Talk to anyone on the street and mention the either the Apollo moon landings or the Shuttle most of them will know what you’re talking about. Whilst both of these are iconic bits of space history if you do the math on the time between these two programs you’ll come up with about 9 years where most people won’t be able to tell you what NASA and Russian Federal Space Agency (at the time it was the Soviet Space Programme) were doing at the time. Whilst it didn’t capture the imagination of several countries like the lunar landings did even by today’s standards the work carried out in these 9 years was nothing short of revolutionary, and it is a shame that it has gone so unnoticed.
Enter America’s first ever space station, Skylab. During the planning for the Apollo missions NASA had kept a long term view for other goals that they might achieve in space once Kennedy’s vision had been achieved. This lead to the development of ideas for long duration space flight, which would initially begin in Low Earth Orbit. After many different design proposals, some with up a 20 astronaut capacity, a design for a 3 man orbital laboratory and observation station was accepted and Skylab started to become real.
Overall the mission was a success as it showed that NASA was capable of putting people up into space for long periods of time and bringing them back down safely. Comparing it to today’s standards makes the achievement even more remarkable, as the whole Skylab station was shipped on a single modified Saturn V rocket, with a living volume that was about 38% of the International Space Station today. Whilst that might not sound impressive by itself the fact that it was done in one hit is definitely something we would struggle to repeat today. With the return of heavy lift launchers in the form of the Constellation Project we may see NASA attempt something like this again in the future, but not until the ISS has outlived its usefulness.
The project was not without its problems though. The station suffered major damage during liftoff causing one of the solar panels to become inoperable and the sun/micrometeorite shield to be lost. The station also suffered from over-heating issues, which was fixed by replacing the cooling system. For a first attempt at long duration space flight it was bound to have issues, and NASA managed to continue Skylab’s presence in space despite these problems. If it wasn’t for the unexpected deterioration of the orbit the Space Shuttle would have been used to service and expand the station. However due to delays in the shuttle program this could never be done, and Skylab was de-orbited gracefully.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTwUg76BCNE
One more mission was flown before the days of the space shuttle, and that was the Apollo-Soyuz (pronounced “Sah-yoouz”) Test Program. The first space program with international collaboration this saw the previous space rivals docking and celebrating the joys of space travel together. The mission was a complete success with many different scientific experiments being completed, and laid the groundwork for the future of international space endeavours.
So when you hear about the Shuttle or the Apollo missions remember those who went to space in between. Whilst they may not be as inspiring or as iconic as the missions that have made the news in past and present without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.