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NASA’s “made in Alabama” space station, fifty years later.


The U.S. Space Program today is marking fifty years since the launch of Skylab, NASA’s first attempt at a space station in low Earth orbit. Nine astronauts, in three member crews, would conduct experiments and set endurance records for time spent in space aboard the orbiting outpost. NASA credits Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville for its central role in building and developing Skylab. The space agency’s website writes…

“Skylab fulfilled the dreams of Dr. Wernher von Braun who had long wanted to build an orbiting outpost where people learn could how to live and work in space for longer periods. Von Braun and his team came up with the idea of using parts of an existing Saturn V rocket to make an orbital laboratory. Turning a rocket into a laboratory was not easy, but it was an affordable way to build a space station because existing hardware could be used. As plans for Skylab moved from dreams and drawings to reality, the Marshall Center developed and integrated most of the major components: the orbital workshop, where the astronauts lived and worked, an airlock module, which served as a doorway to space for extravehicular activities, and a multiple docking adapter so that the Apollo crew capsule could dock with the lab and drop off people and equipment. The Marshall team also built science equipment: the Apollo telescope mount, which allowed telescopes to study the stars and the sun, a payload shroud for the delivery of the Skylab, and many experiments. The series of biomedical equipment that included a bicycle ergometer, metabolic analyzer, lower body negative pressure device, as well as the experimental support system, were designed and built at Marshall facilities. Marshall provided the Saturn 1B launch vehicles for the three crew missions, and the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled Skylab into orbit. Astronauts even trained to work in the space environment by practicing operations in Marshall's Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, an underwater training facility that simulated low gravity. Engineers and designers used the underwater simulator as they designed Skylab and later after Skylab was launched when they had to rapidly develop a way to repair Skylab's sunshield, which was damaged during launch.”

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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