Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Skylab Rescue Mission (SL-R)

Skylab is considered the least-remembered part of the Apollo program. If people do recall Skylab, it is likely because of the "sky is falling" fears it evoked in 1979 when it was about to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Because it was an uncontrolled re-entry, no one knew how much of it would survive re-entry, or even where or when it would come down. I remember "Skylab pools" with people betting on the date it would come back to Earth.

Those who were really paying attention may remember that the entire Skylab project was in serious jeopardy starting 63 seconds after the station's launch, when the meteoroid shield ripped off of the space station and tore off one of the station's two key solar panel wings. The heroic efforts of the first crew to man the station, led by Pete Conrad, led to Skylab becoming habitable and useful for its three long-duration crew stays.

The second crew to visit Skylab, commanded by Al Bean, encountered difficulties with their Apollo spacecraft prior to docking, when one of the four quads of reaction control system (RCS) thrusters on the Service Module developed a leak and had to be shut down. A second RCS quad also developed a leak and also had to be disabled. There was deep concern that the Apollo spacecraft, which the crew would need for return to Earth, could not be controlled adequately with half of the RCS thrusters out of action.

The 1969 movie "Marooned", followed by the 1970 Apollo 13 near-disaster, were still fresh in people's minds. We didn't want to contemplate a crew of astronauts stranded in orbit.

NASA decided to prepare a spacecraft for a potential rescue mission, should it become necessary. A Command Module was adapted to hold five crewmen instead of three. Astronauts Vance Brand and Don Lind were selected as the crew for SL-R, the Skylab Rescue mission. NASA ultimately determined that the Skylab crew would be able to get home safely. Nonetheless, they retained the idea of using a modified ship as a contingency rescue vehicle for the last Skylab crew.

The vehicle was rolled out to the launch pad on December 3, 1973. It was ultimately not needed, so it was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building after the conclusion of the last Skylab mission. This CM became the backup CM for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). It is on display in the visitors center at the Kennedy Space Center.

Vance Brand got to fly on the ASTP mission in July 1975. Don Lind wouldn't get his first flight for 11 years, on Space Shuttle mission STS-51-B in 1985.

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