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11 July 1979 Skylab fell – and the American public was robbed

Jul. 11, 2014, under call to action, opinions, space t/e/d

NASA’s Skylab, launched 14 May 1973, was an orbiting space station manned by crews arriving via separate launches. The orbital workshop (OWS) section was a refitted S-IVB second stage of a Saturn IB booster, a leftover from the Apollo program originally intended for one of the canceled Earth orbital missions, modified for long duration manned habitation in orbit. It contained provisions and crew quarters necessary to support three-person crews for periods of up to 84 days each.

Severe damage was sustained during launch, and the station underwent extensive repair during a spacewalk by the first crew; repairs by crews throughout the manned stays led to virtually all mission objectives being met.

The first Skylab crew was aboard from 25 May to 22 June 1973, the crew of the SL-2 mission (73-032A). Next, it was manned during the period 28 July to 25 September 1973, by the crew of the SL-3 mission (73-050A). The final manned period was from 16 November 1973 to 8 February 1974, when it was inhabited by the SL-4 mission (73-090A) crew.

Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times during the 171 days and 13 hours of its occupation during the three manned missions; astronauts performed ten spacewalks totalling 42 hours 16 minutes. Skylab logged approximately 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments, including eight solar experiments (e.g., the Sun’s coronal holes were discovered); many medical experiments related to astronauts’ adaptation to extended periods of microgravity. Each successive Skylab mission set a duration record for the time the astronauts spent in space.

Following the final manned Skylab mission, ground controllers performed some engineering tests that ground personnel were reluctant to do while astronauts were aboard. Upon completion of those tests, Skylab was positioned into a stable attitude and systems were shut down. It was expected Skylab would remain in orbit an additional eight to ten years. It was to have been visited by an early shuttle mission, reboosted to a higher orbit, and used by space shuttle crews, but delays of the first shuttle flight made this impossible. At the same time, increased solar activity heating the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere caused more drag on the station, which led to an early reentry on 11 July 1979. Skylab disintegrated over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia after a worldwide scare over its pending crash, casting large pieces of debris in populated areas.

Of the premature reentry it has been said “Fortunately, the only casualty was a single Australian cow.” However, that quip doesn’t really express the real damage that was incurred by the loss of Skylab: How much further ahead would we have been when the shuttle started flying if there was still a space station in place to go visit?

The total budget for Skylab was approximately $2,147,100,000 in 1970’s dollars (NASA’s figures). The cost in today’s dollars would have been much higher. Skylab fell out of orbit because “an early shuttle mission” failed to get there to reboost it into a higher orbit. How much would it have cost to build an automated expendable launcher and send it to Skylab to take it into a higher orbit when it became obvious that the shuttle wouldn’t get there in time? 300 million dollars? Half a billion, maybe? Certainly a lot less than the US$ 2.15 billion loss NASA imposed on the American public by failing to protect the assets it had been entrusted with.

Skylab was not the first space station – the Soviet Union launched the first one, Salyut 1, in 1971 – but Skylab was one of the first, and the largest at the time. It hosted three crews before it was abandoned in 1974. Russia continued to focus on long-duration space missions and in 1986 launched the first modules of the Mir space station – which grew to be ultimately only 25% larger than Skylab. Meanwhile, NASA poured nearly all of its human space flight budget into the shuttle program.

In his State of the Union address on 25 January 1984, President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a space station within the next ten years. The Freedom design was predicted to have a total development cost (including construction in orbit) of US$ 1.5-2 billion dollars in early projections. Partly due to changing political winds, costs escalated, target dates were pushed back, and in 1993, the Clinton administration announced the transformation of Space Station Freedom into the International Space Station (ISS), bringing in Russia as a partner. In 1998, the first two modules were launched and joined together in orbit. Today, the ISS is approximately the size of a football field, a 460-ton platform orbiting fifteen and a half times a day between 205 and 270 miles above Earth. It is about four times as large as Mir and five times as large as Skylab. The ISS is “funded until 2024,” and may operate until 2028. By then the investment will have grown well into the US$ 150-200 billion range – and plans are to “deorbit” the station when funding runs out.

NASA has already set a precedent by letting a US$ 2.15 billion investment fall out of the sky when Skylab came crashing down. The Russians did much the same thing when they took the Mir space station out of orbit, throwing away an estimated US$ 4 billion in 2001 dollars when the project ended. It wouldn’t be any different, philosophically, for NASA and its partners to toss another $175 billion (+/- $25 billion) down the toilet by burning the ISS up in the atmosphere, so why not?

The reason “why not” is because doing so would be robbing taxpayers – now, all over the world – of their investment – AGAIN! It costs a LOT of money to put things into orbit. It’s far cheaper to keep things in orbit that are already there than to send up replacements. If the international partners and NASA want to abandon the ISS when “funding runs out” they should sell it in place for salvage – so that an industrious private enterprise can boost it into a higher, stable orbit for storage until they can get to it economically to recover the investment – even if that “recovery” is nothing more than tearing the thing down to use it for raw materials.

Governments, in general, and space agencies, in particular, need to stop acting like they’ve been given a blank check, and trying to spend every last penny of it.

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