The stars which burn the brightest also burn the briefest, and so it was for Skylab, consumed in the fires of re-entry over the deserts of Western Australia on July 11th, 1979, six years after launch but at that point unoccupied for five of them, its orbit decaying faster than had been predicted and with the delays in the Space Shuttle programme meaning no mission could be mounted in time to boost it to a higher altitude.
The first semi-permanent human habitat in space, Skylab has since been eclipsed by Mir, which served for fifteen sometimes troublesome years between 1986 and 2001, and the International Space Station, now in its twenty-second year of operation, but Skylab was the first, a pioneering feat of endeavour, enterprise and ingenuity equal to those of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong and his associates, an achievement celebrated by director Dwight Steven-Boniecki in his documentary Searching for Skylab.
Positioned as “the first feature film ever made about Skylab,” it is a mix of archive footage and recordings and more recently filmed interview material with a number of technicians involved in the project and members of the three crews who manned the facility, among them Joseph Kerwin, Paul Weitz, Jack Lousma, Owen Garriott, Gerald Carr and Edward Gibson, along with members of their families who recall their spectrum of impressions and feelings as their husbands and fathers went into space.
Much of the footage taken from video downlinks over relatively primitive technology, unlike the IMAX release of Apollo 11 there is little which can be done to enhance an image where the resolution is inherently low, and while The Farthest considers the conception and reasoning which led to the persuasive arguments for the Voyager programme and its continuing legacy, Searching for Skylab offers little context, strictly covering the period from launch to deorbit, but that narrow focus does not diminish the accomplishment nor the broad reach of research conducted.
Carrying the first extra-atmospheric solar observatory, Skylab was positioned to study the Sun in wavelengths previously inaccessible, but in an early example of an outreach programme many of the experiments on board had been conceived and designed by schoolchildren, and the broadcasts from orbit became a staple for television viewers of the time, connecting them with the a place of experimentation and experience as joyful and playful as it was industrious, an optimistic foothold in a new frontier of astonishing possibility.
Would our future in space have been different if Skylab had continued to be occupied, validating efforts to extend its working life, a beacon of humanity in low orbit, conducting research on stars and comets and looking down on weather systems and changing ecosystems? The question is never asked, the point perhaps moot: it is the responsibility of a scientist to deal with what is rather than what should have been, but a more fundamental answer which was established is encapsulated by one of the astronauts towards the end of Searching for Skylab: “Man can live a normal existence in space.” It may have taken longer than envisioned, but it was only a matter of time until we went back.