Ep. 296: Space Stations, Part 1 — Salyut and Skylab

It’s one thing to fly into space, and another thing entirely to live in space. And to understand the stresses and strains this puts on a human body, you’re going to need a space station. In this three-part series, we explore the past, present and future of stations in space, starting with the American Skylab and Russian Salyut stations.

Show Notes


Transcript: Space Stations Pt 1: Salyut and Skylab

Astronomy Cast episode 296 for Monday, March 4, 2013 – Space Stations, Part 1: Skylab & Salyut.
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. Where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the director of CosmoQuest.
Fraser: Hi Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you Fraser?
Fraser: I’m doing well. Do you have any announcements?
Pamela: We are still advertising our classes at CosmoQuest. So if you would like to take a course on Stellar Astronomy with Ray Sanders, our own dear astronomer, or a class on Cosmology with author and PHD Matthew Francis, you can sign up for those on CosmoQuest.org/classes. I would also ask that all of you pay attention right now what’s going on with education funding in America. There is currently a movement to remove education funding from NASA which means no more mission dollars being spent to help educate kids about the latest discoveries coming out of spacecraft – The Hubble, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Messenger. If these programs matter to you, contact the White House which is where all of this is starting. And contact your Senators and your Congressmen. And I say that as an independent citizen and the one working as a volunteer on CosmoQuest.
Fraser: Alright. I think this is going to impact, how and where it’s going to impact us. But I think we are already going to see the crunch with a lot of the people we work with, a lot of the programs and the missions we talk to. They all have a lot of outreach a lot of educational stuff. So that will be too bad to see that go.
Pamela: We’ve all been asked to assume zero budgets starting in 2014. My team here at CosmoQuest is desperately trying to raise money and we’ve pledged that any money we raise beyond what we need for our own salaries we will use to contract people who lose their jobs in this. And people are losing their jobs in this. So if you can give, we will do what we can to keep the excellent EPO going beyond what governmental budgets allow.
Fraser: Right. Ok great, so let’s get on with the show then.
Fraser: So it’s one thing to fly into space and another thing entirely to live in space. And to understand the stresses and strains this puts on a human body, you’re going to need a space station. In this three part series, we explore the past and present and future of stations in space starting with the American Sky Lab and Russian Salyut Stations. I actually decided before we even did this show I almost want to turn this into a 4-part series. So in addition to the three parts we’ll talk about the Sky Lab and the Salyut, the Apollo era space stations, and then talk about the Cold War, the Mir and other programs, the freedom – things that didn’t happen. Then we’ll talk about ISS and the Chinese Tiangong Space Station. But I also would love to talk about the future, the space stations that didn’t happen, science fiction space stations and the future of space station race. So I think that would be really cool. So maybe this will turn into a four part trilogy.
Fraser: So let’s talk about the space stations. And I guess before we get crackin’ on this – what is a space station?
Pamela: On a certain level it is nothing more than a containment vessel for humans that is incapable of getting to space on its own. It is either deposited there or built there and then abandoned there to die as humans come back on a different vehicle.
Fraser: I guess you can imagine a space suit is like a mini space station when you’re out in space without a rocket you can use to fly to and from earth.
Pamela: Although there’s the potential to build spacesuits that allow you to reenter through the atmosphere without death. Space stations just die on reentry.
Fraser: Whoooooah.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: That would be like the Felix Baumgartner but times of thousands something.
Pamela: Think Star Trek or An Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.
Fraser: Yup.
Pamela: That sort of stuff. That could happen in our future. There are people working on it.
Fraser: We just tangented. Umm….
Fraser: So the point being a rocket, a space shuttle, a space capsule, these are the kinds of space crafts that are going to launch on board a rocket, they are going to get up into space and they are designed to reenter again. Space Station – you put it up in orbit, you leave it there. It’s not going anywhere.
Pamela: Right. You can move it a little bit to avoid junk. But you can’t move it very much.
Fraser: Right. Right. Ok. And so then, what was the first space station that was planned and eventually launched?
Pamela: These are the Soviet space craft: The Almaz Series which was also called the Salyut Series depending on if you were a military person in the know, or you were a civilian person not in the know. These three missions, the first one to successfully launch was Salyut 2 and it went up in April 1973. So we’ve had space stations longer than we’ve had me. These things date back a long time and the initial three space stations: Salyut 2, 3 and 5, were actually reconnaissance platforms that were put up there by the Soviets to basically be manned spy stations. And it was realized in the late 1970s when Salyut 5 ended in 1977 that there were better ways to monitor other parts of the world. Unmanned space ships or spy satellites are much better than humans, and cheaper.
