• Aeryn Avilla

Hidden Histories: Skylab B and Skylab Rescue

Updated: Jul 9

Skylab was the United State's first crewed space station and orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979. From 1973 to 1974, it was visited by three crews of three for increasing durations. Major operations of the space station included an orbital workshop, Earth and solar observation, and life science experiments. Though the single Skylab remained in orbit during the program's duration, another space station was constructed and housed back on Earth— Skylab B.


Skylab space station

Skylab photographed by Skylab 4, its final crew (image credit: NASA)


The proposed Skylab B would have been a space station physically similar to Skylab but used for different purposes, mostly involving the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. McDonnell Douglas constructed two Skylab modules for the Apollo Applications Program, which later became the Skylab Program.


There were multiple ideas for how to use Skylab B, all more advanced than the first Skylab. One particularly ambitious idea was putting the station into a rotation mode where it could generate artificial gravity. This launch, along with the launch of two Soviet Soyuz missions, would celebrate the US Bicentennial in 1976. McDonnell Douglas proposed creating a large space station by combining Skylab with the Soviet space station Salyut. The launch of the crewed Apollo spacecraft would also include a multiple docking adapter to dock both stations together and service the Apollo and Soyuz vehicles. Modifications would have had to be made to the Skylab B to support the mixed oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere of Salyut (Skylab had a pure oxygen atmosphere). If not, an airlock would have been installed. This likely would have been called International Skylab.


Another idea pitched in 1973 involved using Skylab with the new Space Transportation System, or Space Shuttle. At the time, Shuttle was due to enter service in 1979. This likely would have been known as Advanced Skylab. However, after the first Skylab launched in 1973, plans for using the backup space station were cancelled. After Apollo-Soyuz marked the end of the Space Race in 1975, NASA focused more on developing the Shuttle, which did not complete its first mission until 1981.


Cutaway illustration of Skylab

Cutaway illustration of Skylab (image credit: NASA)


Skylab Rescue

Skylab Rescue was a standby rescue mission part of a contingency plan for the space station and consisted of a modified Apollo command module that could be launched with a crew of two and return with a crew of five. Plans for equipping a Command/Service Module (CSM) as a space rescue vehicle date back to late 1965 when technicians at North American Rockwell conceived the possibility of a rescue mission for astronauts trapped in lunar orbit. Following the release of the 1969 film Marooned, in which a three-man crew and their Apollo craft is stranded in Earth orbit following their stay on a space station, the company revised their original plan and it was approved by Marshall Space Flight Center in 1972.


Skylab 3 astronauts Alan Bean and Jack Lousma helped design a kit to use a standard Skylab CSM for rescue. The spacecraft held a crew of three and included storage lockers on the aft bulkhead for the resupply and return of film, data tapes, and samples. The modified spacecraft had two crew couches in place of the lockers.


Skylab Rescue crew Vance Brand and Don Lind

The closest Skylab Rescue ever came to launching was during Skylab 3 in 1973. Soon after launch the CSM developed problems with its reaction control system thruster, also called quads. The spacecraft could operate with only one quad and two were out of service. However, if the service propulsion system (SPS) fuel was contaminated the spacecraft might not be able to de-orbit and return back to Earth. NASA considered bringing the crew home immediately but the astronauts were safe on Skylab and rescue flight plans existed. The mission continued. Meanwhile, the Saturn IB rocket AS-208 [1] and CSM-119 were being assembled and rolled out to

Launch Complex-39B for launch. The crew for this mission was Vance Brand and Don Lind, the backup commander and pilot for Skylab's 3 and 4. They used simulators to test reentry using only two quads instead of the usual four. It was also Lind's responsibility to choose what would be brought back with the crew from the station, most important of which was the film from the Apollo Telescope Mount, a solar observatory. Cutting corners, the mission would not be ready to launch until September 10, more than a month after the second quad malfunctioned. However, the agency cancelled the rescue mission after it concluded the failed quads would not disable the CSM and the fuel was not contaminated. Brand and Lind backed the claim that reentry with the failed quads was safe. In fact, Brand is said to have joked the two of them were "very efficient but perfectly stupid, because we have literally worked ourselves out of the mission." [2] Skylab 3 returned home as scheduled after completing its 59-day mission.


Brand and Lind continued to work on their backup roles for Skylab 4 as well as train for a possible rescue mission. Spacecraft CSM-119 was mated with AS-209 but was never rolled out to the pad for launch. There were also plans for a 20-day Skylab 5 flight with Brand, Lind, and backup Science Pilot William Lenoir, but when Skylab 4 was extended from 56 to 84 days, the mission was no longer needed. Brand flew on Apollo-Soyuz the following year and commanded three Shuttle missions from 1982 to 1990. Lenoir's only flight was Brand's first commanding, STS-5. Lind did not fly until STS-51-B in 1985.


Once Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz ended, remaining hardware was donated to museums across the country. This hardware included two complete Saturn V rockets, three Saturn IB rockets, the backup Skylab B, three CSM's, and two Lunar Modules. AS-209 is on display in the Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden, lying on its side. CSM-119 and LM-9, as well as a Saturn V with no mission designated, are also at KSC's Apollo/Saturn V Center.


CSM-119 on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center (image credit: Aeryn A.)



Author's Note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like, comment, and share!


[1] The numbering system for Saturn IB and V rockets is as follows: "AS" refers to Apollo Saturn (even though Skylab and ASTP were not part of the Apollo Program). "2" refers to the IB member of the Saturn family. "08" refers to the eighth launch of the Saturn IB. Apollo 11, which was the sixth launch of the Saturn V, is AS-506.

[2] Quote found in Skylab: American's Space Station by David Shayler



Bibliography

  • Evans, Ben. “Launch Minus Nine Days: The Space Rescue That Never Was.” AmericaSpace, 12 Aug. 2012, www.americaspace.com/2012/08/12/launch-minus-nine-days-the-space-rescue-that-never-was/.

  • Portree, David S. F. “Skylab Rescue Plan (1972).” Wired, Conde Nast, 3 June 2017, www.wired.com/2012/07/skylab-rescue-plan-1972/.

  • Shayler, David J. Skylab: America's Space Station. Praxis Publishing, 2001.

Images

photo of Brand and Lind: NASA


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