Mission Commander and Billionaire, Jared Isaacman and his team, ‘Inspiration4’, are set to be the first all-civilian orbital mission to space this afternoon, nearly 50 years after the United States’ first space station was launched. What can a small business today learn something from a relatively unknown part of NASA’s Space Program? Dwight Steven-Boniecki, director of the film Searching For Skylab: America’s Forgotten Triumph explains.
In 1973 Skylab was launched. It was the United States’ first space station, but it seems to have been all but forgotten. This belies the enormous impact it had on the way we live on this planet. So what 5 things can be learned from Skylab?
63 seconds after launch, a series of problems nearly ended the program right then and there. A protective micro-meteoroid shield had been ripped off, subsequently affecting the thermal control of the space station, as well as damaging the solar panels which were to provide power to it. The planned launch of the first crew was delayed while NASA engineers tried to solve the problem within the 11 day window allowed before the station was rendered unusable. $2.2 Billion USD was at stake.
Jack Kinzler, chief of the Technical Services Centre, while looking at a wooden model of the spacecraft in his office, noticed the scientific camera port was located right in the middle of the area left damaged by the lack of the thermal shield. He devised a parasol method which could be deployed through the port and opened just like a gigantic umbrella. With a last 30-minute extension granted to the SL-2 crew’s launch window, the parasol was rushed to the launch pad and flown up to Skylab by the crew on May 25, 1973. Their deployment of the parasol immediately brought temperatures down inside the space station.
In short, in a crisis look for the simplest solution and trust those with the technical and professional know how to get you through.
The crew of SL-4 has been erroneously attributed to having held a mutiny during their tenure on Skylab. This is at best a gross embellishment of the situation leading to the belief that a mutiny had occurred. The crew of Carr, Pogue, and Gibson felt they were unfairly being micro-managed down to the second, and it was beginning to show in their work-efficiency. They requested a long discussion with Ground Control to work out a better schedule. Ultimately they ended up setting a long standing record for long duration spaceflight.
NASA had to learn that the astronauts were people and if you don’t have a dialogue with your team, it can have cause friction even with the ultimate professionals.
It’s something we are all told, but there is a lot to be learnt from a supposed failure.
When Skylab’s declining orbit ultimately caused it to crash into parts of remote Western Australia in 1979, this was largely seen as a failure. However the amount of data gathered from observing orbital decay of such a large object, has set the benchmark for planning for, and dealing with large objects falling back to earth. Indeed the Russians have publically announced their gratitude for the Skylab re-entry data, when the time came for Mir to fall back to earth. They knew what to do because Skylab taught them how to.
Living in Close Quarters for Long Duration
The research into living in close quarters for long duration began 1 year before Skylab launched by the way of the Skylab Medical and Altitude Test conducted in 1972. The crew of Crippen, Thornton and Bobko were placed inside a Skylab mockup for 56 days. They were closely monitored to evaluate the effects of being a situation like that which the Skylab astronauts would experience. The SMEAT tests were a resounding success, and the knowledge base was used to help establish a well-balanced regiment of life on board Skylab.
Skylab SL-3 Commander Al Bean noted that three things were essential to maintaining a healthy environment.
Adequate sleep was crucial to ensuring the astronauts remained focused and highly efficient during their work-day routine.
To complement an adequately rested astronaut, food was also paramount. Again a hungry astronaut is no good to anybody, and becomes a liability rather than an asset. In space, time is a precious commodity, and it must be optimised with a correct amount of work/life balance.
Not only physical well-being, but mental health as well. Each crew achieved more than was prescribed at the start of their respective missions.
With so many of us still working from home its key for leaders to know that staff, whether in the office or at home, need to have balance. Skylab proves that healthy workers are better workers. And that you need to treat your team as people to work out what ensures their physical and mental health are looked after.
Even NASA had to learn the plan for the worst, hope for the best lesson. But once they did, they implemented a rigorous planning process to handle whatever challenge it faced.
Prior to the launch of Skylab, NASA did not have a formal rescue plan in place in the event of catastrophic failures as experienced on the space station launch. The events of Skylab forced NASA to develop makeshift plans to salvage the situation and ultimately rescue the 2.2 Billion Dollar investment in to the program. By the flight of the second crew, a procedure for any potential problems had been implemented, from in-orbit repairs, to a space rescue should the crew have been stranded by malfunctioning hardware during their mission.
Skylab is unfairly remembered as an embarrassment in NASA’s space history. The above listed 5 points detail how in fact it was a resounding success, if for no other reason than showing what can be achieved with adequate planning and thinking outside-of-the-box when dealing with contingencies.