AidSpace Blog

Skylab is Falling!

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Thirty-five years ago, on July 11, 1979, the first US space station fell out of orbit. It wasn’t a surprise or an error, nor was it a calamity. It was more like an intense meteor shower—sparkling and momentary—as Skylab entered the atmosphere. Very little of this spacecraft as large as a house was ever found on the ground.

Skylab had a brief but distinguished history between the last Apollo missions and the beginning of the Space Shuttle era. NASA repurposed some remaining Saturn hardware into an “orbital workshop” where three men at a time could live and work. It was the first US foray into spaceflight lasting longer than two weeks.

Skylab Orbital Workshop in Orbit

An overhead view of the Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home. Credit: NASA.

Three crews occupied Skylab in 1973-1974, staying 28, 59, and 84 days and setting US long-duration records that lasted until Americans stayed on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. They operated an attached solar observatory (the Apollo Telescope Mount), did Earth and astronomical observations, conducted microgravity and biomedical experiments, did EVA maintenance and repair tasks, and proved how productively they could work in space.

When the third crew left, NASA powered down Skylab and abandoned it, committing resources to the next big program, the Space Shuttle. Skylab drifted silently in a parking orbit for the next five years, circling about 269-283 miles (433-455 km) overhead. Expecting it to remain in orbit for about 10 years, NASA gave some thought to its possible eventual reuse.

However, Skylab’s orbit deteriorated more quickly as a more active than expected sunspot cycle affected the atmosphere and increased drag on the space station. By 1978, it was clear that Skylab was losing altitude and would fall out of orbit unless boosted higher. Had the Space Shuttle been ready to fly, it might have been used to reboost Skylab to prolong its existence, but with the first shuttle launch not expected until 1981, NASA had to work on a controlled descent instead.

Of course, the forecast for a huge falling spacecraft caused a great deal of concern and public interest. In 1978, a Soviet satellite crashed in Canada and spread radioactive debris, which raised awareness of potential hazards from above. Skylab had no radioactive materials onboard, but it was a massive 85-ton structure. The prospect of huge chunks of metal raining from the sky was scary.

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979.

NASA calculated a descent trajectory for minimal risk to human life and property that would bring Skylab down over remote areas of the southern Pacific Ocean. Remotely operating the spacecraft’s onboard thrusters, ground controllers oriented Skylab properly to begin its descent.

Meanwhile, the media had stoked interest in the descent and a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” alarmism—both serious and humorous—arose. The Washington Post alone ran some 30 stories about Skylab’s demise from April through July 1979. People worried where the debris would land as Skylab disintegrated and burned during its high-speed passage through the atmosphere, and some joked about being doomsday targets or placed bets on its point of impact. The political and diplomatic consequences would not be trivial if death or destruction occurred.

As it happened, the calculated path of descent was a few degrees off. Some of Australia’s population heard the sonic booms and saw the bright streaks of Skylab debris, some of which fell in the vicinity of Esperance and the desert beyond. No one was hurt, no significant property damage occurred, and some pieces of recovered debris made their way back to NASA for analysis and on to museums. Others bits were doubtless kept as souvenirs of the night when a home in space fell to Earth.

*The backup Skylab orbital workshop has been on display in the Museum’s building on the National Mall since 1976. A few small fragments of charred Skylab debris are in the Museum’s collection.

Backup Skylab Orbital Workshop at the Museum in Washington, DC

Backup model of Skylab’s orbital workshop on display at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Valerie Neal is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.

Monumental Views

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Every Fourth of July, visitors and locals alike crowd the National Mall to watch the fireworks show with the Washington Monument as one of its focal points. The monument reopened to the public in May 2014 as the last vestiges of scaffolding were removed from it, a visible reminder of the damage caused by a 2011 earthquake. Every year, thousands of visitors photograph themselves on the National Mall with the monument in the background. It is no surprise that it is popular in aviation photography as well.

For one week in June 1906, A. Roy Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey soared over Washington, DC, in an airship. Making flights at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, the aviators took off from Luna Park in Arlington, Virginia, and circled the city to the delight of viewers on the ground. According to the New York Times, on the morning of June 14 Beachey circled the monument and headed for the White House. Landing on the lawn, he was informed that President Theodore Roosevelt was two miles away at Georgetown University for commencement ceremonies. After a brief run-in with the White House constabulary, Beachey was in the air again, emptying the chambers of Congress as senators and representatives rushed to see the spectacle.

Lincoln Beachey Circles the Washington Monument

Lincoln Beachey circles the Washington Monument in an airship, June 13, 1906. NASM 98-15047

James “Jim” Ray, Vice-President of the Autogiro Company of America (formerly Pitcairn Aircraft Company), made a habit of flying an autogiro over Washington. His first demonstration was in 1931, on the occasion of President Hoover’s presentation of the Collier Trophy to Harold Pitcairn and associates for the development of the autogiro. On October 2, 1936, Ray landed the AC-35 in what is now Freedom Plaza. There, he converted the aircraft to its roadable configuration and drove it to the main entrance of the Commerce Building.

