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For more than 22 years, astronauts and cosmonauts have continuously inhabited the International Space Station, making the orbital laboratory the longest flying spacecraft ever. But it’s an achievement that would be impossible if not for an earlier space station, NASA’s Skylab, launched 50 years ago on May 14, 1973. 

Born out of the disappointment and leftovers over the canceled Apollo moon missions, Skylab never captured the public imagination the way the space race had during the decade prior. But the mission was crucial to all human spaceflight that came after, teaching NASA valuable lessons about how to build spacecraft safe for long-term habitation, and how to design missions around the humans that would fly them. 

“Every corner of the ISS has a lesson that’s grounded in Skylab,” says NASA’s Chief Historian Brian Odom. “Skylab is the turning point where humanity says, ‘We’re going to become a species that lives off of Earth for long periods of time.” 

Moonshots and space stations

NASA had always wanted a space station. The plan, according to Odom, was to learn to get off Earth with Project Mercury—in which Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space—then to rendezvous and dock in orbit with Gemini, and “the next stop from that would be to build a space station,” he says. That space station would be the waypoint from which humans could venture farther out to the moon, and later to Mars. 

But everything changed with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech announcing a race against the Soviet Union to land on the moon.

“Some people talk about Apollo as leapfrogging what was expected, as the natural process or the natural progression in spaceflight,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a space historian curator of the Apollo collection at the National Air and Space Museum. “Instead of building a space station, we went right to the moon.”

Immense amounts of money and political capital were spent so Americans got to the moon first. But public support—and congressional funding—began to wane almost immediately after the July 20, 1969, Moon landing. Apollo missions 18, 19 and 20 were canceled by 1971, and the crew of Apollo 17 would be the last humans to touch the moon for decades to come. 

The idea for Skylab originated in 1965, when NASA budgets were plump. The agency decided the program could go forward even after money tightened up, in part because the satellite would use existing Apollo infrastructure. A Saturn V rocket, originally intended to launch the Apollo 12 mission, could place Skylab in orbit. And the space station itself would be constructed out of a rocket’s third stage. 

“It was a really ingenious and practical approach to creating a space station,” Muir-Harmony says. 

[Related: A brief history of space stations before the ISS]

The architecture of Skylab wasn’t the only creative use of materials. During the May 14 launch, Skylab’s micrometeorite shield, which also functioned as a sun shade, was shorn off, leaving the newly orbital space station to roast in the direct sunlight. NASA’s “Mr. Fix It,” Jack Kinzler, officially the chief of the Technical Services Center at Johnson Space Center, used telescoping fishing rods to develop a prototype parasol-like sunshield astronauts could deploy through an airlock on Skylab. They did this in just six days, saving the space station. It was one of the first important lessons of Skylab, according to Odom. 

“It’s one of these remarkable moments that teaches us that you can respond in a crisis” Odom says. 

The lessons of Skylab 

Skylab hosted three crews from 1973 through 1974. The Skylab I crew flew for 28 days, while the Skylab II mission lasted 59 days. 

But Skylab 3, the third and final crew to fly aboard the space station, lasted 84 days, launching on November 16, 1973 and returning to Earth on February 8, 1974. 

This was a huge deal at the time. Later NASA astronauts, such as Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson, would work for hundreds of days aboard the ISS, but in 1973, no one knew if humans could actually live in space for such a period. The Skylab III crew’s stay was longer “than all of earlier spaceflight combined,” Odom says. 

Skylab affirmatively answered the question of whether humans could endure long-term spaceflight, but it also made clear there were costs. 

“They noticed increased calcium in the urine of the astronauts, tied to bone loss,” Muir-Harmony says, which highlighted the importance of movement while in space. Exercise is now considered a key part of an ISS astronaut’s schedule. 

Skylab also identified small quality-of-life changes that could make orbit more comfortable, such as the cuisine. “The food was generally considered a bit too bland,” Muir-Harmony says. “Your ability to taste is limited by how the fluid in your body blocks your nasal cavity [in microgravity], so it’s important to have more flavorful food in space.” 