Fraser: And these space stations were all devised and launched after the big moon race.
Pamela: Right.
Fraser: So the Apollo Program ended and the Soviet’s attempts to land people on the moon as well had wrapped up. Then as the next appropriate step, ‘let’s put some human’s into space and have them stay there for some long periods of time’.
Pamela: And with the Almaz Space Station, these first three Salyuts were put up there as a way of starting the tack that we still use today. There’s a module on the International Space Station that still uses designs that are of course upgraded but are still based on the original Almaz command consoles and designs. So these were very rugged rigorous systems. We don’t see systems left over from Sky Lab, for instance still going into the International Space Station. We had to start from scratch. There’s a lot to be said for building something that could undergo slow continual upgrades but had a core design that was pretty much eternal. It’s the little black dress of space ships.
Fraser: And they were designed to be docked with Salyuts’ capsule carrying crew. They were designed to have progress. A cargo capsule – this is the same thing. You could have written one of these articles that a Salyut has launched to the space station and a Progress vehicle has launched this space station and docked and has transferred its crew and cargo. And you could have this conversation now 40 years later and it would still be completely appropriate, right? Exactly saying.
Pamela: While the original Almaz, Almaz – it’s a Russian name and I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce it. That doesn’t usually happen. But today it’s going to. It means diamond. So while the first three were coincident with the Salyut program, top secret and not talked about, their core design ended up getting reused in space craft in the 80s and 90s that had a major radar deployment on board. So again it was a neat way to take this technology, and not only were they unable to take it and reuse it in building the ISS that many decades later, but they were able to use it in the 80s unmanned to build radar satellites.
Fraser: Now when I think about Soviet space flight launches and Mars landings and Moon landings, and especially the stuff with the Venera Program, there’s a lot of failures. So how did they do with their space craft?
Pamela: They did pretty well in the grand scheme of things. So Salyut 1 didn’t quite make it but no one died. It was unmanned and they were launching the space station when it ceased to exist. Salyuts 2, 3 and 5 did fine. One of the craft they built, OPS 4 which was set to be the next in the Almaz series of military versions ended up not being used. But they then continued to transform this program from being a military reconnaissance with a civilian name and a military name. They transformed it to be strictly civilian and this became the Salyut program we are all so familiar with that eventually blended in to becoming the Mir Space Station. So this is where we pick up with Salyut 4.
Fraser: Salyut 4. So what was the classic one when you think about the classic Russian space station – it was what? Salyut 6 and 7? I mean that was when they were really – they were moving back and forth, people were coming and going, there were crews that were lasting a long time and they were pushing records.
Pamela: Yeah. It was one of these things that the Russians, very much like the Chinese are doing today, just over and over and over kept incrementally improving what they were doing. And each thing was a new addition. So I can’t say which one was the most iconic. Salyut 4 was the one that solved the issue having multiple crews back to back quite successfully. It lasted a long time. So it went from 74 to 77. Salyut 5, it was again, they went back to doing military, it happens, but then with Salyut 6, here we have another one that it was multiple modules, they are successfully docking, and coming and going. And they are starting to do science here. They have a ten meter radial telescope attached. And one of the things I personally find awesome is the International Space Station. It does some science but the Soviets they thought what science can we do with these missions in their early days? And they were trying stuff. And I have to admit you don’t run across that many articles that say citation Salyut missions this was done in outer space. But they were trying. And I love the fact they were trying things like radial dishes in space. They were also with Salyut 6 started launching minorities well before America ever did. So while there is a lot of bad you can say about Soviet Russia, their space program nailed it in the 70s.
Fraser: And I know with some of those missions they had people on board that were in some cases 140 days, 175 days. I mean these were….and when you think about the Apollo missions that had gone maybe not even a decade before, people had flown up into space, landed on the moon and came back. Nobody was spending a couple of weeks in space to the maximum and they were having people there for a half of year.
Pamela: And the records that they set, Salyut 6, it was 185 days. These records they were setting, they weren’t broken until we had a crew stranded on Mir during the collapse of the Soviet Union. So at various points, they were not totally trapped, but it was good. And so it was only due to technological issues and then later purposeful marathon trips into space that we saw these records getting broken on Mir.
Fraser: So while the Soviets were really launching station after station after station the Americans needed to get into this game as well. So that was Sky Lab.
