Feb 4, 2020
S1E8 – Lunar Skylab
Play • 30 min

The United States was forming quite a bit of a space complex.

They had space stations in low earth orbit, learning how to live and work in space, eventually to establish a permanent presence in low earth orbit.

They had bases on the surface of the moon. Learning how to live and work on the lunar surface, 239,000 miles from earth, and in the case of the BLA base, not even visible from the surface of the earth.

They even had satellites far from earth at the earth-moon Lagrangian points.

All of this has been discussed in past episodes of Belitopia.

But what was left was an orbital presence above the surface of the moon. We’ve had many ships that have orbited the moon. Every Apollo mission that went to the moon, orbited the moon for some period of time. Yet, given the constraints of the Apollo command module, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for long term study of the lunar surface from lunar orbit.

This was the purpose of the Lunar Skylab program. Provide an environment for the long term study of the lunar surface from low lunar orbit.

This is…Lunar Skylab. Welcome to Belitopia.


Topic Introduction

The goal of the Lunar Skylab program was to send a Skylab-like space station into *lunar* orbit — 60 miles above the surface of the moon — then occupy the station with long duration crews that could study the lunar surface in greater detail, along with learn how to live in zero G far from the surface of the earth.

In real life, this program never took place. There was never a space station built beyond low earth orbit. But in Belitopia, we deployed a Skylab-like space station into Lunar orbit in order to facilitate the study of the lunar surface, to facilitate telescopic study of the space without the worry of earth’s atmosphere, and explore alternative transportation mechanisms between lunar orbit and the lunar surface.

What follows is a fictional documentary about the Lunar Skylab space station. The documentary is presented as if it takes place in the year 2040, some 70 years after these events took place. The documentary, titled “Our World in Space”, describes the construction and occupation of this lunar space station. The documentary describes these events as a future historical record of past events.

While fiction, it’s based on research into how such a station may have been constructed, what it would have been used for, and how it would have benefited humankind. Theis documentary is about the Lunar Skylab program and its impact on our long term presence in space. The Lunar Skylab program, in the world of Belitopia.


Hello, and welcome to “Our World in Space — The Lunar Skylab Program”.

The Lunar Skylab. A space station 60 miles above the lunar surface. The first long duration human habitat to be built in space that was not in low earth orbit.

The technology wasn’t hard for the station itself. The space station was essentially identical to the Skylab I space station, except it utilized many technology improvements that were built into Skylab III.

The hard part was, how do we put it into lunar orbit? After all, the original skylab was launched into low earth orbit using a Saturn V rocket, at least the first two stages of it. That was easy. But now, the goal was to send the same station not 100 miles above the surface of the earth, but they needed to send it 239,000 miles away to a lunar orbit.

They did this by making use of a third stage to the Saturn V, and putting the skylab station above that third stage. The additional third stage was actually an S-IVC third stage — the same third stage that was used for the Venus Flyby mission. An extended and more powerful third stage than the standard S-IVB that was used to send the Apollo spacecraft to lunar orbit.

The Lunar Skylab was launched from earth on October 10, 1977. The single Skylab module was put into low earth orbit by the first and second stage of the Saturn V rocket. There it remained for a short stay while it was checked out and verified that it was undamaged during the launch. Then, the third stage S-IVC engine fired and sent the Lunar Skylab module on its 239,000 mile trip to the moon. The stations arrived in lunar orbit on October 13, 1977. The solar panels were deployed automatically, and the station was ready for occupation. The station was put into an orbit roughly 60 miles above the surface of the moon.

A Stable Lunar Orbit

Remaining in lunar orbit was a challenge. Due to variation in the composition of the moon, and changing densities, objects in lunar orbit tended to fall out of orbit. This was an ongoing problem with many previous unmanned satellites sent to the moon, along with all the Apollo manned voyages to the lunar surface. Maintaining a stable orbit was nearly impossible.

However, during the many missions that came before the lunar skylab was ready for launch, it was determined that there were four stable orbits…called frozen orbits…where a satellite such as the Lunar Skylab station could exist and remain in orbit for the long term. The easiest orbit was at an 86 degree angle, which was a nearly polar orbit. This was possible, but it would mean it would be difficult for ships arriving from earth to dock with the space station, if they were also destined to land on the lunar surface. Given this, a much more equatorial orbit was desired. A second frozen orbit was found to exist at a 27 degree angle above equatorial, and this was considered to be close enough to be reasonable for docking with lunar surface bound space ships, such as the LT missions that transported crews to the lunar surface.

Once the Lunar Skylab was in a safe and stable orbit above the lunar surface, the first crew for the station left earth. This was on October 13, 1977. The crew of Lunar Skylab M1 departed earth and arrived in lunar orbit on October 16, 1977, when they docked with the orbiting space station. They remained at the station for some 40 days before returning to earth on November 28, 1977. Their primary purpose was to setup and test the various components that made up the space station, and make sure it was ready for long term occupancy.

In all, seven crews visited the lunar skylab over a period of roughly three years. The longest duration stay was Lunar Skylab M4, which stayed for 386 days.

