Retro Action, May 14, 1973: Meet Skylab, America's First Space Station

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A view of Skylab in 1974, taken by the crew of Skylab 4, the last manned mission to the station. (Photo: Getty Images)

On this day in 1973, NASA sends Skylab, America's first space station, into orbit aboard a Saturn V rocket.

Although the station was unmanned at the time, three later missions of 28, 59, and 84 days respectively, proved that human beings could indeed survive extended periods in space, giving scientists hope for future long-duration trips.

"The crew is still moving a little slow," reported one of the flight surgeons, Dr. George Armstrong, during Skylab 3. "They're not bright-eyed and bushy tailed yet. But they aren't feeling bad, and they're functioning."

In each of the groundbreaking missions, extensive experiments were done to study the effects of weightlessness on the physical and mental condition of astronauts. Occasionally, even smaller life forms like minnows were tested.

"They seem to be completely disoriented," reported scientist-turned-astronaut Dr. Garriott, examining the minnows in a plastic bag. "They're all swimming pitch down in small circles. They apparently think they're climbing or something, due to the zero-g (gravity) and are pitching down in order to avoid that. And they're swimming in very tight circles."

"It's almost as if they were pivoting about a point somewhere near their tails or even a little closer to their center of their gravity."

Although Skylab was deemed "a highly satisfactory living and working environment for crews" by NASA, it was abandoned after just three missions because of aging conditions. While plans were discussed to possibly resurrect the station in 1979, by then it had reentered the atmosphere and disintegrated, with most of the debris falling near Perth in western Australia.


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