And Skylab’s supposedly water-tight microgravity shower, a cylindrical tent-like contraption, will likely be the last shower on a space station, according to Muir-Harmony. “It didn’t work all that well,” she says. “That was an important lesson to learn, that it was better to use wet wipes as opposed to trying to shower in space.” 

Another lasting lesson was that all the clever engineering in the world won’t help you if you don’t pay attention to your crew’s human needs. The Skylab III crew nearly burned out, with barely any time between tasks or to rest, forcing NASA to reassess their work schedule. “You can’t task people with just working themselves full on and then falling asleep, sleeping eight hours, waking up, and immediately going back to work,” Odom says. “They learned those lessons the hard way on Skylab by putting people to some degree through the wringer.”

[Related: 11 of NASA’s most out-of-this-world illustrations]

Skylab’s final teaching might be the most important for anyone operating in space today, particularly as the number of satellites and other spacecraft in low Earth orbit increase. Unlike the ISS, Skylab was not equipped with thrusters. It could not manage its own altitude, because it was assumed that the Space Shuttle would be operational by 1977 and could boost the station higher when necessary. But the development program dragged, and the first shuttle didn’t fly until 1981. With Skylab’s orbit degrading, NASA decided to allow the station to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979, hoping the station would burn up over the Indian Ocean. Pieces of debris ended up scattered over parts of Western Australia, though no one was hurt. 

Skylab’s enduring legacy

Without regular rides to space, Skylab crews had only what they brought with them. Astronauts flying aboard the ISS today face fewer constraints than Skylab crews did. The ISS recycles most of its water, for instance, and regular cargo resupply missions deliver food to the astronauts there. There are now exercise facilities and more thoughtfully planned out work schedules. 

“Skylab was just a massive step forward from what anyone had experienced before,” Odom says. “Somebody’s got to be the pioneer and put the risk on. And Skylab was all about risk.”

The ISS has hosted astronauts for more than 350 days at a time—a remarkable achievement, and one that would not be possible without Skylab’s experience. 

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How to choose the right settings on your camera

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You can start this course to gather all the information, but I can recommend that you put things immediately in action and for that owning a DSLR/SLR or mirrorless camera is recommended.

Boeing ‘Base Station’ Concept Would Autonomously Refuel Military Drones

The aerospace giant’s ‘Vehicle Base Station’ resembles Amazon’s proposed recharging stations on street lights, but with a different mission. John Vian, a research fellow at Boeing, says the station’s main applications are likely to be civil and commercial—used for firefighting and search-and-rescue, for example—but the patent has a decidedly military slant. “The unmanned aerial vehicles may monitor for undesired activity… [which] may be the placement of an improvised explosive device in roadway.”

Before coming up with the base station idea, Vian and his colleagues had been looking for the next big thing, and they zeroed-in on ‘fractionated systems’–groups of small ground and air robots working together to carry out tasks. “The patent arose from the recognition that these smaller smarter platforms may have limited endurance,” Vian told Popular Science.

The patent describes a squad or platoon of perhaps 10 to 30 drones, able to follow targets or perch and observe like a fleet of mobile CCTV cameras. When a drone runs low on power it returns to the base station, which physically replaces the drone’s batteries. With no wait for recharging, the drone can fly off again at once. The autonomous battery-swapping device would “enable long, 24/7, uninterrupted missions,” says Vian. In principle, the base station would allow drones to operate in an area for days, weeks, or months at a stretch.

Clandestine operation is part of the plan. The patent suggests a solar-powered station could be placed on a rooftop where it cannot be seen. Alternatively, the station may be attached to a power line to suck electricity directly from the grid. It could still be covert, hiding in plain sight; few people pay attention to all those black boxes attached to power lines. If some base stations are lost to enemy action, multiple spares would ensure there was always capacity.

Boeing also envisions a line of base stations positioned at intervals of several miles, like gas stations for drones on long journeys. This would allow them to fly right into a combat zone rather than having to be dropped by aircraft.

According to the patent, the base station could act as a shelter in bad weather, a sort of pigeon loft for drones. It may also be a communication hub, housing a satellite microwave link to a remote operations center. In one version of the design, the drones fly missions autonomously, uploading the data they have gathered and receiving fresh instructions each time they return. This would allow them to operate even if all radio signals were being jammed, a growing counter-drone tactic.