Pamela: Right. But I do have to say that Salyut 6 had a really interesting demise before we go on.
Fraser: Oh sure! Yeah! Sure!
Pamela: It had a mold problem. These are things we don’t think about. We think of the Star Trek Future where everything is clean and shiny, stainless steel and Windexed surfaces. It probably wasn’t a Windex. But with Salyut 6, they ran into a mold problem that eventually led to needing to retire the space craft and it was deorbited due to not really being livable anymore. Of all the ways for a space station to have its life terminated, too much mold is not one I would have ever imagined.
Fraser: No. No. You can just imagine. I mean you’re trapped in that environment and there is no way to get out. And you are breathing these mold spores. I can just imagine the health issues that the poor astronauts were having. It must have been like water. If their system couldn’t deal with the evaporation, you can just imagine water dripping and everything would be wet. You would be breathing mold and there would be this smell.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: And again I think you’re exactly right. When people think about space stations, they imagine this Star Trek Future where you’re moving around with this clean polished chrome and plastics and stuff. I think “submarine” is the way to think about it.
Pamela: Boys locker room.
Fraser: Boys locker room in a submarine. (Laughter) You’re in this tiny constrained space and you can’t go anywhere and you are there for so long, and the smell! Ugh! I think that absolutely puts it all into context. So let’s move on to Sky Lab, the American’s version of this.
Pamela: So Sky Lab is one of the space stations that tried and just faced fail after fail after fail. It was originally launched in 1973 but the poor thing when it launched lost a solar panel, lost a shield. Its other solar panel didn’t quite open correctly and so we basically ended up launching this fairly crippled would-be space craft.
Fraser: But I think it was important to note it was using Apollo technology, right?
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: They launched it on the last Saturn 5 rocket?
Pamela: The very last Saturn 5. This went up in May of 1973 and once they got it up there, there was clearly that initial insert all your expletives of choice, what do we do now? They ended up repairing it. It was the first ever manned repairs in space. There’s some amazing pictures of tethered astronauts climbing around on the outside of this thing just scaffolding,…it’s no scaffolding it’s the frames of solar arrays and things like that. And this isn’t something we had any practice doing. So they had to figure it out. And they figured out how to repair it. And it wasn’t quite in the right orbit. So they did what they could with it. It was originally planned that this was going to be something that lasted a very long time. They designed it really nicely. If you’re ever in Washington DC, the US Air and Space Museum has a full scale mockup of the Sky Lab Mission you can walk through and you can explore all the different components that it had. They had exercise areas. They had science areas. They had crew sleeping/living areas. And this was where America had to decide how do we keep people in space for a long time? Because we did it all or nothing – it was one of these, ‘have to launch it all at once’, whereas the Soviets did incremental development building bigger and bigger and bigger things. We just did it all at once.
So they had to figure out how do we build a shower? How do we feed ourselves? How do we do a lot of things? The focus of this mission ended up largely being, how do we live in microgravity? How do we keep clean in microgravity? So it is interesting to compare the emphasis of these two different space stations.
Fraser: And I know that a lot of the astronauts that flew on board, all their names, you’re going to recognize them. They were in many cases the same people that were people who went to the moon.
I know the first commander was Pete Conrad.
Pamela: And this was that bridging program that took us from the Apollo era and was supposed to lead us all the way into the space shuttle era. But the space shuttle wasn’t completed on time and this in many ways was the great travesty for Sky Lab because it was hoped that the space shuttle would be able to boost Sky Lab into a higher orbit and keep it going. And this would have allowed the United States to have a space station throughout the early 80s at the same time we had the space shuttle going. But due to a disconnect in the timing when Sky Lab ran out of orbiting ability and the space shuttle was ready to fly, we ended up losing Sky Lab.
Fraser: So were there some highlights of the mission beyond the repair which was still pretty amazing. What were some of the other highlights of some of the things that happened during Sky Lab?
Pamela: Well it was one of those programs where America got to spend over 180 days in space where we really tested what exercise regimes are necessary to prevent decalcification. What food can and can’t be consumed in space? Well, how do basically work on dealing with ……this is going to sound stupid, but one of the problems they had to figure out how to deal with was flatulence. So really this was a test in living in space. And then it became a test in trying to understand how to safely deorbit something that big, which is something we’ve never done before. This was basically a solid object the size of the last stage of the Apollo rocket. And that was a bit interesting to have it come back down through the atmosphere which wasn’t something we planned for ahead of time.
