Skylab B and Skylab Rescue
Updated: May 16
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 (Skylab 2 for 28 days, Skylab 3 for 59 days, and Skylab 4 for 84 days). 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, its sister station Skylab B was constructed and housed back on Earth.
Skylab photographed by Skylab 4, its final crew (NASA)
McDonnell Douglas constructed two space stations for the Apollo Applications Program, which later became Skylab. There were multiple ideas for how to use Skylab B, each more advanced than one in space. The company proposed creating a large space station by combining Skylab with the Soviet space station Salyut, which may 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, the Shuttle was due to enter service in 1979, but after the "first" Skylab launched in 1973, plans for using the backup 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, while the Soviet space program pioneered long-duration spaceflight with Salyut.
Cutaway illustration of Skylab (NASA)
Skylab Rescue was a standby rescue mission part of a contingency plan for the space station. Its unique feature was a modified Apollo command module that could be launched with a crew of two and returned with a crew of five. Plans for equipping a command/service module as a space rescue vehicle dates back to late 1965 when technicians at North American Rockwell, the manufacturers of the Apollo spacecraft, 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 NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1972 .
Illustration cutaway of the Command Module used for Skylab Rescue (Public Domain)
The closest Skylab Rescue ever came to fruition was during Skylab 3 in 1973. Soon after launch, the CSM developed problems with its reaction control system thrusters, called quads. Two quads were inoperable, but the spacecraft could operate with only one. However, if the service propulsion system fuel was contaminated, the spacecraft might not be able to de-orbit and return back to Earth. With that hazard, NASA considered bringing the crew home immediately, but they were safe on Skylab and rescue flight plans existed. The mission continued. Meanwhile, the Saturn IB rocket AS-208 and the CSM-119 were being mated and rolled out to Launch Complex-39B for launch. The crew for this rescue mission was Vance Brand and Don Lind, the backup commander and pilot for Skylab's 3 and 4. They used simulators to test undocking from Skylab and reentering Earth's atmosphere using only two quads instead of the usual four. It was Lind's responsibility to choose what would be brought back with the crew from the station, the most important of which was the film from the Apollo Telescope Mount, a solar observatory. Cutting corners, the mission wouldn't be ready to launch until September 10, more than a month after the second quad malfunctioned. NASA cancelled the rescue mission after it determined the failed quads wouldn't cripple the CSM and the fuel was not contaminated. Brand and Lind backed the conclusion that reentry with the failed quads was safe. In fact, Brand is said to have joked two of them were "very efficient but perfectly stupid, because we have literally worked ourselves out of the mission" (Shayler, 2001). 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, 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 is at KSC's Apollo/Saturn V Center, but the unique five-seat rescue configuration has been removed.
CSM-119 on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center (image credit: Aeryn A.)
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 The movie was adapted from a 1964 science fiction novel by Martin Caidin.
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.