. Both men looked on in exasperation, until it was realized that the hinges were probably frozen and holding the wing in place. Kerwin decided to venture out into the middle of the wing and push against a rope that was tied to it, and eventually the hinges were freed and the wing began to deploy. Conrad, meanwhile, had been shot from the wing like an arrow; but his umbilical line caught him and he returned to the station hand over hand in time to see the wing fully deploy. Conrad and Kerwin re­entered the station whilst delighted ground controllers confirmed that the wing was now fully deployed and generating electricity, Skylab was saved.

Conrad and his crew could now settle into more of a standard routine, more like the one originally envisaged. They immediately discovered that Skylab was big and roomy, much larger than any spacecraft they had previously experienced. To give some idea of its size, the interior usable volume of Skylab was about 361 m3, which is a fairly meaningless number; by comparison an average semi-detached three-bed­room house has a volume of about 270 m3. That made Skylab pretty big, but bear in mind that in your three bedroom house on Earth, in normal gravity, you only get to use the floor space of that 270 m3, any space above your head is essentially wasted. In orbit, in zero-g, all of that space is habitable whether its floor, ceiling, or wall. The early Salyut stations had little more than 100m3 of space so you can see that Skylab was large for its time, and in fact its internal size would not be surpassed until the Mir space station had been fully constructed twenty-five years later.

The hydrogen tank that the crew now lived in was split into two decks, if you imagine Skylab standing upright as it was on the launch pad with the workshop at the bottom, and the docking adapter and telescope mount at the top. The very first thing we see working from the bottom of our stack, is the original oxygen tank of the Saturn rocket stage, this tank has been basically left alone, and was used to store all of the crew’s rubbish. The crew put the rubbish into the tank via an airlock connector which ran between the oxygen tank and the much larger hydrogen tank. The “bot­tom” floor of the hydrogen tank contained the crew’s individual sleeping quarters, the ward room, the bathroom, an experimental rotating chair, and the airlock for the rubbish tank, as well as a shower, a first for any manned spacecraft. Each crewman had his own sleeping compartment, with a sleeping bag hung on one wall, and storage space for personal items. Pete Conrad found that he did not like the way his sleeping bag was hung because the airflow went up his nose, so he turned the sleeping bag around; of course it’s all the same in zero gravity. The wardroom contained a table that all three crewmen could assemble around with a separate area for each of them; this allowed them to heat their food with a kind of tray to eat from. In the center of the table there was a water dispenser, both for drinking directly from, or for re­hydrating their food packs. The table also included a kind of bar stool arrangement for each man, but they found these very awkward to use as it meant that they had to conscientiously bend over the whole time, and their abdominal muscles quickly became tired. The shower, which many might think would be a very welcome addition to any spacecraft that you are going to spend a significant amount of time aboard, proved to be not as useful as hoped. The shower compartment was not a permanent glass structure that you might expect on Earth, but a collapsible enclosure to aid cleaning. In the absence of gravity the water had to be pressurized for it to “flow” from the shower head, and the water had then to be collected by means of a suction head much like a vacuum cleaner that was used to suck the water from the interior of the shower, and the astronaut. The crews found that whilst it was a pleasant experience to have this facility, it took a great deal of time to set-up, use, and clean up after, and they therefore used it less often than they otherwise might have. The bathroom was not quite such a chore to use, but the three crews did all find it a little odd that the designers had chosen to place the toilet on the wall, which meant that the crewman ended up facing the floor. In all other respects that system worked well, which was just as well, as the alternative meant reverting to the Apollo plastic bag method!

The main reason for the crew’s presence on board, of course, was to carry out scientific experiments. A great many of these were carried out on the crew themselves, to study the effects of long-term weightlessness on the human body. One of the other important roles of Skylab was to study the Sun. An entire suite of equipment had been designed for this purpose, and the crew trained extensively in its use. Once the power problems were solved, the crew were able to carry out their full schedule of Sun observations using the ATM (Apollo Telescope Mount).

