Book review: Haynes Nasa Skylab Owners' Workshop Manual

Image credit: NASA

Nasa Skylab: celebrating the technology behind a 1970s space mission that defied the odds to provide valuable experience in a range of fields.

E&T readers might be expected to know a little about the International Space Station and possibly even to have watched it moving steadily across the night sky, but Nasa’s first space station, Skylab, is probably little more than a distant memory to most. Made from a surplus Saturn V third stage, home to three separate three-man crews and featuring interior design by the firm that designed Studebaker cars and the celebrated Coke bottle, Skylab was a remarkable piece of kit for the 1970s. ‘Nasa Skylab Owners' Workshop Manual’ by David Baker (Haynes Publishing, £22.99, ISBN 9781785210655), the latest in a series on iconic spacecraft, is guaranteed to fill the gaps in anyone’s memory.

The story of Skylab reads a bit like a pitch for a film script. In 1973, Nasa launches its first space station to low Earth orbit using the last of its Saturn V Moon rockets. Unfortunately, one of its two main solar panels is ripped off during launch and drags some of the station’s micrometeoroid shield and thermal insulation with it. The first three-man crew, flying a surplus Apollo spacecraft, is sent up to mend the station, in part by freeing the other solar panel which is only partially deployed. The astronauts find the interior unbearably hot, because of the missing insulation and hurry to deploy a parasol-style sunshade out of the airlock.

Despite all the odds, Nasa conducts three successful crew rotations - of 28, 59 and 84 days, respectively – adding immeasurable experience to the fields of space medicine, materials technology, Earth remote sensing and solar astronomy. Although the station includes such unheard-of luxuries as a galley and a shower, the final crew get so fed up with Nasa’s punishing work schedule that they stage a one-day strike: they disable radio communications with Mission Control and spend the day relaxing and looking at Earth. The station’s mission ends in 1979 when atmospheric friction drags it back towards the planet in a fiery re-entry, depositing its remains in the outback east of Perth, Western Australia.

While many books have told the human story of Skylab, the point of the modern-day Haynes manuals is to highlight the engineering and technology involved. Following a short historical introduction, this book is divided into two main sections describing the hardware subsystems and the missions. It concludes with a useful list of abbreviations and acronyms and an index. As with other volumes in the series, it is well illustrated with colour photos and line drawings derived from original agency and contractor documents. While most are of a technical nature, there is room for a little humour: one photo shows “a surprise stowaway” (a stuffed crew uniform with bags for head and hands) left by a previous crew.

As the author concludes, “Skylab offered so many firsts to astronauts and scientists working on the project – from the first manoeuvrable backpacks to the longest single visit by any crew to a space station”. In reading this book, one is reminded of the ‘can-do spirit’ of the early Space Age and the real-life exploits in orbit that make some modern-day missions and film-scripts alike seem tame by comparison.

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