The developers built an indoor test bed to prototype the base station concept using small drones, and they say translating the system into real life deployments would not be difficult.

“With good engineering design, I don’t see major challenges for making this system functional,” says Boeing Commercial Airplanes Senior Research Engineer Emad Saad. “Precise relative navigation is a challenge, but can be addressed with modern sensors and good engineering design.”

Boeing is one of the dominant players in the military market, producing aircraft like the B-52 bomber, F-15 Eagle, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. If the base station moves from concept to reality, it would allow swarms of low-cost drones to carry out missions at long range and over long durations, shaking up the market and maybe the entire face of warfare. Perhaps the next big thing from Boeing will be much smaller than the aircraft we usually associate with the name.

The Sharpest Photos Of Space Ever

A team of astronomers from the University of Arizona, Italy’s Arceti Obervatory, and the Carnegie Observatory has developed a new camera system that can record images in visible light twice as sharply as the Hubble Space Telescope. This is really impressive, considering Hubble is up in space and doesn’t have to take pictures through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere; this new system operates from a telescope in Chile’s high desert.

The second Magellan telescope at Chile’s Las Campanas observatory started watching the sky in 2002. Because it sits in the world’s driest place, it doesn’t have to contend with haze from humidity that distorts light from space. The observatory is also 7,810 feet above sea level, which reduces the amount of dense air the telescope has to peer through to look at the stars.

Though Hubble’s mirror is just 8 feet wide, up until now it has captured much clearer images than Magellan II’s 21-foot diameter mirror. Thanks to the new Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system, that’s changing.

These are the highest resolution photos taken by a telescope.

On the left is a “normal” photo of the theta 1 Ori C binary star in red light. The middle image shows the same object, but with MagAO’s adaptive optics system turned on. Eliminating the atmospheric blurring, the resulting photo becomes about 17 times sharper, turning a blob into a crisp image of a binary star pair.

The MagAO system adds two features to the telescope that enable it see the stars so clearly. The first is a secondary mirror, 1/16th of an inch thick and and 2.8 feet across, that floats on a magnetic field 30 feet above the primary mirror. To counter distortion from Earth atmosphere, this floating mirror can change its shape at 585 points on its surface, 1,000 times a second.

The second feature is a new visual light camera, dubbed VisAO, which uses simultaneous differential imaging to precisely capture multiple images through different filters, which are combined into a composite picture. Because it captures different bands of light as different layers, overly bright layers can be removed later, revealing variations in the darkness beneath.

Probing The Orion Nebula

A Magellan Adaptive Optics image of Orion 218-354 silhouette after removal of light from the central star. The image on the left shows the dark silhouette of the disk against the bright background light of the Orion nebula. The image on the right shows how the new capabilities allowed astronomers to probe of nebular light passing through the disk, telling them about the distribution of gas and dust.

What can be revealed by looking into the darker layers? Dust, mostly. The above image peers into Orion 218-353, a ring of dust, gas, and other objects. Magellan and MagAO let astronomers look really closely at it, and cut through the light of the star dust to find an opaque cloud in the middle. Not only is there dust, there is enough dust to obscure starlight.

Cool! So what does the density of dust tell us? Well, normally planets form in stellar nurseries like this. This one might not be forming planets, as the translucence of its outer layers indicate that it might not have enough mass to do so.

Space dust, now clearer than ever before.

New details about the Orion nebula

The background image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the Trapezium cluster of young stars (pink) still in the process of forming. The middle inset photo reveals the binary nature of the Theta Ori C star pair. The bottom insert shows a different binary young star pair shaped by the stellar wind from Theta 1 Ori C.

