Skyelab (1973-74) – Science and Medicine in Space

Tuesday 21st September “Skyelab (1973-74) – Science and Medicine in Space” by Professor Mike Whittle.
NASA launched the Skylab space station in the spring of 1973. It was used by a total of nine astronauts (in three groups of three), who conducted an impressive array of experiments in several scientific areas.
MW started by explaining how he became involved in Skylab when he was at the time a research medical officer in the RAF. He was loaned to NASA to supervise (from the ground!) six of the Skylab medical experiments. He then outlined the Skylab mission profile: Mission 1 comprised of the launch of the Skylab followed by the first 3 astronauts a day later. This was followed by a 28-day mission 2, then an 84-day mission 3.
Things did not start well, during Mission 1 when Skylab reached the point of maximum dynamic load the Meteor/Heat Shield fell off the front of the spacecraft, taking with it one of the two giant solar panels and ‘wrapping’ a strip of metal round the second panel so although undamaged could not unfurl. The temperature in Skylab therefore rose to an unacceptable level and the launch of the first group of astronauts was delayed while a ‘fix’ was found.
The ‘fix’ comprised an ‘aluminised Mylar parasole’, which the first crew took up with them and attached to Skylab. The fix worked and the temperature dropped allowing the astronauts to enter Skylab. The next problem was lack of electrical power with only the four ‘small’ solar panels on the telescope working. Again a work around was found to allow limited experiments to take place until a better fix could be found. This resulted in rigid electrical power management along with spacecraft positioning to ensure that the ‘parasol’ always faced the sun. Fourteen days into the flight an astronaut went ‘outside’ and freed the jammed solar panel. A larger meteor/heat screen was also flown up on Mission 2 and installed on the front of Skylab.
MW then gave an overview of the problems of human beings in zero-gravity (or micro-gravity as it is now known) including ‘space sickness’. It is a sobering thought that currently nine months is about the maximum time we can spend in space before we run into bone density problems. He detailed the medical and dietary experiments including those that he had responsibility for running. One of the main experiments (mineral balance) meant that the nine astronauts lived on a strictly controlled diet (which they had to choose in advance) with complete intake monitoring and total urine and faecal collection. This happened for the duration of the flight and for three weeks before and two weeks after the flight. There was also a set of Body Mass experiments
MW also outlined some of the ‘other’ experiments, which ranged from Solar Measurements using the telescope, manufacturing in micro-gravity ( they produced a large, pure silicone crystal), to watching a spider spin a web ( wobbly to start with but got better over time !)
Not only was the talk fascinating in that MW reckons that it is only in the last few years that we have actually advanced from the days of Skylab, the talk it was peppered with anecdotes about astronauts, space medicine (and of course engineering fixes!) which made it a most enjoyable afternoon.
Thumbnails of the slides and an excellent report which contains a lot of detail of the experiments can be found on MW’s website under the ‘Talk about the Skylab Space Station’ in the article from the RAF Quarterly, Summer 1977.
R Keir