Fraser: What was the strategy for that?
Pamela: Well at a certain level, NASA wasn’t entirely sure when it was going to come down, but as they watched the orbit degrade and watched the orbit degrade, they reached a point where they were pretty sure it was coming down in the next day or so and they readjusted its alignment so they believed it would come down in the ocean off the coast of South Africa, a nice big empty space between there and Australia. But this was a space station that did not want to die a fiery death. It didn’t actually disintegrate until it was 10 miles up. And they thought it would disintegrate much higher. Because it held on for so long it actually came down outside of Perth on land instead of in the ocean between South Africa and Australia.
Fraser: Right. They had aimed it to try and, you know, it’s just going to cross Africa and then it would crash into the ocean. And it made it all the way around another several thousand kilometers to reach Australia and then land near Perth.
I remember this. I was very young. Do you remember this? I was….
(Pamela laughing)
Pamela: No. I have no memory of this.
Fraser: No? Ok, so this was ’79 so I was 8 and I remember there being newspapers about how everyone was freaking out it was going to crash out on their heads. Even in Canada, I don’t think we were on the flight path.
Pamela: Well they didn’t know for a long time….
Fraser: ….Yeah, where it was going to land and so everybody was worried it was going to crash on their heads and then it ended up in Australia, sort of in the middle of nowhere in Australia, which was good.
Pamela: I would have loved to be one of the actuarial mathematicians involved in this because they actually calculated there’s a 1-in-152 chance that a human being would be hit from a piece of debris from this. They figured that there was probably a 1-in-7 chance that it was going to hit a city of a 100,000 or more. And NASA actually had to put together teams to go out and potentially help if bad news occurred due to the reentry. Now there weren’t toxic chemicals involved. This wasn’t like some of the other incidents where we’ve had bad things fall from the sky. This was a space house falling so this was a rather radical version of Dorothy in Oz. No humans on board but the space house falling on Australia.
Fraser: So during that time then they launched and deorbited Sky Lab. And then there was going to be a long delay before the next big space station. Were they still planning to do any more missions as part of that program?
Pamela: There was a bunch of Sky Lab missions. Sky Lab 5 was going. The fifth crew was going to be a 20 day mission to conduct scientific experiments and try and boost it to a higher orbit. It ended up not happening. Then Sky Lab B. was a backup that never got flown. While there was a detailed plan for Sky Lab 5, this was something that when it was originally built was supposed to last much, much longer. So while there weren’t detailed plans for Sky Lab 6, Sky Lab 7, it was like that only because once they got it launched, they realized they had problems. So they stopped planning future missions in detail.
Fraser: And I think at that point they ran out of Saturn 5 rockets. They had run out of all of the parts….
Pamela: Well the space shuttle was delayed. This was something that was supposed to work with the space shuttle.
Fraser: Yeah. Right. Absolutely. So this is the situation we’ve got. You’ve got the space shuttle that is starting to siphon funding from the whole program, siphon engineers and brain power that launched in ’81 – a period of time when they have to shift over. And we see this again and again. As something becomes quite real like the James Webb Space Telescope, now you can see lots and lots of other programs having to get pealed back, shut down, cancelled, defunded so that the one mission, be it curiosity or James Webb or what have you, is going to get launched. And that was the same situation.
So I think we’ll wrap it up here. But next week I think we’re going to spend the whole show on Mir which is an amazing story. And it’s just an incredible space station – one space station that both pushed and challenged human endurance in space and also revealed all of the problems that long duration space flight can create. I reported on the deorbiting of Mir. So it’s definitely starting to fall in my recent professional life.
Pamela: Yeah and that was an interesting one because it was almost sold for commercial purposes. And just imagine if that had happened. It would have completely changed space so much earlier.
Fraser: Were you in Russia during Mir? I’m trying to think….
Pamela: Umm. I’m trying to remember what year Mir started. I was in Russia in ’89 and ’91.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: We’ll talk about that next week….
Fraser: Mir was ’86. Mir was ’86 to 2000.
Pamela: Yeah. I was there for that. I was so focused on astronomy that manned space flight did not exist in my reality. But that happens and you outgrow it.
Fraser: Yeah. I started Universe Today in ’99 so we reported on the deorbiting in 2000 which was pretty cool.
Cool. Ok great. So we’ll talk to you next week Pamela.
Pamela: Sounds great Fraser. Talk to you later.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity.

Follow along and learn more: