Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Skylab - The United States' First Space Station

United States (Scott #1529)

On May 14, 1973, the United States launched Skylab aboard a 2-stage Saturn rocket. It was the first U.S. launch of an orbiting space station.

The Soviet Union was first in deploying a space station with the launch of Salyut 1 in April, 1971. This station lasted less than 6 months, however, and re-entered the atmosphere in October of that year.

The Soviets tried another secretive military space station two years later, but it experienced problems from the outset and it burned up while re-entering Earth's atmosphere just over a month later.

Skylab, on the other hand, was launched and remained in orbit for 2,249 days, a record which would last until the late 1980s when the Soviet Union's Salyut 7 surpassed that mark. For all but 171 days, however, Skylab was unoccupied.

Skylab encountered several problems during launch that threatened the entire mission. One minute after liftoff, the meteoroid shield, which also served to shade the space station and regulate its temperate, deployed by mistake and the subsequent atmospheric drag caused it to be ripped away. When this occurred, it led to one of Skylab's two solar arrays to be physically torn away. And, to make things worse, debris from the meteoroid shield prevented the remaining solar shield from opening properly.

Gabon (Scott #934)

For a period of 10 days, engineers worked frantically to devise repairs for the damaged space station. Because the remaining solar array was so inefficient, a careful balance had to be made between maximizing the limited power by placing it directly in the sun, and keeping the crippled station's temperature at a reasonable level. The first manned flight to the station, at the end of those 10 days, was one of repair. That mission kept SkyLab functioning and habitable.

A total of 3 trips were made to Skylab, each of increasing duration. During its lifetime, Skylab aided in scientific research of the sun and of micro-gravity. It also served as a mechanism for on-the-job training of making in-flight repairs. This knowledge has proven to be especially fruitful with later space missions, including missions to the International Space Station.

Quite a few stamps have been issued that depict Skylab. The United States issued a 10-cent stamp on May 14, 1974, to honor the 1st anniversary of the launch of Skylab. Gabon also issued a beautiful stamp (shown nearby) to commemorate America's first venture with a space station.

Skylab famously returned to earth in July, 1979. Debris from the station reigned down on parts of the Indian Ocean and into Australia. When debris turned up in Esperance, a town in the southern part of Western Australia, the municipality fined the United States $400 for littering.

The fine has never been paid.

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