Homesteading Space

The University of Nebraska Press has undertaken a huge series that I have been paying close attention to over the past year – the Outward Odyssey Series, which examines the human endeavors into outer space. The latest installment, Homesteading Space turns to a relatively unknown element, but crucial element of our trips to orbit, Skylab. Like the prior books, Into that Silent Sea, In the Shadow of the Moon and To A Distant Day, we are not only treated to a wealth of information about the technical aspects of the program, but the implications and human element of it.

Skylab was launched in 1973 after a number of years in development alongside the Apollo Program. While Mercury, Gemini and Apollo all had a singular purpose (to see if people could reach space and survive, to see if people could exist in space and if people could reach the moon, land and return), Skylab diverged from this main mission of lunar exploration and was essentially the start of the modern space program with vast implications: it was designed to see whether people could life in outer space. This mission has influenced our advances into orbit since – with the construction of the space shuttle, Mir and the International Space Station, and future missions to the Moon and to Mars, each owes (or will owe) much to the Skylab mission.

Skylab was interesting. As noted in the opening of the book, it was built from pre-existing parts, scraped from other programs and components. The station itself was part of the Saturn Rocket, an empty fuel tank, that was refitted and placed into orbit. From there, three crews were sent up and conducted a huge number of experiments that helped to see the effects of zero gravity on the human body during extended amounts of time (each of these crews set records for their time in space). Additionally, they were the first to conduct dedicated experiments and observations on the sun and while in the presence of zero gravity. The first solar flares were witnessed via the Apollo Telescope Mount, and a wealth of information about the Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Homesteading Space is not just about the scientific knowledge that was obtained in orbit – this is the story of the astronauts who conducted the experiments, who lived in space for weeks or months at a time, and how they coped. Skylab provided an enormous opportunity for individual cooperation and perseverance, for there were numerous problems that could have easily prevented the program from happening at all. But, each time, the astronauts and their ground support were able to overcome each problem and continue onwards.

The station was almost doomed from the start – upon its launch, solar coverings and shielding was stripped from the station, leaving it unlivable until a solution (essentially an umbrella) was improvised to protect the living quarters. The solar panels were crippled and power was limited. The first space walks were essentially rescue missions to save the station. On the second mission, two thrusters from the command module broke, leaving NASA to quickly plan a rescue mission from the ground as well as a solution for reentry with the remaining thrusters (no rescue was launched, and the crew returned safely).

The astronauts themselves were also the center of attention, and from this reading, it seems like they had quite a bit of fun in orbit. A number of jokes were played with the zero gravity, from contests and acrobatics, to leaving space suits stuffed and floating around the station for the next crew to find. This book helps to exemplify the role to which the astronauts have played in space, and their importance to the program, and does so wonderfully.

The book is not without its flaws, however. At points, it is repetitive, as I would come across the same story of astronauts losing items and then finding them in an air vent numerous times. A number of other details throughout are replicated, as are long passages from diaries and communications logs, which were likewise reprinted in the back of the book as an appendix. While these passages do provide some insight into the astronauts’ lives, it broke up the flow of the reading. Where I noted that the last book, To A Distant Day, was very short, this one seems to overcompensate and could have been stripped down a little more than it was. However, this is really the only major flaw here, and as a result, there is a rich amount of information about the Skylab program, almost literally minute by minute at points.

Homesteading Space highlights a crucial crossroads for the space program, the point between the drive to reach the moon, and the beginning of a new era. Skylab was caught in between Apollo and the Space Shuttle, and serves as a link to the two, drawing from knowledge that was obtained during the lunar missions, and influencing the future of spaceflight and habitation. The next book is due out next year, about Satellites, but I’m more excited for the following installment, Footsteps in the Dust, about the remaining lunar missions. This series is superior, detailed, exciting and enlightening, and provides a huge ray of hope for what’s to come next for us.