back to article America's forgotten space station and a mission tinged with urine, we salute you

Two NASA anniversaries rolled around this week, but you would be forgiven for missing them. The first was the anniversary of the launch* of the United States' only solo Space Station, Skylab, designed to host astronauts for months at a time. The second big day (in 2018, when we published this article) marked 55 years since the …

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    1. Vulch

      Re: 5...4...3...2...1...>

      Walter and Donald (Deke => D K) Tracy, the forgotten brothers.

      1. Stevie

        Re: 5...4...3...2...1...>

        Jeff ... never talks about Walter and Deke.

        Let's just say they were a big disappointment when it came to that fateful "Time to decide, boys: Join The Hood's Gang or go it alone with this crazy rescue thing I've been talking about with Brains over beers" conversation.

  2. hammarbtyp

    Lessons learned in the importance of sealing circuits from moisture would later prove invaluable

    50 years later, mobile phone manufacturers are still learning that lesson

    1. Greencat

      Heads they win, tails you lose

      In fairness to mobile phone manufacturers, there's no real incentive for them to do so. Every soggy mobile phone is another sale of a new one for them.

    2. Chris G

      No problems with my phone IP68 rated will take pictures under water up to 2 metres down, also dust proof and drop proof from 2 metres up.

      Those properties are very useful to me but essential for an astronaut, those guys had grit.

      1. Danny 14

        does your phone still work after being pissed on? Have you tried?

        1. Ken 16 Silver badge

          There are two options for testing that, the mildly drunk one of putting it in your shirt pocket and dropping it in the bowl/urinal as you sway forward and the very drunk one of putting it in your front trouser pocket and wetting yourself.

      2. onefang

        "Those properties are very useful to me but essential for an astronaut, those guys had grit."

        So it's grit proof as well?

  3. TheProf

    the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

    Crewed? What's wrong with manned? Oh yes, that can be plural too. Hmm. Piloted? Yes, seeing as they did use pilots to fly the craft.

    Fly? Oh this is getting silly.

    1. TrumpSlurp the Troll

      Re: the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

      From the accounts, the whole setup was pretty crude.

      1. PerlyKing

        Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

        Almost unbelievably so. Some time ago I read the transcript of Apollo 8 online, which shows just how experimental the spacecraft were. And how brave were the men inside them.

        1. Andrew Commons

          Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

          Each spacecraft was hand made and unique. The men inside them were seasoned test pilots who flew 'experimental, hand made, and unique' for a living. They were highly intelligent and understood the risks. Brave is not an adequate word to describe them.

        2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

          Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

          "By the skin of their teeth" essentially describes the space race from start to finish. Early on this was by necessity, but by the time of the Space Shuttle there were unfortunately other factors at play.

          1. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

            Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

            "Remember, everything you see around you was made by the lowest bidder"

            1. Anonymous Custard

              Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

              As part of our work training we do a Kepner Tregoe Analysis course (problem solving, situation appraisal, that sort of thing) and one thing I learned was they used it during Apollo 13.

              Went into quite some detail, and to understand quite how ingenious they had to be (and unfortunately how many self-created issues of incompatible hardware they had to overcome - square filters in round holes and suchlike) is fascinating to read. Those men truly earned their "steely-eyed missilemen" status.

              Can't find the full one they shared with us, but the link below has an abbreviated version:


        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

          The Mercury astronauts repeatedly watched failures of the Atlas rockets that were going to carry them to orbit. Gus Grissom is on record as saying: "Are we really going to get on top of one of *THOSE* things?

          And then they climbed on top of a tin balloon filled with explosives. There's not enough beer in the universe for people like that.

          Footage of some early (unmanned) Atlas flights here:

          And maximum Michael Bayness of a Atlas Centaur not quite getting off the pad here:

          1. Dave 32

            Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

            One of the things to remember about the Atlas is that it was constructed from a stainless steel envelope so thin that, if pressurization was lost, it would collapse. Would anyone in their right mind want to climb on top of one of those?


            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: the whole setup was pretty crude

              " so thin that, if pressurization was lost, it would collapse. Would anyone in their right mind want to climb on top of one of those?"

              Ah shucks, don't worry about the rocket collapsing, if the Atlas loses internal pressure it's because the fuel and or LOX is rapidly leaking out. The explosion will kill you way before the collapse will!