An important milestone was achieved on 17 July when Conrad’s crew surpassed the 23-days-in-space mark set by the Soyuz 11 crew on board Salyut 1 in 1971. They spent their final week finishing the current experiments, stowing results for return to Earth, and getting the station ready to be unmanned for a period of time before the arrival of the next crew. Once the crew had separated from Skylab, another fly – around was carried out to photograph the condition of the station, then they fired the SPS engine to initiate the return home. The crew had completed 28 days in space, and Conrad was now the new spaceflight record-holder with over 1,179 hours in space. Years later, when asked, he would say that Skylab 2 was the mission that he was most proud of, and that when he thought about space, he always thought of Skylab and all of that room. Most people he met assumed that his mission to the moon would have been the highlight of his career, but as far as he was concerned Apollo 12 had gone by the numbers, and had been relatively routine; he would not trade it for the world, but it really had not been that exciting. Skylab was different; he and his crew had faced unknown problems, and surmounted them, and they had left the station able to continue the mission for which it had been launched, as well as achieving nearly all of the mission’s scientific objectives.

Skylab’s mission continued after the departure of the first crew. The ATM had been designed to be controllable from the ground, and therefore solar observations

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab 3 crew in front of Pad 39B

continued. Unfortunately, a primary gyroscope used to control the orientation of the station failed, and observations were stopped until the next crew could arrive. It was decided to bring forward the launch of Skylab 3 so that they could replace the failed gyro, and also install an improved sunshield, as controllers feared that the temporary solution deployed by Conrad’s crew was deteriorating faster than expected.

The Skylab 3 crew consisted, as planned, of commander Alan Bean, pilot Jack Lousma, and science-pilot Owen Garriott, and their command module was almost as packed with additional items as the first crew’s had been, partly because the intention was to increase the mission duration by three days, to the originally planned 56 days. The improved sunshade was one thing, but they also carried extra film canisters, extra food, various spare parts, including a replacement set of gyros. Launch was set for 28 July 1973, and the countdown proceeded smoothly. Only Bean had flown pre­viously; Garriott and Lousma were rookies. Lousma fell asleep whilst waiting for lift­off. As he would later recall, “Just about thirty seconds before launch, you reach over to your buddies, shake their hands and wish them good luck, because their luck is going to be the same as yours!’’

Skylab 3 was launched flawlessly, and had no trouble docking with Skylab. After many checks, the crew entered the workshop to mark the first time that a space station had been reoccupied by a different crew. However, the mission had not been without some complications at this early stage. Lousma had started to suffer from some “stomach awareness”, or Space Adaption Syndrome as we now call it, shortly after reaching orbit, and later as they entered the station Bean and Garriott had also begun to suffer too. Bean had, of course, flown on Apollo 12 with no problems at all, and it caused some surprise in Mission Control when he reported feeling ill. The crew did their best to carry on with their duties, but inevitably fell behind schedule. The net effect was that Mission Control tried to give the crew additional rest time in an effort to speed their recovery, and also postponed the first planned EVA by 24 hours. Over the next couple of days, the crew slowly began to feel better and began to catch up on the schedule; however, the entire episode caused concern for mission planners, especially with the next Skylab crew—all rookies—scheduled for a longer mission.

The problems did not end there unfortunately. It had also been noticed early on that one of the thruster quads on the Apollo service module had sprung a leak, and eventually it was deactivated. The spacecraft was able to fly perfectly well with the three remaining quads. However, several days later a second quad also started to leak and had to be shut down. This still did not represent any immediate danger for the crew, as Apollo was quite capable of flying on two, or even one thruster quad, but it did cause concern that eventually all four quads might be rendered useless. NASA’s contingency planning came into its own at this point; a rescue mission had been planned for all three missions to Skylab, and it was this option that saved the mission. If there had been no possibility of a rescue mission, the Skylab 3 crew would have packed up and come home as soon as possible, whilst the two remaining quads were still operational. But the possibility of flying a rescue command module meant that both the crew and Mission Control could afford to wait and see. In the meantime, the rescue crew of Vance Brand and Don Lind rehearsed in the simulators and their modified command module was readied for flight. The engineers on the ground were able to determine that the leaks in the two thrusters were unrelated, and that there was nothing to suggest a systematic fault. The rescue crew were stood down, although they did spend time simulating the Skylab 3 return with only two working thrusters. Lind would later remark that he had effectively talked himself out of his first flight by showing that the Skylab 3 crew could return safely without the need for a rescue flight.