The Week In Numbers: China Lands On The Moon, Nasa’s Deep

NASA Chamber A

40 tons: the weight of the door to NASA’s Chamber A, a room that recreates the deadly conditions of deep space and, because it can reach 11 Kelvin, is the coldest place on Earth

4: the number of spiral arms that make up the Milky Way, according to a new study (previous observations give our galaxy just two arms)

The Milky Way

1 trillionth of a second: the time it should take scientists to heat water to 600 degrees Celsius using a clever new heating method

Illustration of a Cloud of Water Molecules Heated to 600 Degrees Celsius

$11,720: the money raised via Indiegogo for an absurd device that claims to translate dog thoughts into English

No More Woof

$2 million: the top prize of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a Pentagon-funded competition to develop robotic first responders

$1 million: the prize the Methuselah Foundation is offering the the first research group to make a bioengineered liver

2 centimeters: the average amount of space between penguins in a huddle, according to researchers who created a mathematical model of penguin huddles

Emperor Penguin Huddle

1.2 million: the estimated number of Americans who get salmonella infections each year (but don’t worry, your eggnog is safe)

$199: the price of the Canary home security system, which includes a wide-angle HD camera, infrared motion sensor, temperature and humidity sensors, and microphone


1903: the year the Wright brothers first piloted a heavier-than-air craft. Read the story of their famous first flight in the September 1925 issue of Popular Science.

Orville piloting the flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

1976: the year of the last soft landing on the moon, until China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft touched down last week (video)

14,838: the number of pieces of large debris orbiting Earth (see where they are)

10 kilowatts: the power of a recently tested, truck-mounted Army laser that can zap incoming drones and mortar shells

HEL MD Set Up Outside

This truck has a freakin’ laser on it.

Bitcoin Exchange Back Online After Hack

A small New York-based company that specializes in exchanging Bitcoins is back online after hackers stole about US$250,000 worth of the virtual currency earlier this month.

Roman Shtylman, founder of BitFloor, said by phone from London on Monday he reported the theft to the FBI and that he intends to pay back victims whose Bitcoins were stolen.

How long that will take I dont know,” Shtylman said. “Certainly for me this is a long-term plan, and Im mostly doing this because I feel it’s important to try and be clear of my intention to try and recover the coins.”

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, created by a mysterious person who went by the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” and has extensive knowledge of cryptography. Bitcoins are transferred using software programs that connect to a peer-to-peer system that cryptographically verifies the transaction.

Bitcoin “miners” are people who have built heavy-duty computing systems which maintain the integrity of the transaction system. For their work, they are periodically awarded Bitcoins, which have a fluctuating market value and can be traded for cash on exchanges such as BitFloor.

Nakamoto launched Bitcoin in early 2009. He was active in the Bitcoin community at the onset, and then disappeared: no one has conducted an interview with him, and efforts to uncover his true identity have been fruitless. A nine-page white paper written by Nakamoto describes the system.

Unsurprisingly, Bitcoin exchanges are prime targets for hackers, and several exchanges have been hacked. Because of how Bitcoin’s peer-to-peer system is designed, transactions are irreversible unless the receiver of the Bitcoins chooses to send some back to the sender.

All transactions using Bitcoin are publicly recorded. Users have a 32-character alpha-numeric address, which is used to transfer funds. That address — and the receiving address — are available to see on websites such as

According to those records, the hacker has not transferred or spent the funds, Shtylman said. While Bitcoin offers a high degree of anonymity for Bitcoin-only transactions, at some point, users probably want to exchange their Bitcoins for cash (one Bitcoin was trading for $12.06 on Tuesday according to the largest exchange, Mt. Gox).

Bitcoin exchanges need a certain amount of information from users in order to pay them, including a person’s name and bank account details. That offers a potential opportunity to trace a thief. Bitcoin has drawn attention, but no country has tried to regulate it, and exchanges do not want to be linked to money laundering or other shady deals.

Shtylman said the hack was devastating, and the cost well exceeded revenues he had made since he launched trading on BitFloor in October 2011. The loss, amounting to about 24,000 Bitcoins, was his fault: he had left the private keys — needed to unlock and transfer Bitcoins — on an unencrypted disk. Bitcoin uses public key cryptography for security.

Following the hack, Shtylman attended a Bitcoin conference in London where no one expressed anger at him.

“Most users and existing members of the community have been very supportive and wanted to see BitFloor come back online,” Shtylman said.

Since relaunching, Shtylman said he is now keeping private keys in so-called “cold storage,” or on offline computers not connected to the BitFloor’s exchange. All funds that are live on the exchange will be backed by BitFloor, he said.

“We are never going into a situation where we are doing fractional reserve,” Shtylman said, where funds belonging to customers are also used for other purposes.

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