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

      I'll say 'manned' because

      a) it's politically incorrect

      b) it's true (there WAS 'a man' aboard)

      c) Proper grammar defaults to male pronouns, etc. when sex is indeterminate or unimportant. See 'a'

      /me wonders why the 'pee' problem in Gordo's flight was never mentioned in "The Right Stuff".

      (my 'mailman' is a woman)

      1. Enno

        Re: the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

        As I recall, in the first Mercury flight, Shepherd was delayed on the launchpad (not uncommon in the early days) and it was found no provision had been made for a full bladder. The ultimate 'solution' (no pun intended was for Shepherd to basically relieve himself in the spacesuit. I presume the leaking urine bottle was a later addition to the capsule, and by the sounds of it one that was perhaps a little gerry-rigged.

        1. Anonymous Custard

          Re: the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

          Maybe he should have honoured the tradition started by Gagarin of pissing on the tyre of the bus taking him to the Launchpad? Apparently it's now so ingrained as a lucky ritual that they all do it.

    3. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: the final crewed mission of the Mercury programme

      > Crewed? What's wrong with manned?

      Or it doesn't have to mention it at all, since it was simply the last Mercury flight.

  4. Chozo

    Further reading

    A house in space by Henry S. F Cooper I highly recommend for anybody interested in day to day practical side and problems of living aboard Skylab. The grit beneath the public relations gloss featuring such classic quotes as...

    Why did I choose corned beef hash every day for breakfast?

    Whoever designed this toilet has clearly never taken a dump in their life!

    Don't tell mission control...

    Skylabs unique floor system also gets several mentions with hilarious descriptions of the cleat quick step. (The official technical report was said to contain so many swear words it was redacted to just read: use velcro next time)

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Further reading

      > Whoever designed this toilet has clearly never taken a dump in their life!

      Which is sad, because apparently the Skylab toilet turned out to be the best design so far, and the Shuttle one in particular was the absolute worst.

    2. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Further reading

      I have that book on my bookshelf....

      Goes into details behind the strike and what really happened.

      Mission control sending 16 hrs of work up on a list to be done at a rate of knots because that was how the apollo and previous missions were worked......... but the guys were trying to cope with finding stuff and getting stuff setup for the day while ground control bitched at them for being slower than the previous crew.

      Does this remind you of anything?

      No wonder they stuck 2 fingers up at ground control and went off and did their own thing....

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Whoever designed this toilet has clearly never taken a dump in their life!"

      I'm quite sure he never took a dump in zero G....

  5. Ana Cronym

    "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

    1. defiler

      You're lookin' at him!

    2. Aladdin Sane

      Re: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

      Hell of a book/film.

      1. Andrew Commons

        Re: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

        It was a great book/film. And Tom Wolfe died two days ago so a double whammy.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

          "It was a great book/film. And Tom Wolfe died two days ago so a double whammy."

          Truly marvellous. I showed the film to my daughter when she was 10, and she loved it. We've watched it together several times since. She's now 16 and going on to do Maths, Chemistry and Biology A levels. She's flown gliders, shoots .22 rifles and shotguns, and is an enthusiastic member of her school's Combined Cadet Force. The film worked.

          My generation had Douglas Bader to venerate. Remembering that, I made sure my daughter had some proper role models to look up to.

          Contemporary role models? They mostly appear to me to be variants of Kim Kardashian. Or some whiner with pink hair. Elon Musk? Sure, but he's not really in the calculated personal risk game, now is he?

          1. Aladdin Sane

            Re: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

            Tim Peake?

    3. Ken 16 Silver badge

      Darby Kennedy, my first flying instructor.

      He began his career flying Hannibal biplanes and Sunderland flying boats across Africa for Imperial Airways.

  6. Unicornpiss

    I hope..

    ..that current generations end up with heroes like this and the inspiration of routinely exploring new frontiers. Very different times. While many may argue that the money and resources spent on Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, etc. could have been used to feed hungry people, etc. (it would not have been anyway), it makes me sad that we haven't been back to the moon yet, and Mars is still a distant dream. All we have in manned (crewed) space flight is an aging space station and a few private companies that have tried to somewhat pick up the torch.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: I hope..

      could have been used to feed hungry people

      could have been used to bomb hungry people - and it later was.

