May 14, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Skylab, a crucial mission in NASA’s crewed space exploration of space. Skylab was the first American space station, an orbiting workshop, and over the six months it was occupied, it vastly expanded humanity's understanding of space exploration, from the effects of space on the human body to carrying out incredible scientific observations from orbit.
The pivotal mission featured in the award-winning 2019 documentary, Searching for Skylab: America’s Forgotten Triumph, and included interviews with some of the surviving astronauts of the three crews that inhabited the orbiting space station between May 1973 and February 1974, Skylab 2, 3, and 4. Among them was astronaut Ed Gibson, the last person to leave Skylab, closing its hatch forever as he and fellow astronauts Gerald Carr and William Pogue came back down to Earth.
IFLScience spoke to Dr Gibson to discuss all things Skylab from what his day-to-day activities looked like to his scientific breakthroughs. After all, he was the first person to see a solar flare from space; that's worth a story. We also touched on the infamous "space mutiny" and how it felt seeing Skylab crash down through Earth's atmosphere and disintegrate over the Indian Ocean and Australia in 1979.
A Demanding Schedule And the Space Mutiny Myth
There wasn't a lot of time for sightseeing while on the space station. Gibson, now 86, stressed how much work they had to undertake while in space, and how every single physiological function of the crew was monitored to study how living in microgravity might affect humans.
The crew of Skylab 4 was there for 84 days, the longest time an American crew had spent in space up to that point. It was paramount that they were under close observation. However, for almost the first half of the mission they worked 16-hour days, something that had to eventually be addressed with NASA. The agency realized it was putting too much stress on the crew, trying to maximize every moment in the space lab, knowing that Skylab 4 would be its last visitors.
Asked what those nearly three months were like Dr Gibson told IFLScience: “Very busy! I didn’t have time to actually enjoy space. Ground control kept us marching forward all the time.”
The demanding workload had the crew skipping their rest days and they eventually had to bring this up with ground control. Ground control did apologize for pushing them too hard, but this story has been immortalized as the mythical "Space Mutiny". The story is that on either December 27 or 28, 1973, the three astronauts "mutinied", turned their radios off, and took a day off.
This didn't actually happen, as verified by Gibson and Dr Story Musgrave, the capsule communicator for this mission, based in mission control in Houston, who IFLScience spoke to in 2018. On that day, they actually communicated as usual with Houston and even conducted observations of Comet Kohoutek, one of the astronomical observations of the mission. The other major mission was a solar observation, Dr Gibson's area of expertise.
“Solar observations, that was my specialty because I had learned a little bit about solar physics," Dr Gibson told IFLScience in the interview. "I wrote a textbook on it called The Quiet Sun. And so I was really happy to be up there and do that.
“Solar physics is interesting. Most of the time the Sun is just a big round yellow ball, just sitting there staring at you but every now and then, when you get some magnetic field reconfigurations, energy is cut loose. And if it was a big configuration they call it a flare. A lot of radiation is thrown off.”
The solar studies onboard Skylab paved the way for the establishment of X-ray astronomy.
Dr Gibson also recalled his experience carrying out extravehicular activities e.g. spacewalks. Being in a spacesuit outside the station, with the whole Earth below him was, for him, “the ultimate freedom.”
The Day Skylab Crashed To Earth And The US Littering Fine
After Skylab 4, NASA's attention shifted toward the Shuttle program, and the space station slowly succumbed to orbital decay. Despite the atmosphere being very rarefied hundreds of kilometers from the surface, it is still enough to slow down objects in orbit. Over time, they will slow down enough that they will come back down.
In 1978, NASA discovered Skylab's orbit was decaying rapidly and various plans were devised to bring it down safely, and not in an uncontrolled tumble. Ultimately, they fired the station's booster rockets, sending it into a spin they hoped would bring it down over the Indian Ocean.
On July 11, 1979, it did indeed come down, breaking apart and burning up in the atmosphere, showering the Indian Ocean with debris that made it all the way to Western Australia. Dr Gibson was at ground control when the space station crashed.
"The only thing I was very happy about, when I knew it was heading for Australia, is that it didn't hit anybody or cause any real serious damage, so it landed in a reasonable place from that standpoint,” Dr Gibson said. “When it was all over we breathed a sigh of relief and said, well, we're glad we had the opportunity.”
The small town of Esperance in Australia was one of the places where the debris landed. Luckily no one was hurt, but it jokingly issued an AUS$400 fine to NASA for littering, all the same. While the fine was written off three months later, California DJ Scott Barley asked his listeners to pitch in for the fine and paid this debt off in 2009.
50 years of Skylab
“Skylab's impact on how we live today cannot be understated. The understanding of our Earth owes a lot to the pioneering observations made by the Skylab crews 50 years ago," documentary-maker Dwight Steven-Boniecki, director of Searching for Skylab, told IFLScience.
"Skylab's legacy has finally crawled out from Apollo's shadow. What was achieved in 1973 and 1974 set the benchmark for ISS mission planning today. Skylab ought never to be forgotten. It was an incredible triumph of ingenuity, perseverance, and courage. Its legacy deserves to share the stage with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Pioneering science in space which reverberates to this day.”
An earlier version of this article was published in 2021.