The Lunar Skylab included a telescope mount, just like the original Skylab I and the currently active Skylab III had. The telescope was used to take deep space pictures from lunar orbit. This was especially useful when the ship was in the point of its orbit where it was in the shadow of the sun, and away from the glow of the earth. The darkness at this point gave unprecedented access to the night sky that was great for deep space exploration, much better photographs than was possible from using standard 1980s technology telescopes. This created tremendous opportunities for deep space discovery.

Lunar Geological Photography

In addition to taking pictures out towards outer space, the various crews of the Lunar Skylab took significant pictures of the lunar surface. One of the crews of Lunar Skylab, the M4 crew, which stayed the longest at the station, had among its crew a astro-geologist who could study the pictures real time and decide what additional pictures should be taken of what parts of the lunar surface. This meant the pictures that were taken weren’t just random pictures of the surface, but were strategically placed photographs of important characteristics of the lunar surface. This sort of intelligent target determination was only possible because a live, human astronaut was onboard the station. This could not be accomplished with 1980s technology using an unmanned satellite. It must be done using a crewed space station. This research was invaluable to the study of the composition of the lunar surface. Among other things, these photographs helped determine where there was likely to be deposits of water under the lunar surface, and where particularly valuable and/or interesting minerals were located. The value of this research was incredible, and that value alone justified the cost of the mission.

The New Lunar Lander

The Lunar Skylab was also used for one other important project, that of testing out a new prototype lunar lander that was being developed in the late 1970s. This land, which was designed as a long term replacement for the old disposable Apollo LMs, was a reusable lander that could land and take off over and over again. It did not leave behind it’s descent stage, as did the old LM, so it did not create a lunar graveyard. It could be reused over and over again. As long as it had a sufficient supply of fuel, it could land and take off multiple times during a single mission. It also had the capacity to carry up to six astronauts, or fewer astronauts and an increased payload or fuel load. This lunar lander was designed to be the future transportation system for our planned permanent presence on the lunar surface.

And in 1979, it was ready to be tested…

Testing it was a function of the M7 crew, which was the last crew to visit the Lunar Skylab. This crew was in space from February 1, 1980, until October 25, 1980, which was 267 days — almost 9 months. One of the major tasks for this crew was to work out the kinks in this new lander.

The lunar lander went on test cycles between the Lunar Skylab and Tycho base, and eventually between the Lunar Skylab and the BLA base. The M7 crew of the Lunar Skylab made many trips to the lunar surface testing this vehicle. Using the Lunar Skylab created a perfect testing arrangement. It was a great home base for the lunar lander to use for its testing.

This new lunar lander would become a durable lunar surface-to-orbit transport as part of the permanent transportation network in place today. And the field testing of this lander was all based from the Lunar Skylab station.

The Lander Mission

On February 1, 1980, the crew of Lunar Skylab M7 launched from earth, carrying a prototype of the new lander. The lander was stored beneath the CSM where the old LM was stored during normal Apollo missions. On February 4th, 1980, they arrived in lunar orbit. Once they arrived in the vicinity of the Lunar Skylab, one member of the Lunar Skylab M7 crew entered the new lander, undocked, and flew to the Lunar Skylab. Both the M7 CSM and the prototype lander docked to the Lunar Skylab.

The lander was put through a series of tests in lunar orbit. Undocking, redocking, maneuvering around in various lunar orbits…approaching the lunar surface at a distance of only 5 miles, then going up to high lunar orbit at 300 miles, then back to the station. Multiple sets of tests to verify it’s space worthiness and orbital maneuverability were performed.

Then, on March 4, 1980, the M7 crew entered the lander, undocked from the Lunar Skylab, and proceeded to land on the lunar surface. The first landing was at a distance of 743 miles from Tycho Base…the goal was to just prove it could land, they did not worry about pinpoint landings…yet.

The lunar lander then took off, entered lunar orbit, and went back to land on the lunar surface again. It repeated this test three times before returning to the Lunar Skylab.

Pinpoint Landing

Up until this point, the lander was running on its fuel reserves that it originally launched from earth with. It had enough fuel for one additional test.

In this test, the lunar lander went down to the lunar surface and hovered along the surface of the moon until it settled a mere 15 feet from the entrance to Tycho Base. This proved the ability of the vessel to land with pinpoint accurately. In this test, the lander remained on the lunar surface for three days. During this time, the Lunar Skylab M7 crew, along with the crew of Tycho 11, who were currently stationed at Tycho Base, built a pressurized tunnel that could be connected between the primary airlock and the hatch on the lunar lander. They pressurized the tunnel and tested that a crew member could, in a shirt sleeve environment, move between Tycho Base and the lander successfully. After this testing was complete, the tunnel was removed and the M7 crew launched the lander off the lunar surface and rendezvoused again with the Lunar Skylab, completing the final primary testing of the lander. The lander had performed all of the designed testing, and it performed it flawlessly.

Shirt Sleeve Environments

The capability of the pressurized tunnel at Tycho Base was critical. This now meant it was possible for an astronaut to go all the way from the Lunar Skylab in lunar orbit, to Tycho Base on the lunar surface, while remaining completely in a shirt sleeve environment…they could do the entire trip without the need of a space suit.