      1. mstreet

        "Could have been used to feed hungry people"

        Reminded me of R.A. Heinlein's testimony before congress in 79, when they were looking for an excuse to do away with the space program. He gave them a list of subsidiary technologies primarily created while working on the space program. Since it had never been done before, an enormous amount of effort went into solving all the problems involved. The list of tech that owes it's existence to the early program is a real eye opener:

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: "Could have been used to feed hungry people"

          WWII = Computers, Radar, Jet engine, etc - but that doesn't mean invading Poland is the only way to invent things

        2. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: "Could have been used to feed hungry people"

          "The list of tech that owes it's existence to the early program is a real eye opener"

          I can't give you enough thumbs up for saying this! And yes, the "collateral benefits" of NASA and the space program in general is hard to 'dollarize' but I would expect it to be a NET BENEFIT. It "gave back".

          After all - with all of that money we bought rockets and blasted them into space. We got what we paid for. Imagine what we'd have got if we'd paid for something that DOES NOT GIVE BACK...

        3. Ken 16 Silver badge

          Re: "Could have been used to feed hungry people"

          It already does, through better global weather forecasts and may do more through weather modification satellites.

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge

        Re: I hope..

        "could have been used to feed hungry people"

        WAS used to HIRE hungry people (to build rockets, etc.). then they can FEED THEMSELVES instead of requiring some form of charity [whether voluntarily given or FORCIBLY TAKEN from taxPAYERS].

        there. I said it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "Was used to hire hungry people.. instead of.. forcibly taken from taxpayers"

          Ummm, and where do you think think NASA got the money from to hire the hungry people?

          Yes, that would have been the taxpayers.

          (I agree that it is better to use taxes to invest in the economy/people, rather than give freebies with no expectation of useful return, but since the whole concept of money is a smoke-and-mirrors affair that only works because we (all?) believe in it, it's an interesting question. Roll on the United Federation of Planets!)

      3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: I hope..

        could have been used to feed hungry people

        Today we have more "hungry people" than back then. Generally due to war and planned elimination, c.f. Yemen. Remember the Live Aid concerts from the 80s for aiding Ethiopian "famine"? Engineered famine.

        We also have economic refugees and an infinite supply of more where these come from. The World's Most Important Graph says something about Whitey's destiny.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I hope..

          No we don't have more hungry people than back then. It's been falling steadily. e.g. in 1970 share of people under-nourished 28%, in 2015 11%. source :

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: I hope..


            In 1970 the world population was circa 3.7B, hence 28% is circa 1B.

            In 2015 the world population was circa 7.2B (it is now circa 7.6B), hence 11% is circa 836M

            So in practical terms, the real number of "under-nourished" people has hardly changed, just that we seem to have been successful (so far) in not creating more under-nourished people.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "Remember the Live Aid concerts"

          Yes, they were a far greater waste of resources by narcissistic millionaires who needed to deceive people into thinking they were good people aiding the world while eluding taxes because of course it's *the others" who have to pay for aids, you're too busy to stash your money in some tax haven...

          And far less useful returns than the space programs.

    2. TheProf

      Re: I hope..

      Help required!!

      "could have been used to feed hungry people"

      I remember the scene in a film where a group of protesters are stopped at one of the security gates just before the launch of (I think) Apollo 11. The gist of the scene is that they'd rather the government spent money on the poor instead of blasting it into space. I think the NASA official defuses the situation by asking the protesters if they really think that cancelling the space programme would really help the poor.

      For the life of me I can't recall what the film is.

      1. Anonymous Custard

        Re: I hope..

        @Unicornpiss - there's some argument that people like Tim Peake, Chris Hadfield, Peggy Whitson, Luca Parmitano, Helen Sharman, Michael Foale and Sunita Williams would all class as such heroes. Or at least deserve to, as probably do anyone with the balls to sit on a large firework built by the lowest bidder and pork-barrel scraper.

        Maybe not the pioneers that the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo guys were, but still risk takers (such as Parmitano almost drowning in space) and great ambassadors for space and science in general to the public.

        And as the shuttle sadly showed twice, even with "mature" technology, they could still kill if things went wrong.

      2. PhilBuk

        Re: I hope..


        I think the film/documentry was "For All Mankind" ??


        1. TheProf

          Re: I hope..

          Thanks @PhilBuk.

          I don't recall seeing the film you suggest but it's on YouTube and I'll watch it this weekend.

          I'm sure the film I can't recall it was a fictional account of something significant being launched. Oh God! I hope I haven't imagined it! (No it wasn't When Worlds Collide.)