After these dramas, life settled into a gentler routine for the Skylab crew. There were a few equipment malfunctions that had to be attended to, but on the whole the rest of mission was quiet. Garriott and Lousma installed the improved sunshield during an EVA 10 days into the mission. The same pair also retrieved film cassettes from the ATM later in the mission, and later still Bean and Garriott retrieved more film cassettes and also retrieved a sample of the new parasol to determine its con­dition after a month’s exposure. When the time came for the crew to leave the station, they had more than completed their objectives, and after the initial problems with space sickness had subsided, had consistently been ahead of the flight plan, always asking for more work, and by the end of the mission they had in fact achieved over 150% of their targeted work. Whilst this was a fantastic achievement, it would not bode well for the crew that was to succeed them.

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab 3 rescue crew

The crew for the third and final Skylab mission broke from Deke Slayton’s usual rules of crew selection; they were all rookies. Their mission had changed somewhat, too. A comet had been discovered that would approach the Sun toward the end of 1973, and the launch of the third crew was delayed from its original October launch date until November so that they could carry out observations using Skylab’s ATM and other instruments. The booster for the last Skylab mission had been sitting on the pad for some time, as it had originally been rolled out to serve as booster for the Skylab rescue mission; when this mission was stood down, the booster became the Skylab 4 launch vehicle. However, just five days from launch a routine inspection crew discovered cracks on the stabilizing fins of the first stage. Perhaps this was not surprising, as this stage had been manufactured over seven years earlier, but clearly it

1970-1979: Skylab—NASA dips its toe

Skylab 4 crew

could not be launched in this condition. It was decided to replace the fins on the pad, which would take about a week. The crew faced a tight squeeze in their Apollo Command Module due to it being packed with additional items for the long mission ahead, most of it food to allow the length of the mission to be extended from the planned 70 days to 84 days if all else was well. The launch itself was routine and seven hours later the crew sighted Skylab and prepared to dock—which they had some difficulty with initially, but managed at the third attempt.

With the experiences of Al Bean’s crew very much in mind, Mission Control had ordered the astronauts to take more precautions against space sickness in order to prevent disruption to the early mission flight plan, and they took anti-sickness pills as soon as they reached orbit. It was also decided that the crew would have a sleep period before entering the station for the first time. Unfortunately, it was swiftly proved that this approach did not help, as Bill Pogue was overcome with nausea almost as soon as the rest period began, and relieved himself of his last meal. The crew made the first mistake of the mission when they decided not to mention Pogue’s symptoms to Mission Control. Confident that he would feel better before they entered the lab for the first time they simply explained that he had not felt hungry and had left most his last meal uneaten. This plan might have worked if it were not for the on-board automatic taping system which recorded the entire conversation and relayed it later to the ground, and most importantly to Chief Astronaut Alan Shepard. As a result Shepard talked directly to the crew commander, Gerry Carr, and voiced his opinion on what he called “a fairly serious error in judgement”. Carr realized the error of his ways and put his hands up and agreed that “it was a dumb decision”.

