Orbiting in a Fuel Tank

Life aboard Skylab

A TV camera in the orbital workshop wardroom transmitted video of the Skylab crew playing with their food. NASA

Back in 1973, Owen Garriott, astronaut and physicist, lived aboard Skylab, America’s first space station, for 59 days. The station’s core was a modified Saturn V third stage, the S-IVB; McDonnell Douglas transformed its hydrogen fuel tank into an orbital lab and habitat. Garriott and his Skylab 3 crewmates, Alan Bean and Jack Lousma, launched to the station on July 28.

In 2010, I joined Garriott at the National Air and Space Museum for a tour of Skylab B, the backup vehicle for the original 100-ton Skylab, which reentered the atmosphere and broke up in July 1979. Garriott led me into Skylab’s main living and experiment spaces. We were at the bottom of a high-ceilinged cylinder with half the living volume of today’s typical suburban house. Above us, the forward compartment rose from the lattice ceiling to the airlock hatch at the top of the tank. Beneath the domed ceiling, storage lockers ringed the 70 feet of the hull’s circumference. While the station was in orbit, Garriott, Bean, and Lousma tumbled around the lockers, using feet and hand thrusts to ricochet along the circumferential track. Water tanks, film vaults, and an experiment airlock also lined the walls, but the interior had plenty of elbow room in which to test a nitrogen-powered astronaut jetpack. An improved version, the Manned Maneuvering Unit, was used on three shuttle spacewalks in the 1980s.

Garriott pointed out the central corridor, dropping from the ceiling to the gridded floor where we stood. He would launch himself from the bottom of the experiment deck through the orbital workshop and on through the multiple docking adapter to reach the command module hatch without touching anything—a free-fall glide of 50 feet. “With practice we could all do it—sometimes,” he says.

Beside us was the wardroom with a three-leaf kitchen table, with foot and thigh restraints to keep the astronauts from floating away during meals. I asked Garriott, who flew on shuttle mission STS-9 in 1983, how shuttle food compared to Skylab’s. “Skylab was definitely better,” he says. “But Skylab’s food system cost millions of dollars, as nutrition was a major experiment.” He especially prized one treat: “Our onboard currency was sugar cookies, all baked at home, I think, by Rita Rapp, our nutritionist and a great friend of all the crews. We could incentivize a fellow crew member to do something for us with a bribe of sugar cookies from our personal allotment.”

A highlight of the dining experience was the 18-inch Earth-viewing window. Garriott remembered when “we all gathered around it to eat ice cream and strawberries and watch our passage across Spain, Italy, the Mediterranean, and Greece to the Near East.”

Adjacent to the wardroom is an open experiment bay, with an exercise bike and a device to record pulmonary and cardiac output. Opposite was a trio of sleep compartments, each with a sleeping bag, reading light, music player, and intercom panel. But down time was scarce: In two months aloft, Garriott found time to read only a few pages of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Garriott pointed toward the airlock module hatch. “EVA [extravehicular activity—spacewalk] was always a high point,” he says. On the second of his three spacewalks, he scaled the Apollo Telescope Mount to replace film magazines in the solar observatory’s instruments. Coasting in from the Pacific toward South America, “to my right I could see the Andes, topped with snow and even high lakes and salt deposits, extending all the way to Tierra del Fuego. To my left, the Andes extended to Peru. Straight ahead of our ground track, I could see over the Andes, across Argentina, to the Atlantic Ocean. Magnifico!”

Most astronauts—and all spacewalkers—would know exactly what he meant. The ultimate space experience isn’t living inside your laboratory home, no matter how spacious. It’s getting outside of it.

As a U.S. Air Force cadet, Tom Jones watched Owen Garriott and Skylab wheel overhead. A former space shuttle mission specialist, he helped build another space station, a story he tells in Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.

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