  7. rogue-Element

    Pedant's corner


    not "daring-do"

    1. brizo2478

      Re: Pedant's corner

      The little wascal has spiwit.

      1. Alister

        Re: Pedant's corner

        The little wascal has spiwit.

        Oh. Ahh, about eleven, sir.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Pedant's corner

      Chocks away old chap!

  8. andy gibson

    Atari Space Shuttle

    I'm not sure if it was Skylab you rendezvoused with on the game, but it was to me.

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Re: Atari Space Shuttle

      Nah, nothing beats the Skylab Landing Bay level on Manic Miner on the ol' speccy ;)

  9. Roger Kynaston

    good youtube channel for this sort of stuff

    Vintage Space

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ah yes .. the Golden Shower mission.

  11. ravenviz Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Lots to see here

    I was still a child when Skylab was around, but I loved the old Horizon programmes about it, really great stuff! The fact that you could moved around in normal clothes, and they always looked like they were having so much fun*, spinning themselves around (demonstrating the law of conservation of angular momentum), and swallowing floating globules of water. Even as a kid I was sad when Skylab had to end. :'(

    But then of course we had space shuttle coming! :-D

    *the bits on TV anyway

    1. PNGuinn

      Re: Swallowing floating globules of water

      Methinks it'd be a brave man (or woman) to swallow any globules of "water" aboard anything designed or built by NASA.

    2. Hazmoid

      Re: Lots to see here

      I was in school when Skylab crashed in Western Australia, and was ready to go searching in Esperance for bits of it. To a kid in Western Australia this was excitement with a capital E.

      1. Francis Boyle

        Re: Lots to see here

        And NASA still hasn't paid the littering fine.

        1. opaque

          Re: Lots to see here

    3. hypnos

      Re: Lots to see here

      I remember that a man in Philippines died of a heart attack from his anxiety that Skylab will fall on his head. And my dad's ( I was 9 at the time) cynical comment at the time: "... they'll just make sure it doesn't fall on American heads..."

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Right Stuff.

    Nothing to add.

    1. Jay Lenovo

      Re: The Right Stuff.

      The draw of space exploration is the kind of peculiar attraction Tom Wolfe went about trying to describe (RIP). Nowadays the rewards are not viewed as valuable enough to fund the risk involved.

      I seem to remember more media coverage about Skylab crashing down than going up.

  13. Mystic Megabyte

    I watched Salyut-7a few weeks ago. It gets a bit silly towards the end but overall it's very enjoyable.

    Supposedly the most skilful docking of a spaceship in history.

    More brave men..

    1. hypnos

      The movie is good. I wonder how much of the last part drama was true and how much was invented for cinema. Good to see such movies made out of the USA.

    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Saw it two or three weeks ago. Worth watching.

  14. hugo tyson
    Black Helicopters

    Men in Black

    I read in a public, academic book, that when Skylab launched, NASA was keen to see what the wrongly/party deployed solar panels, and associated damage, looked like. The NRO had secret spy satellites, of the kind which drop a film cartridge when it's been filled, which NASA were not allowed to know about, nor anyone else really. Apparently NASA had a visit from sunglasses and dark suits, who said "Your top 4 engineers on this, in here, now; no-one else. Here are some photographs. You may look at them for 15 minutes. They do not leave this room. We were never here, you never saw this." And it helped them decide that fixing it on-orbit was feasible, and what they needed to take and do. According to one of those NASA engineers.

    1. HPCJohn

      Re: Men in Black

      Hugo, this is detailed in a book I read recently. 'Into the Black' by Rowland White

      The Keyhole spy satellites were used to look at the Space Shuttle once it reached orbit, to look for any tiles which had become detached. This took some fancy orbit calculations, and a high speed relative closing speed between Orbiter and Keyhole.

      I believe the book said that by the time of the Columbia disaster there was not an inspection performed.

      1. hugo tyson

        Re: Men in Black

        That's the book - thanks, your memory's better than mine.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice work, El Reg

    These articles really are worth the price of subscription.

    It's unfortunate that the advances in space flight of the 60s could not have been more collaborative than competitive. It took until the ISS for that. But we shouldn't forget these genuine pioneers (no pun intended) and their courage.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Nice work, El Reg

      >These articles really are worth the price of subscription.

      Mind you, perhaps it is a good thing Skylab fell from orbit as otherwise it would mean gypsythief's Geek's Map of Britain would be having problems.

      Perhaps this is a warning that soon we will need a Geeks Guide to the Galaxy...