Despite the best efforts of the mission planners, Pogue’s sickness would impact the early activation of the station by limiting his participation with the rest of the crew. In fact, the planners seemed to assume that this crew could pick up at the same pace as Bean’s had left off, which ignored the fact that it took Bean’s crew several days to get near that pace of work. The planners also seemed to assume that procedures in space took the same amount of time as taken during training on the ground, and as hard as the crew tried to keep pace, they simply could not, and fell further behind the timeline set by the ground controllers. Even worse, the planners on the ground did not seem to realize that they were making things worse; they even added extra tasks to the crew’s day, causing them to fall even further behind, and consequently start to believe that they were not doing a good enough job. On the seventh day of the mission, Pogue and Ed Gibson carried out a planned EVA to replace film cartridges successfully, but even then the tired crew left some stowing away tasks until the next day. All in all, the first three weeks or so were very difficult. But things began to improve as the crew realized how to make things better, and better communicate those thoughts to the controllers on the ground. This was about the same period of time that Al Bean’s crew had taken to reach their peak efficiency, but this fact was apparently forgotten by the mission planners, who seemed to assume that the new crew could immediately start where the previous crew had left off. The crew desperately tried to remain on the timeline, and explain the problems to those on the ground, but their pleas went unheeded. The mission planners, for their part, always felt that the crew were about to reach their best performance level, and were therefore reluctant to reduce the workloads. After all, this was the last chance for these scientific experiments to be flown and NASA wanted to take advantage of every waking moment. It all came to a head after the crew had been in orbit for about six weeks. During a call with the crew’s boss, Deke Slayton, all of the problems were voiced and discussed, the ground were persuaded to ease off on the workload, and also leave some of the scheduling to the crew rather than providing a daily minute-by­minute task list. This meant that the crew felt more in charge of their activity, and were able to follow a more “normal” day. The rest of the mission proceeded at a similar pace to the previous ones, and by the end of January 1974 the crew were making preparations to return home. The orbit of Skylab was raised slightly with a firing of RCS jets on the Apollo service module, in the hope that this might allow Skylab to survive for longer, and perhaps be visited again before its expected orbital decay in 1981 or 1982. The Skylab 4 crew landed about 5 hours after undocking having spent a total of 84 days and 1 hour in orbit.

The possibility of a Skylab revisit and re-boost mission would now be left to the space shuttle, which at this stage did not exist, so a choice had to be made between trying to preserve the station for some future visit by Apollo CSM or the space shuttle, or a mission to send a crew in Apollo to carry out a controlled re-entry burn to send Skylab to its destruction. There were some risks attached to the latter, as it involved the docked CSM firing its service module engine until Skylab had almost reached entry interface, which meant that a prompt undocking was a very important action; if the docking latches failed in some way the crew would follow Skylab to destruction! In part due to these risks, it had been decided to boost Skylab to a higher orbit before the final crew left, effectively deferring the decision until the early 1980s. Once the space shuttle program was underway, it was tentatively planned that during its third flight the shuttle would rendezvous with Skylab and attach a booster rocket to the docking port, at which time it would be decided whether to boost the station to a higher orbit once more, or send it to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Ironically, Jack Lousma of Skylab 3 was assigned to pilot the shuttle’s third mission, and revisit his old home. In the end, two factors decided Skylab’s fate. The first was the protracted development of the shuttle, it became clear over time that the shuttle would simply not be ready in time to save the orbiting station, especially as it’s orbit was deteriorating faster than expected owing to increased solar activity inflating the upper atmosphere and causing increased drag. Skylab would have to be left to make an uncontrolled re-entry sometime in 1979, and it seemed every nation in the world was worried that it would fall on them. Shortly before its crash to Earth, it was determined that Australia was the most likely target, and at least 25 tons of various parts of the station were predicted to survive the re-entry process. In the event, several parts did survive, and a young Australian claimed the $10,000 prize that a U. S. newspaper had offered as reward for any genuine Skylab parts. The largest items found were a door from one of the film vaults, and some oxygen and nitrogen tanks, and these along with various museum pieces like the back-up Skylab are all that remain of the United States’ first space station.

Was Skylab a success? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because NASA successfully carried out a great deal of science during the three manned periods, and even during the unmanned intervals as well. For an agency that had no real experience of carrying out scientific experiments, other than those on the surface of the moon, and none at all over long periods of time, it was a very successful project. Detailed photography and data about the Sun was collected—enough to keep researchers busy for some years, human medical experiments, materials processing, and more besides, were all carried out with precision and accuracy by the various crews. On the other hand, Skylab was not a success, because the mission planners in particular seemed unable to learn from the experiences of previous crews. The work schedule for all of the crews was always unrealistic. It was an easy mistake to make on your first space station project; the Soviets had experienced similar problems after all with the early Salyut mission. Amazingly, NASA would be doomed to repeat these mistakes in years to come on board Mir and the International Space Station.