If mankind is to travel from Earth to explore our universe, we will have to learn to live without the familiar experience of weight that is almost always with us on our home planet.
In the void between worlds, explorers will experience virtually total weightlessness. It’s a strange environment without up or down, new to the body and with hidden threats, as big a step for us as was the classic emergence of life from the oceans onto dry land. They sputtered, we threw up, but apparently it won’t take us as long to adapt. The point is that the process of really understanding “weightlessness” and really adapting to it was started by nine men in 1973. This is the story of that adventure.
Skylab was America’s first step toward making space something other than a nice place to visit. Developed in the shadow of the Apollo moon missions and using hardware originally created for Apollo, the Skylab space station took the nation’s astronauts from being space explorers to being space residents. The program proved that human beings can successfully live and work in space.
For many members of the public, Skylab is perhaps best known for two things—its beginning and its end. During the May 1973 launch of the Skylab workshop, an unanticipated problem damaged the station on its way to orbit. And of course, Skylab captured the world’s attention with its fiery re-entry over the Indian Ocean and Australia in 1979.
But between those bookends lies a fantastic story of a pivotal period in spaceflight history. Skylab’s three crews lived there for a total of six months, setting — and breaking — a series of spaceflight duration records. While previous U. S. spaceflights were focused on going places, Skylab was about being somewhere, not just passing through the phenomenal space environment, but mastering it. Everything that was to come afterward in U. S. spaceflight was made possible by this foundation—from scientific research in micro
gravity on the space shuttle to the on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station.
Even the unanticipated challenges that arose during the Skylab program turned into opportunities. The damage that crippled the spacecraft during launch became a rallying point for NASA and led to a repair effort that was unplanned and unprecedented—and perhaps still unparalleled.
This book is the story not only of the nine men who lived aboard Skylab but of all those who made the program a reality. And, like Skylab itself, this book depended on the contributions of a variety of people who shared their stories.
One of the pleasant surprises encountered in writing our story came in late 2005 when we showed Alan Bean (commander of the second manned mission) our draft of the second mission chapter. We had relied on the chronological account from Garriott’s in-flight diary to tie together the events and to develop the story of that mission.
Much to our surprise, Alan said that he, too, had kept an in-flight diary and offered it to us for inclusion in this book! Naturally we took him up on that offer and were then absolutely amazed to find the extent of his handwritten account—more than one hundred pages of carefully written—albeit very difficult to decipher—print and script.
It covered not only events on board but also interpersonal relationships, his thinking and action to promote team spirit and optimum performance, his thoughts of home and family, and even more. We then incorporated as much of the “Bean Diary” in the story of the second mission as we thought appropriate and then added his full diary as an appendix to assure that all of Alan’s thinking will be available to others.
Alan had kept the existence of the diary to himself for over three decades. Neither of his crewmates was aware that it had even been written. We are pleased and feel fortunate to include it here where others can better understand the thinking of arguably the most highly personally motivated crewman to fly in space.
Each of the eight living members of the Skylab crews has shared their stories with us, providing fresh perspectives of this unique experience. We deeply regret that the program’s “Sky King”—first crew commander Pete Conrad—was not able to participate personally in this project. But his voice lives on in this book through previously recorded material.
You will also find portions of numerous interviews with Skylab engineers, scientists, managers, flight controllers, and other astronauts. We were struck by their unanimous view that Skylab was one of the most significant events in their professional careers—if not the most significant. Perhaps more to be expected, that is also true for all of the Skylab astronauts as well.
Yet, there has been very little written about the three missions themselves. Again almost all of our interviewees were most pleased to find that some of the crew were finally undertaking to report on these events from the perspective of those involved and, hopefully, that the contributions coming from all of the Skylab team would not be lost. Unfortunately we will certainly fall short of reaching the goal of recognizing even a modest part of their enormous contribution, but we do want to acknowledge their prime role in making the Skylab program the success we believe it came to be.
We hope that the dedication of this book reflects a little of that debt owed to the thousands of team members who really made it happen.
For all three of us, this book has been a true labor of love, and it is a story that we are very proud to be able to tell.