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Nice work, El Reg

        "Geek's Guide to the Galaxy" has a nice ring to it.

        1. Dave559

          Re: "Geek's Guide to the Galaxy"

          The sort of title one might stitch onto a commemorative towel, for example…

  16. Dave Griffiths

    Nice Work, El Reg - echo that

    Having grown up during this timeframe, being the son of a pilot, loving all things aviation and space, and ending up as an engineer myself I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

    Anyone who isn't in awe of the folks that rode rocket and have respect for the folks that worked to make it happen is missing out.

    You see glimmers of it in SpaceX today, it is heart warming to see the excitement and cheering in the background.

    I am not sure I would want a world populated only by engineers, but I love being around them and feel truly at home.

    1. HPCJohn

      Re: Nice Work, El Reg - echo that

      True about SpaceX. A colleague of mine from McLaren F1 went over to work with SpaceX as an aerodynamics engineer. I'm proud to know him.

      Ob Brexit comment - said chappie is originally from Italy and came over to the UK to work for McLaren.

  17. Stevie


    I remember when the Shuttle was first a reality, one commentator (an astronaut who had velcro soles on Skylab time; can't remember who, though - stupid brain) remarked wryly that the only thing that worked properly on Skylab (by unanimous astronaut opinion) was the lavatory, and that [bafflingly] NASA was using a completely new design on the Shuttle.

    1. Mark 85

      Re: Bah!

      NASA doesn't have the infinite wisdom they think they do. The toilet is just part of it. The Mercury and Gemini capsules were built by the same firm. When it came to Apollo, they went with another firm which then had to go through the learning curve and it cost 3 astronauts their lives. Much info out there on why they chose to use 100% oxygen (bad choice) instead of a mix like Mercury and Gemini. Manufacturing had major issues such as not conformal coating terminal strips and leaving the debris from wiring behind. They learned but at a terrible price.

      Then there's the politics... such as launching at below ambient temperatures for the solid booster seals because of pressure due to certain politicians be present.

  18. Chairman of the Bored

    OP is quite correct

    Skylab B in the National Air and Space Museum is quite a sight to behold and walk through. The whole museum is great, but the Skylab is mind blowing. Realizing you are standing inside a decked out *upper stage* fuel tank really drives home the immensity of a Saturn launch vehicle. In another exhibit you stand with your head inside the nozzle of a F-1 engine and realize that things just got real.

    The one question I always had was how the astronauts could squeeze through the small hatches, what with their massive brass balls clanking together and all. Falling asleep while sitting on top of a bomb? I'd hate to see what makes these guys wake up...

  19. handleoclast

    I spy, with my little eye...

    I was surprised nobody (as yet) mentioned this:

    The astronaut caused some controversy by claiming to be able to see railroad tracks and smoke-trails from orbit, something thought to be impossible. It took until a later Gemini flight to prove Cooper right.

    If you do the calculations, Cooper shouldn't have been able to see those things. Plug in the diameter and focal length of the lens, resolution of the retina, Cooper's altitude, etc., and the conclusion is those objects are too small to make out.

    Well, if you analyse it on the basis of a conventional camera, those things are too small to make out. But the human eye isn't a conventional camera. The eyes of all animals with foveal vision (that includes us) have microsaccades (small, jerky movements) when fixating on an object. The wetware in the brain is able to effectively increase the resolution of the eye by a kind of aperture synthesis. The different parts of the object either miss or hit a retinal cell during these movements and the brain stitches it all together to make a higher-resolution image.

    Something we didn't even suspect happened until Cooper made his claims. And, I think, something of the sort is used in the cameras of modern mobiles to compensate for motion blur and other things.

    Explanation above is greatly simplified and almost certainly wrong in the exact details. But close enough for El Reg commentards to argue over. :)

    1. Chairman of the Bored

      Eye? Aye!

      @handleocast, have an update on that post. I had no idea, and that's an awesome bit of knowledge.

  20. Mark 85

    I remember as a kid watching all the Mercury and Gemini launches. I saw almost all the Apollo launches and landing on TV also. Marvelous times, indeed. It's only later when reading the stories behind the launches and about what really went on that I appreciated what those astronauts were up against besides "space". Steely eyed and steely balled they were. A toast....

  21. AceRimmer1980

    I need to boldly go

    Number One.

  22. Sam Therapy
    Thumb Up

    Heroes, one and all.

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