The Legacy of Skylab

Perhaps part of Skylab’s greatest legacy is the extent to which its legacy is often overlooked. Tucked between the glory ofApollo and the much longer Space Shuttle program, Skylab’s importance to human space exploration can be lost in the shadows of its older and younger siblings. However, it is a testament to how effective Skylab was in breaking new ground in human spaceflight that the lessons it taught are now largely taken for granted.

Before Skylab, however, many of the things that today seem to have been part of spaceflight forever were still largely terra incognita. Nearly all of the transition from the early explorations of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo to the living and working in space on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station was a result of the successes of the three Skylab crews. They truly were able to homestead the space frontier and pave the way for those that would come after them.

So What Was Learned from the Skylab Experience?

It is possible to live and work in space

If Skylab taught the world nothing else, that one legacy alone would have made possible the future of human spaceflight. Three successive new records for spaceflight duration proved that people could live in space for far longer than the fourteen-day Gemini 7 mission that had set the bar for NASA pre­viously. The depressurization tragedy at the end of the Soviet Union’s twen­ty-three-day Soyuz 11 mission meant that much of the information from that flight was lost. And while some basic experiments had been conducted within the relatively limited confines of previous spacecraft, Skylab would prove that meaningful scientific research could be conducted in orbit—a fact that was vital to the success of the Shuttle’s science missions.

An astronaut can spend months in space
and live out a healthy life

The fact that no one had ever lived in space for the duration the Skylab astro-
nauts did also meant that no one knew what would happen when someone

returned to Earth after that long. It was one thing to know that a person could live in space for that long, but unless they were able to then return safely home, that knowledge meant very little. Extensive medical baselin­ing before and during the flight gave confidence that the crews could come home in good health, and longitudinal data collected afterwards—to this very day—monitored their recovery after the flight.

Space motion sickness is a problem,
but not an insurmountable one

Prior to Skylab there was only limited awareness of the problems that can result during adaptation to the microgravity environment. Skylab certainly demonstrated that space motion sickness could be a serious short-term prob­lem for astronauts, but it also laid the groundwork for dealing with it.

Meaningful work can be conducted on spacewalks Today’s International Space Station has myriad translation aids on its exterior to allow astronauts to move around while conducting repairs and improve­ments to the spacecraft. Skylab, on the other hand, had next to none, out­side of the path from the airlock to the atm. The fact that Skylab was unpre­pared for the sort of repair work its crews would have to conduct shows just how little was understood at the time about the possibilities presented by extravehicular activity. Everything from the construction of the iss to the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope owes a debt of gratitude to the prece­dent set by Skylab. For many years the patch on NASA’s eva space suits fea­tured three stars in its background, each representing a key eva—one for Ed White’s first U. S. spacewalk, one for Apollo 11’s first steps on the moon, and one representing Conrad and Kerwin’s first Skylab eva.

A space station is a viable platform for research There had been numerous proposals for space stations over the years, but Skylab was the first time NASA implemented one of those proposals, and the first time anyone in the world manned one spacecraft with multiple suc­cessive crews.

Skylab also marked a turning point in spaceflight. Previously the focus of human spaceflight had been working toward exploring another world. Low Earth orbit had been only a steppingstone to the moon. Skylab proved that humans could make valuable scientific contributions in orbit, paving the way for spaceflight in the coming years.

Valuable astronomy and Earth observation
can be conducted from space

Skylab revealed how complex and dynamic the sun is and marked the begin­ning of a new era in mankind’s understanding of the active nature of the sun and its relationship to the Earth. While the idea of conducting astro­nomical research in space did not begin with Skylab, the success of the work done there lay the groundwork for future generations of space telescopes. Skylab also laid the groundwork for a field of Earth observations research that has continued since on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.