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From Skylab to Gateway: 50 years of leapfrogging into space

As we build more and more stations, the human inhabitation of our solar system will be within our grasp.

An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon.
An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon.

As a fourth grader at Jenny Lind Elementary School on the Northside of Minneapolis I had an innovative teacher named Ms. Kougle. On May 14, 1973, she introduced us to space exploration by telling us about Skylab, the first American made space station that was launched that very same day, more than 50 years ago. In fact, she instructed us to go home that evening and watch the launch.

When we got back to school the next day, our teacher had us start construction on a version of the space station in our classroom. Our building materials included cardboard boxes, duct tape, and silver, black, and white tempera paints. She provided photos of Skylab as guides to our construction.

We made the model almost as long as the classroom so that we could take turns “piloting” and “floating” around the inside of our own space station. For that week, we added to our station and were taught many things about space. We even forwent our daily milk and cookies in favor of Tang and dried packaged fruit.

Unfortunately, the flight of our cardboard Skylab went much smoother than the real mission.

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Originally, the initial crew for Skylab was scheduled to launch the day after the space station was sent into space. But the solar panels and sunshade did not deploy properly so the crew’s departure was delayed. It was not until May 25, 1973 that the crew went into space with a new mission: to repair Skylab.

The first crew of the Skylab spent 28 days on the station mostly repairing the solar shade and solar panels. This mission was commanded by Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. (the third person to step onto the moon), with the pilot being Paul J. Weitz (who later commanded the maiden flight of the space shuttle Challenger), and the science pilot Jospeh P.Kerwin (the first physician selected for astronaut training). One of the repairs they completed was the deployment of a parasol-like sunshade that brought temperatures inside the station down to acceptable levels.

Before Skylab, the USSR had the lead in space station construction and launches into orbit. That nation had created four space stations before Skylab and another six after. Of the total 17 space station launches in history, the Soviet Union/Russia has led 10 of those, United States three, and the Peoples Republic of China three. The 17th station is the International Space Station (ISS), a multi-national effort by the United States (NASA); Russia (Roscosmos); Europe (ESA); Canada (CSA); and Japan (JAXA).

14 of the 17 space stations have returned to Earth. The three space stations left in Earth orbit include the International Space Station (ISS), the Tiangong Space Station operated by China (CMSA), and the Genesis I and II, which were launched in 2006 and 2007 as a combined test vehicle by Bigelow Aerospace of the U.S. The Genesis station is now a space derelict.

The next generation of space stations will not be in Earth’s orbit. Rather, they will be placed in orbit around the moon. The first of these stations is called Lunar Gateway or simply Gateway.

Gateway will be launched in November 2024 under the Artemis program. It will become the first extraterrestrial space station. This station will make travel to Mars and to deeper into our solar system possible.

Dave Berger
Dave Berger
The first two modules of Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) will be launched on the Falcon Heavy rocket. Four of the five International Space Station (ISS) partners, NASA, ESA, JAXA, and CSA, will manage Gateway. Note that Russia has opted out and is creating its own new space station by 2025.

While Skylab had an Earth orbit of only 268 miles, completing an orbit every 93 minutes, Gateway will have a highly elliptical orbit around the moon that will range from 930 miles to 43,000 miles and take seven days to complete one orbit.

Skylab made the expansion of our space station program possible. As we build more and more stations, the human inhabitation of our solar system will be within our grasp. Like an interstellar game of leapfrog, we will, as Gene Roddenberry envisioned, “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

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Dave Berger of Maple Grove, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor, a freelance writer, and an author.