Jim Ray Flies over the Washington Monument

Jim Ray flies over the Washington Monument in an experimental autogiro. The photo was taken from autogiro flown by John Miller. Although the original caption written on the image gives a date of 1933, the presence and the height of scaffolding on the Monument places this image in late 1934 or very early 1935. NASM 9A05679

In 1931, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways introduced the Sikorsky S-40 Clipper. With 38 seats and a crew of six, it was the largest plane built in America at that time. Charles Lindbergh commanded the first leg of the first flight of the American Clipper (NC-80V) in November 1931.

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper flies by the Washington Monument. NASM 90-14350

In the past, the National Air and Space Museum has exhibited aircraft outside on the National Mall.  To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 by a Navy Curtiss NC-4 between Long Island and Portugal, the restored plane was on public display in 1969 in several locations including Central Park and Philadelphia. By the summer, the aircraft was on the National Mall, almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument. After the outdoor display, the aircraft was disassembled and placed in storage. The NC-4 has been on loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida since 1974.

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall, Summer 1969. The Washington Monument can be seen in the background. NASM 91-14704

Whether you’re watching the fireworks or cooking out with friends, enjoy your Fourth!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.

Remembering Frederick Ira Ordway, III

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Frederick Ira Ordway, III

Frederick Ira Ordway, III. Credit: Apogee Books

Fred Ordway passed away in Huntsville, Alabama, on the morning of Tuesday July 1. We were friends for 40 years, but then I can’t think of anyone in the aerospace community with a wider circle of friends than Fred. We have a tradition at the Museum of honoring deceased aerospace leaders with a short obituary and photo posted near the information desk in our south lobby. My colleagues offered me the honor of preparing such a farewell for Fred.

Frederick Ira Ordway, III (April 4, 1927–July 1, 2014) helped to create the space age, chronicled its history, and shaped the way in which the public perceived the past, present, and future of travel beyond the atmosphere. A native New Yorker, he was educated in primary and secondary schools in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Washington, D.C. “Like many space flight enthusiasts,” he once remarked, “my interest was first stimulated by science fiction magazines.” He was 11 when he began to devour science fiction, and 13 when he became the youngest member of the fledgling American Rocket Society.

Following service as a naval reserve officer during the closing months of World War II, Ordway entered Harvard University, graduating with a BS in 1949. He pursued graduate study at the University of Paris, and universities in Algiers, Barcelona, and Innsbruck. Initially employed as a mining and petroleum engineer in Latin America, he accepted a job with Reaction Motors, Inc., America’s pioneering rocket motor manufacturer, in 1951, then moved on to the Guided Missile Division of Republic Aviation. A 1955 meeting with space pioneer Wernher von Braun led to a lifelong friendship and a decision to join the von Braun team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Huntsville, Alabama, where he would eventually serve as Chief of the Space Information Systems Branch.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke advised Stanley Kubrick to bring Ordway on board as technical advisor for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that role he developed basic concepts and detailed designs for the spacecraft featured in the movie. Returning to Huntsville in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama. Seven years later he moved to Washington, D.C. and a consulting position with the National Science Foundation followed by service as Special Assistant to Robert C. Seamans, director of the Energy Research Development Agency (later the Department of Energy).

Fred Ordway was a prolific author, producing 30 books on space flight, some with co-author Wernher von Braun, and 250 articles. In addition to his contributions to the American Rocket Society (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he was an early member of the American Astronautical Society, and an editor of its Journal of Astronautics. The only American to attend the First international Astronautical Congress in Paris in 1950, he became an active participant in the activities of the International Astronautical Federation. He was a member, often a Fellow, of many of the world’s aerospace technical societies.

Ordway donated the collection of science fiction and pulp magazines he had begun as a youngster to Harvard University. His impressive library of books on the history of space flight went to the University of Alabama, Huntsville. A collection of space art, focusing on the work of Chesley Bonestell, formed the basis for his 1992 travelling exhibition, Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact. For those of us who knew him, and millions of space enthusiasts around the globe, the world will be a less interesting and entertaining place without Fred Ordway.

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Blazing the Trail in Space

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The first successful American “astronaut” is on display at the Smithsonian in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition. It’s not Alan Shepard, but Able, a rhesus monkey.


Able sometime before her flight at the U.S. Navy Aviation Medical School where she trained for her flight. (U.S. Army)

Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker were the first American animals to enter space and return safely. On May 28, 1959 at Cape Canaveral, Able was placed in the nose cone of Jupiter AM-18 secured by a contour cradle made of fiberglass with sponge rubber lining specifically built for her body. Included in the cradle were multiple electrodes used to collect information on Able’s reaction to noise, acceleration, deceleration, vibration, rotation, and weightlessness. The cradle was then placed in a capsule with a life support system that included oxygen, moisture and CO2 absorbers, and electrical heating and cooling systems to keep the monkey alive. Baker was placed her in own separate capsule in the nose cone.