Emergency suits would always available in the lunar lander, but the ability to make the trip in a shirt sleeve environment would be critical for making the lunar lander a key component in the long term transportation from lunar orbit to the lunar surface. The easier it was to get from orbit to the surface and back again, the more the capability could be built into future missions and the more viable it would be to provide a permanent presence on both the lunar surface and in lunar orbit.

A single test of this shirt sleeve capability was performed. The single test involved an astronaut from the Lunar Skylab to enter the lander without wearing a space suit. They then landed at Tycho Base. The tunnel was connected, and the shirt sleeve astronaut entered the Tycho Base environment without a space suit. They stayed for a day, performed some ceremonial duties with earth, then entered the lander in a shirt sleeve environment again and relaunched to the Lunar Skylab, where they entered the space station also in a shirt sleeve environment. The entire trip did not involve a space suit at all. This was the first time such a trip was made anywhere…earth, moon, anywhere…without the aid of a space suit.

Earth to Moon Shirt Sleeve Environment

It was also possible to go one step further. While it was never tested, it was possible to launch from earth without wearing a space suit. This wasn’t done primarily in case of an emergency. But it was possible.

During the trip from earth orbit to lunar orbit, the crews of the Apollo missions were almost always in a shirt sleeve environment…and entering the Lunar Skylab from an Apollo command module was done in a shirt sleeve environment.

This meant it was possible…not necessarily advisable…but possible to go from the earth surface all the way to the Lunar Skylab without using a space suit. It was previously proven that you could go from the Lunar Skylab to Tycho Base on the lunar surface without a space suit. That meant it was now possible for a human to go all the way from the earth surface, to the lunar surface, and back again…without ever putting on a space suit.

This would be a major, and highly significant, first of its kind action. And while it was not advisable to take off in an Apollo era spacecraft from the earth surface without wearing a space suit for safety reasons, it was possible.

This had to be tested…

So, on June 29th, 1980, the crew of Lunar Transport 20 would test this capability. The LT 20 mission was scheduled to bring the crew of Tycho 12 to Tycho Base, and pick up the crew of Tycho 11 from Tycho Base and return them to earth. It was a simple, routine, and oft-repeated mission. But this time around, there would be a difference.

The crew of Tycho 12, being transported by the LT 20 transport mission, would launch from the earth surface without wearing space suits. Space suits would always be available to them, in case of an emergency, but they would never be worn.

The LT missions when they launched from earth typically contained an Apollo-era LM for bringing the Tycho crew to the lunar surface. In the case off LT 20, however, the LM was not included. Rather, the space and weight were used to store additional fuel needed for the prototype lunar lander.

Once LT 20 arrived in lunar orbit, it maneuvered to dock with the Lunar Skylab station. This was the first LT mission that would dock with the station, all previous LT missions simply delivered their human cargo crews to either Tycho Base or BLA Base.

After LT 20 docked with the Lunar Skylab Station, the crew of Tycho 12 entered the Lunar Skylab. The fuel stored in LT 20 was transferred to the lunar lander. This orbital refueling was also a first…it was the first time fuel was transferred from one vehicle to another while in space.

Once the refueling was complete, the crew of Tycho 12, still in shirt sleeve environment, entered the lunar lander and proceeded to land at Tycho Base. The existing Tycho 11 crew, still at Tycho base, connected the tunnel between Tycho Base and the Lunar Lander. The crew of Tycho 12 entered Tycho Base without space suits.

At this point, the crew of Tycho 11 was relieved, and they made their way to their existing Apollo-era LM lander over in the Lunar Graveyard, and launched for their rendezvous with the waiting LT 20 CSM, which would return them to earth in the normal manner.

Tycho 12 was now on the lunar surface, with the new lunar lander. They made it all the way from earth to the lunar surface without the aid of a space suit, except for backups available in case of an emergency. They never wore the suits.

During the mission of Tycho 12, the crew used the lunar lander to move larger distances across the lunar surface than had ever happened before. They were able to explore the entire area surrounding Tycho Crater, covering nearly 200 miles, a distance that had never been explored before. This was all possible because the lunar lander could cover great distances and yet perform multiple pinpoint landings.

At the end of their mission, the Tycho 12 crew…the last crew to occupy Tycho base, boarded the lunar lander for the last time and launched to dock with the Lunar Skylab. There, they met up with the commander of the LT 21 transport mission, which was also docked at the Lunar Skylab. The LT 21 mission brought the crew of BLA 9 to the BLA Base, then waited at the Lunar Skylab for the crew of Tycho 12. Tycho 12 arrived at the station, went into the LT 21 command module, and LT 21 brought them back to earth.

This was an extensive and elaborate set of maneuvers that was used to test multiple concepts. It tested the concept that shirt sleeve transportation within the earth-moon system was possible. It proved the valuableness of a lunar space station as a transportation hub useful for transferring crews from an earth-moon transport space craft to a lunar orbit to lunar surface transport ship. It could also be used as a crew transition center and as an emergency...

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