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LAUNCH CONTROL: T-minus 20 seconds, and the countdown continues to go smoothly.

Skylab, the first American space station, launched from Cape Kennedy 50 years ago today.

LAUNCH CONTROL: We have, ignition sequence has started. 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero. And we have a lift-off. The Skylab lifting off the pad now, moving up….

Skylab used the third stage of a Saturn Moon rocket. It was as roomy as a three-bedroom house. Crews of three astronauts would fly up separately, and spend up to two months at a time aboard the station. They would look at Earth and the Sun, conduct experiments, and study how their own bodies adapted to long stretches of weightlessness.

From the beginning, though, the station was in trouble.

MISSION CONTROL: Skylab space station now in orbit. Still some doubt in the minds of flight controllers here in Mission Control as to whether the main solar panels on the workshop have indeed deployed. …

A minute after launch, a shield designed to protect the station from tiny space rocks ripped away. It took one of two electricity producing solar panels with it, and jammed the other one shut. Without that second panel, there wouldn’t be enough power to support Skylab’s work.

The first crew was already on the launch pad, ready to head for orbit shortly after Skylab itself. But the astronauts had to stand down while engineers tried to understand the problem — and see if there was a way to save the first American space station.

More tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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