I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
Thanks to the hard work of the Space Hipsters group, I joined them on a spring trip at end of April to Huntsville, Alabama to tour the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
There was so much to see and so little time at the Rocket Center, but I was determined to see everything I could see in the USSRC rocket garden.
One item, not even listed on the museum’s colorful tour map, caught my eye from a distance.
I recognized the configuration immediately. Skylab. Well, a model of one, at least.
On closer approach, my emotions flew all over the place: Curiosity. Annoyance. Sadness. Fascination.
The Command/Service Module to the right was simple boilerplate. But the characteristic Apollo Telescope Mount (minus its windmill solar panels, of course) and docking adapter, all painted white, told me immediately that this was the underwater training mockup for America’s first space station.
The original full mockup was larger. The significant portion was the ATM and the docking module. It was in relatively great condition, although the mannequin astronaut “servicing” the top of the ATM had seen better sims, severely ravaged by weather.
The mockup was a high-fidelity one of the forward end of the station, including the six large oxygen tanks at the base of the docking module as well as the Gemini spacecraft hatch that was used as part of the airlock. Why a Gemini hatch? For one, it was suitably narrow. Two: It was already a tested, flight-ready piece of hardware that would work just fine without additional qualifications–it already passed these tests eight years before.
The Skylab underwater mockup had no description cards or stands anywhere around it. Nor was there much information about the S-IVB stage it was attached to that stood in for the underwater counterpart of the orbital workshop, its fate unknown to me as I circled the structure. It all seemed smaller than I imagined.
This S-IVB was just a stand-in for where the laboratory would be and was not converted as a Skylab article. Another Hipster noted that it once had its J-2 engine but it had been since removed. (Update: A reader on the Facebook group confirmed that the J-2 was returned to NASA for use of components to develop the J-2X engine once considered for the SLS project.)
This weather-beaten, corroding husk was once a flight-ready S-IVB 200-class stage.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, the central difference between the S-IVBs used for Saturn V rockets and the ones used for the Saturn IB involved the number of helium tanks installed on the stage. Simply put, as a rule of thumb, the Saturn IB 200 series had only a couple of helium tanks, but its lunar-faring counterpart had several.
Helium is commonly used on rockets to pressurize the propellant and oxidizer tanks prior to firing an engine. The Saturn V 500-series S-IVBs carried helium for restarts to send it and the Apollo CSM/LM stack into trans-lunar trajectories. The 200-series would use virtually all of its fuel in the two-stage Saturn IB to take a lightly-fueled CSM (or, a LM, as on Apollo 5) only into earth orbit and would not be restarted.
This stand-in S-IVB made the overall exhibit more akin to the “wet workshop” configuration of early Skylab designs, where the S-IVB was converted in-orbit after its use as a working stage into a livable environment.
As you can also see, the stage is also in a sad, dilapidated state. There’s not enough time or money to take care of everything, it seems.
I learned later that this stage was the S-IVB for Saturn vehicle SA-211. She’s part of only two surviving flight-worthy Saturn IBs on display. The second, SA-209, is at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Center.
Not realizing it until after my visit, I realized I had already said hello to SA-211’s first stage on my way from my Indianapolis home to Huntsville, at the very first rest stop at the northern edge of Alabama, along Interstate 65.
On the trip down, I made it a point to stop to take some photos of her.
SA-211 has been at this stop as a very potent attraction that encourages tourism to the Rocket Center since it was erected in 1979. As one would expect, vermin and vandalism had been taking its toll. Thankfully, enshrouding the base of the Saturn is fencing and canvas as a restoration team begins to clean up the base of the rocket and work to have it repainted.
The S-IVB atop this first stage is S-IVB-S, a static test article similar to those that make up the Saturn V SA-500F. The Apollo CSM atop it are one of the many boilerplates made throughout the program.
You may be happy to know, especially if you attended the Space Hipsters spring field trip, that a portion of your museum admission is given by the Rocket Center to aid in SA-211’s refurbishment.
But I digress.
The Rocket Center also has one of two complete mockups of the orbital workshop, the living area. It sat outside for a number of years and became seriously damaged from weathering and vermin. But again, a small intrepid band of volunteers work to restore the mockup to a museum-worthy appearance. The USRRC has moved it into the Davidson Center building, where the horizontally-displayed Saturn V SA-500D dynamic test vehicle rests, among other cool artifacts of the golden age of American spaceflight.
The mockup (which was never an vehicle-designated part of any Saturn to my knowledge) stands upright, somewhat easily overlooked because of its black paint. You can enter on one side to see the interior. It’s mostly incomplete during the renovation, but you can make out the kitchen area and the sleep compartments.
What caught my eye on the mockup is the authentic solar wing attached to its port side.
I’d last visited the National Air and Space Museum in late 2014. There, rests Skylab-B, the backup flight-ready replacement of the station.
Curiously, it’s displayed much like the USRRC mockup but with a starboard solar panel.
A Space Hipster on the group’s Facebook page, who once worked at the USRRC, confirmed my guess about the wing’s origin. The Skylab mockup is displayed with Skylab-B’s port solar wing. Turns out Skylab-B was stored for a time in the area, but when the lab was sent to the Smithsonian, the wing was left behind, so the USRRC later put it to good use.
In the photo of the mockup, you can also see one of a handful of pieces of the flown Skylab, bottom center. It’s the remains of one of the large oxygen tanks that surrounded the docking module. This tank was massive enough to survive re-entry when most of the rest of the lab was destroyed in July, 1979.
You might recall how some in NASA and their contractors planned to boost Skylab to a higher orbit and restore it as part of a new space station complex. But NASA was feeling more ambitious of what new things the Space Shuttle could build, not in restoring old relics.
It’s hardly ironic to me that elements of the Space Shuttle program, once a herald of a new age of spaceflight that was supposed to dispense with the large, thrown-away rockets of Apollo, now sit as relics themselves in museums around the country. The structural test article Pathfinder also is displayed at the USSRC, cosmetically updated to appear as an operational Orbiter. It sits as a complete STS launch vehicle, in a place of honor near the entrance. How long until what it represents is, too, neglected due to resources or space?
As for the the second Skylab training mockup, it resides in Houston at the Johnson Space Center visitors center.
The fate of the underwater training portion of the orbital workshop, used quite a bit in training, especially for sunshield deployment training, is still a mystery. Given its relative size, I suspect it was scrapped. If you happen to know where it might be, just drop a line.
If you happen to be in the USRRC rocket garden, visit the forlorn and unmarked Skylab trainer. If others walk by, share the tales of Skylab, of these old, fading rockets and spacecraft elements from days gone by. And dump a dollar or ten in the various collection tanks to help restoration and maintenance of everything there. Museum curation of big hulking space hardware is clearly a challenging job, so there’s no fault given to anyone there or anywhere.
I hope that these works of mankind do not outlive us as rotting husks of greatness gone by, their significance forgotten.