Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Let Skylab be a reminder of what happens to a neglected space station

Posted by John Keller

Everyone remember Skylab? You know, that orbiting laboratory that NASA operated as America's first space station from 1973 until, neglected, its orbit decayed in 1979 and Skylab burned up in the Earth's atmosphere before its remains crashed in the Southern Hemisphere -- some of it on Australia.

Such a waste.

Yes I know, there were REASONS that Skylab met such an ignominious end, most of them involving money, or the lack thereof. Skylab was a victim of NASA's success in the Apollo program that landed men on the moon for the first time. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, 1969, Apollo 11? Of course you remember all that.

What evolved from that summer day in 1969 when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the lunar module, within several years, was a collective yawn from the public after the first few moon missions. Everyone wondered what was next. Well what was next was the Skylab space station, but after the first moon landing even Skylab wasn't all that exciting anymore.

So for Skylab, funding ran short, and the orbiting lab was mothballed. The plan was for the yet-to-be-developed U.S. space shuttle to refurbish Skylab and reinvigorate that space station program, which fallen into disuse.

The problem with that plan was the space shuttle didn't get developed in time to save Skylab. NASA couldn't boost it to a higher orbit, and the Earth's gravity eventually sucked the orbiting lab to its doom.

Now are you wondering why I brought this up? Well, indications are that we're ready to go through Skylab Part II. The International Space Station, the multi-nation legacy of Skylab and an early Russian space station called Mir, is ready to be abandoned. Space experts are starting to fret that chances are increasing of losing the newest Space Station.

The latest chapter began with the crash of a Russian rocket that was supposed to resupply the Space Station recently due to malfunction, leaving the International Space Station short of food, water, fuel, and other essentials.

The Space Station's current crew most likely will have to leave it before another resupply mission can be attempted. Now where do we see this going? Is it sounding familiar?

I'm wondering if, due to federal budget cuts here and around the world, the International Space Station could share the same fate as Skylab. What a coincidence that would be; can't you see the scenario unfolding? Lack of money, lack of interest, lack of a way even to get to the orbiting lab.

I wish I didn't see it happening like this, but I do. Here's another delicious twist on dwindling government money. On 20 July 1969 I was a 10-year-old kid on vacation at McGrath State Beach, a campground in California, listening on a transistor radio as Armstrong and Aldrin maneuvered the Apollo 11 lunar module to the lunar surface.

This campground where I listened to history in the making is scheduled to close permanently this fall. The reason: not enough money to operate it and fix a crucial sewer line.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a 37-year NASA engineer who was: a) one of the Skylab flight controllers in Mission Control in Houston that brought Skylab safely out of orbit; and, b) am one of the 'cabal' inside NASA who is a proponent of creating new, American-led commercial space industries; including a commercial human transportation industry to replace our current monopoly-reliance on our Russian friends.

    First, a tweak of the history; followed by what really matters now, in Sept. 2011.

    History- NASA did not 'neglect' Skylab after 1973. Skylab's mission was over, completely accomplished. And there was never a plan to keep it going, with the shuttle or anything else; it wasn't designed for that sort of maintenance or upgrade.

    In terms of a safe deorbit, two things conspired simultaneously:
    1. Shuttle availability slipped - as new things often do; and at the same time,
    2. Solar activity increased above predictions, which expanded the upper atmosphere, increased drag, and brought Skylab down even faster.

    We controlled Skylab through through the final day; in fact, when our entry debris footprint prediction suggested that southeastern Canada would be under the debris track, we commanded the spacecraft to change attitude and drag profile to - successfully - put its 3 thousand mile debris track right down the Atlantic, and around the Cape of Good Hope. I last saw Skylab data on my screen as it was burning up, over Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, at about 400,000 ft altitude.

    We were extremely surprised later when it turned out that the debris track was not 3000 miles - but three times that - leading the heaviest remaining parts, the oxygen tanks, to land in the Aussie outback. No one in 1979 could have predicted that.

    What Matters RIGHT NOW?? The Bush Ad. ordered the Shuttle cancelled (in 2004) without any US replacement for astronaut transportation services. The Obama Administration's first major space decision was to rectify that: by creating a US Commercial Crew Development Program that used innovative, government/industry cost-sharing partnerships to jump-start a brand-new, cost-effective, competitive commercial space transportation industry. And progress has been made.

    The Administration's budget request to continue this innovative effort, however, is now under attack by the large traditional NASA contractors and their congressional district supporters, who are trying in the House to reduce the Administration request by 70% or more, essentially gutting the attempt to create a true, multi-competitor American led industry. Instead they want to build a truly un-needed, hugely expensive government designed/owned/operated superbooster; leaving human transportation to and from the ISS something we continue to pay the Russian's over $1b for.

    Both the group, Tea Party and Space, and conservative Republican Cong. Rohrbacher, support the Obama plan to get off of Russian dependency via jump-starting a new American industry. This is not a partisan issue; it is, however, an issue of Old Aerospace, campaign contributions, and trying to kill the new to keep funding the old.

    How this plays out, this year, will determine whether America continues being a true space faring leader or not; and whether American tax dollars continue to go solely to paying Russian space engineers, instead of American ones.

    Obama, the Tea Party, and Cong. Rohrbacher all agree: we need to fight back against the big donations and ensure the US Commercial Crew Development effort is fully funded.

    Dave Huntsman
    My opinion only.