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Alabama's key role in NASA's first space station


Supporters of the U.S. Space Program are celebrating an anniversary this year. 2023 marks fifty years since NASA launched its first space station. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center held an event last weekend to remember Skylab. Nine astronauts spent roughly six months aboard the orbiting outpost.

APR news director Pat Duggins with NASA Skylab astronaut Jack Lousma
APR news director Pat Duggins with NASA Skylab astronaut Jack Lousma

It's no secret that radio news depends on sound to tell stories. That can be interview cuts, audio tracks from the reporter, or something like this. The whoosh I'm referring to happened in July of 2019. The location was NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The whoosh you heard was five thousand model rockets all launched at the same time. The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first astronauts to walk on the moon.

“I saw it in Mission Control, and then I went home and watched the moonwalk on black and white TV,” said Jack Lousma. He lived in the same neighborhood in Houston, Texas as Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

“And there was just a bevy of overhead lights and press and cameras and, and interested people,” recalled Lousma. “This was like a storm, like a mob of people around the house is waiting for somebody to come out or waiting for the landing happened.”

In 2019, Lousma was in Huntsville for the Apollo 11 fiftieth anniversary celebration. It’s what he was doing fifty years ago this month that’s the point of this story…


“I was on the Skylab two. That is we're gonna do is for the two month mission,” said astronaut Lousma. He was part of the second crew to work aboard NASA’s first space station, called Skylab.

And that was a big deal for The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville…

“Well, I think Marshall's role is really central in the whole process, right?” suggested Brian Odom. He’s NASA’s Chief Historian. He says Marshall managed the construction of Skylab and helped define its in the U.S. Space Program.

“In this process of building a human spaceflight program, human space exploration, where we are thinking about long term stays that really will make us kind of this interplanetary species, right? You know that we can live off the planet. Skylab really was the first it was the first American attempt to do that,” said Odom.

Skylab conducted close to three hundred experiments between May and November of 1973. The list included studying solar flares from the Sun, the visit of Comet Kohoutek, and how life without gravity impacted astronauts. The issue was telling people on the ground about it. Here’s more from a video tour Jack Lousma recorded aboard Skylab in 1973.


“This is a video tape recorder,” said Lousma gesturing to a large unit on the station. “As you may know, we don't have ground stations in the hand across the earth. So we periodically come in contact. And most of the time however we're out of ground contact fact about 30% of the time is all the time we spent talking to the ground and we could not send this picture down to you without without recording it on this tape because we're not presently overground stations.”

Lousma’s observation takes a little explaining. The International Space Station sends live TV to and from Earth all the time now. Back in the 1970’s, Skylab didn’t have NASA’s network of satellites, so instant video wasn’t possible. And, Lousma wasn’t the only Skylab astronaut to wish things were different.

“Oh, what I would love to have had was a television uplink and downlink,” said former Astronaut Ed Gibson. He flew on Skylab 3 after Jack Lousma and his crewmates on Skylab 2.


I spoke with Gibson back in 1995 and he did the same kind of video tour as Jack Lousma. When I interviewed him twenty eight years ago, NASA was still designing the International Space Station. To hear Gibson tell it, faster television signals would have helped with training Skylab crews in orbit to do new jobs…

“And you never get much as much time as you really need to get the whole crew together to train a long continuous time period as well as with the ground. So the ring out all those frictions that otherwise will occur in flight," said Gibson.

NASA historian Brian Odom confirms there was friction between the crew of Skylab 3 and mission controllers. The astronauts felt they were given too much work to do on a non-stop schedule. Odom says one of the lessons from Skylab was not giving the astronauts too much work without a break…

“And I think back in the day, when we first had these long duration missions, we thought, Oh, we've got all this time, right. So let's fill this time, as much as we can. And what happened really is you begin to think you begin to lose track that human beings are in the loop here, right. And so you can't just schedule as much science as possible around the clock. And, you know, they have eight hours of downtime, and then right back to it with this leads to pack schedules," Odom said.

During my talk with Astronaut Jack Lousma, we discussed his second mission in orbit. NASA moved onto the Space Shuttle after Skylab. Lousma was the commander of the third launch of the Shuttle and his destination was a familiar one.

Pat Duggins

“Well, our first assignment for a Skylab or for the shuttle flight that I flew was the rescue of the Skylab. And the Skylab came down before the STS three was ready.”

The plan was for Space Shuttle Columbia to boost Skylab to a higher orbit, so it wouldn’t burn up in orbit. Gravity had a different idea. The space station burned up in the atmosphere in 1979. Lousma’s Shuttle flight couldn’t go until three years later.

“But nevertheless, we went up and had a really successful eight day flight supposed to be seven days,” said Lousma. “So we're the only guys that ever landed on the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.”

Visitors at the Marshall Space Flight Center can see part of what’s left of Skylab. A large hydrogen tank from the outpost survived the burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and landed in Australia. Marshall has the tank in a display case at the U.S. Space and Rocket center in Huntsville. Pieces of that Skylab’s tank, certified by NASA, were also cut up and made into paperweights.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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