Able being secured in her specially designed contour cradle before launch. Able’s position in the cradle mimics how the first human astronauts would be seated. (NASA)


Able seated in her cradle being placed inside the life support capsule before launch. (NASA)


Jupiter AM-18, the rocket that took Able and Baker into space, pre-launch.

Able and Baker’s mission lasted for approximately 16 minutes, nine of which they experienced weightlessness. The two monkeys traveled to an altitude of over 300 miles and 1,700 ground miles south of the launching point. After recovery by the naval ship USS Kiowa, the primate space travelers were reported as unhurt and in good spirits.


Able being extracted from her contour cradle after the successful flight. (NASA)


Able and Baker being shown off aboard the USS Kiowa after their flight. (U.S. Army)

After recovery, the two monkeys were flown to Washington, DC for a press conference, where they were treated like celebrities. They even appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine on June 15, 1959. Able was awarded a medal and Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Able at a Press Conference

The press conference held in Washington D.C. for the suddenly famous space monkeys. (U.S. Army)

Able was not the first choice for this mission. Another rhesus monkey had been extensively trained for the flight, but was replaced with Able only two weeks before the launch. The first candidate was born in India, and President Eisenhower determined that this might offend the Indian people who view rhesus monkeys as sacred animals. Therefore, American-born Able from Independence, Kansas was the new choice.


Able undergoing a flight test to prepare her for her flight into space with Baker.


Able, seated in her cradle, on top of her life support capsule on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

Unfortunately, Able died on the operating table at Armored Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) in Fort Knox  just four days after her space flight. She was having an Electroencephalography (EED) electrode removed, a routine procedure. An EED measures electrical activity of the brain. The incision site was a shallow half inch, but anesthesia was used to save Able from discomfort. While under the anesthesia, her heart abruptly stopped. Extensive measures were taken to save her, to no avail. On March 22, 1960, Able’s body was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.

Able’s space partner Baker, or Miss Baker as she has been known since her flight, lived out her days first at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida and then at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. On November 29, 1984, Miss Baker died of kidney failure at Auburn University, making her the oldest living squirrel monkey in captivity. Miss Baker’s grave can be seen at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center frequently with a banana or two on top.


Miss Baker sitting on a model of the rocket she and Able rode into space. (NASA)

Thanks to Able and Miss Baker, NASA and the U.S. military were assured that humans could survive in space. These two monkeys paved the way to human exploration in space.

Caroline Elpers was an intern in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Where is Flak-Bait?

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The Museum’s Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait and its crews survived 207 operational missions over Europe, more than any other American aircraft during World War II. Recognizing that significance, the U.S. Army Air Forces saved it from destruction after the war. The newly-created U.S. Air Force transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1949 and the B-26 joined the collection in 1960. Flak-Bait’s forward fuselage section went on display in Gallery 205-World War II Aviation when the Museum opened in July 1976. Museum specialists have transported it, along with the rest of the artifact that has been in storage at the Paul E. Garber Facility, to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


Flak Bait

Millions of visitors have been able to enjoy seeing the forward fuselage section of Flak-Bait during its thirty-eight years of display in Gallery 205-World War II Aviation. You can see where in earlier years visitor’s hands wore off the olive drab paint just past the Plexiglas nose.


Flak Bait Cockpit

This is the view of the radio (left) and navigator positions inside Flak-Bait’s forward fuselage section as you look toward the cockpit. [Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2014-02562).]

Martin factory workers completed the B-26 in April 1943 and the Army Air Forces assigned it to the 449th Bombardment Squadron of the 322nd Bombardment Group. Lt. James J. Farrell gave the bomber its name by combining the word for German anti-aircraft artillery, “flak,” with his brother’s nickname for their family dog, “Flea Bait.” Between August 1943 and the end of the war, Flak-Bait and its crews accumulated 725 hours of combat time against Nazi Germany. Over the entire artifact, there are over 1,000 patched flak holes earned in missions that included sorties in support of Allied operations during the D-Day Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

Flak Bait on its 200th Mission

On April 17, 1945, Flak-Bait’s 200th mission was leading the entire 322nd Bombardment Group on a mission to bomb Magdeburg, Germany. [Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-42346)]


Flak-Bait’s Crew

Flak-Bait’s crew poses with the bomber after the April 17, 1945 mission. The celebratory 200 Missions “bomb” just under the pilot’s cockpit is not the one found on the artifact today. This one was either superimposed on the aircraft or the photograph. [Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 77-2694)]

Few Marauders survive today out of the 5,266 produced by Martin. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, and a private collector in Florida retain complete Marauders in their collections. There are three others undergoing rebuilding and restoration at museums in the United States.

Flak-Bait’s history, provenance, rarity, and original condition make it an extraordinary World War II artifact. The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, and the vast space of the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center make it possible to treat Flak-Bait and put it on display as a complete airplane. The overall treatment theme is to preserve the artifact’s structural, mechanical, and cosmetic features, but the project will require a combination of techniques ranging from conservation to, when warranted, restoration. The project’s completion will mark the first time Flak-Bait will be fully assembled since the end of World War II.

Jeremy Kinney is the curator for the Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait.