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May 14, 2013

One of the experiments on the International Space Station keeps an eye on the Sun. Its observations help scientists plot tiny changes in the Sun’s energy output, which helps them understand the interactions between the Sun and Earth.

The first American space station also carried Sun-watching telescopes. They were far more capable than any that had been sent to space before — or for a couple of decades after. They were launched 40 years ago today, aboard Skylab 1.

LAUNCH CONTROL: 3, 2, 1, 0, and we have a liftoff! The Skylab lifting off the pad now...

Skylab was designed to host three crews of astronauts. They would study the Sun and Earth, and how their own bodies adapted to the space environment. Within moments of the launch of the station itself, though, it seemed their mission might be doomed:

MISSION CONTROL: This is Skylab 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 shield designed to protect the station from space rocks and the Sun’s heat ripped away during the launch. That ripped off one of Skylab’s electricity-producing solar panels, and jammed another so it wouldn’t open.

The launch of the first crew was delayed while engineers worked out a new plan. The astronauts eventually raised a new shield and freed the jammed solar panel. That let them and two later crews spend a total of six months aboard Skylab — keeping a close eye on the Earth below and the Sun above.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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