Searching for Skylab: Even the most casual astro-nerd will revel in this respectful elegy to unsung space history

Remember the space station so big you could fly a jet-pack inside?

Skylab (pic: NASA)
Skylab (pic: NASA)

Film review As NASA gears up to celebrate to 50 years since the first Moon landing, another anniversary is rolling around. It is 45 years since the last crew left Skylab and 40 since the station spread itself over a chunk of Australia.

Though Armstrong & co's lunar antics garnered the headlines, three missions, of increasing duration, to the orbital outpost between 1973 and 1974 laid the groundwork for 'nauts spending months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). However, celebrations of the achievements of the converted Saturn V S-IVB stage are at best muted.

A partially Kickstarter-funded film, Searching for Skylab, aims to change that. El Reg, always keen to gawp at archival spaceship footage, ponied up the entrance fee to take a look.

We were not disappointed.

The film dropped on Vimeo a few weeks ago and, for the cost of a pint of weak beer, anyone with even a passing interest in the subject can revel in restored footage and interviews with the surviving crew, engineers and family members.

The film begins with the end, as Skylab returned to Earth in 1979, showering Western Australia with debris as the station disintegrated on re-entry. The film's maker, Dwight Steven-Boniecki – then a 10-year-old living in Australia – recalled: "I went to bed terrified that our house, and our house alone would be the one it hit. I woke up the next morning very relieved that it wasn't."

Archival footage showing curious Australians poking at the remains give a hint as to how fortunate NASA was to avoid a mishap. The film then switches to the development of the station, describing its evolution from a "wet" workshop to be outfitted in orbit to the eventual Skylab, launching on a Saturn V handed over from the Apollo programme.

The use of voice-overs from the era is particularly effective with the likes of rocket engineer Werner von Braun describing plans for an orbital workshop (to be called Skylab) highly evocative. Archive footage of the design and mock-ups have been restored to delight aerospace nerds, with even the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test (SMEAT) team getting a look-in. SMEAT member Bob Crippen would go on to pilot the first Space Shuttle flight.

Peppered among the grainy footage are talking heads of those involved in the project, from crew members such as the late Paul Weitz of Skylab 2, to the widow and son of James Kinzler, the engineer who came up with the idea of the parasol that saved the station following the near-disaster of its launch.

Last chance to see

Other crew members, such as Bill Pogue and Alan Bean, passed away before Steven-Boniecki was able to interview them, a powerful reminder that this woefully uncelebrated bit of history is passing from living memory. As Steven-Boniecki observed of others, such as the late Bruce McCandless: "We were very fortunate to be able to record their recollections before it was too late!"

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The film is very much a straight documentary, with the odd stylistic flourish where a point needs to be made. The station itself is the star of the show, as the heroic, and mostly forgotten, efforts to save the orbital outpost following its launch are well documented – listening to spacecraft commander Charles "Pete" Conrad and science pilot Joseph Kerwin niggling at each other while attempting to free the jammed solar array, along with the restored footage of the spacewalk shot through Skylab's portal, is worth the price of admission alone.

Being in the cross-hairs for this sort of thing, I found the film very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the space programme. Coming in at just over an hour-and-a-half, it is neither too drawn out or too brief.

However, there are some downsides. Those used to the orchestral groanings of James Horner's Apollo 13 soundtrack might find the background music a little too reminiscent of a NASA museum and the song played over the end credits is just... a bit odd. Stick with it, though – there is a final comment from one of the Skylab 'nauts at the end.

It was also a shame that while a large chunk of the first part of the film was devoted to the design and birth of the station, efforts to rescue it felt skipped over. And, sadly, there was no mention of the fate of the Soyuz 11 crew, who did not survive their return to Earth following their 23-day mission to Salyut 1.

It would have been interesting to know the thoughts of the first Skylab crew regarding their Soviet counterparts.

Behind the scenes

El Reg had a chat with Steven-Boniecki to learn more about the process.

While writing the book Live TV From the Moon, on how television was broadcast from the lunar surface, Steven-Boniecki found that those he spoke to would always drift away from Apollo to talking about Skylab. He looked into it, explaining: "I was lucky to acquire reference recordings of Skylab television downlinks, and when I saw the intense science they performed up there, I was immediately hooked." He went on to amass 350 hours of footage as he put together the follow-up book Live TV From Orbit.

In 2014, the project got going in earnest.

Just in the nick of time, as those of the era have begun dying off in earnest. Kickstarter funding was required to complete the film, with restoration of the footage proving particularly troublesome.

"For footage restoration there was a lot of work which needed to be done on the TV kinescopes," said Steven-Boniecki. "They were in atrocious condition. For example the SL-2 EVA was mainly just red information only. I spent three months colour grading, and luckily had a reference screen shot of the original telecast. From that I extrapolated the colour from the archive tape. It hasn't looked this good for 45 years."

Skylab Restoration Footage

Restoring the footage (credit: Dwight Steven-Boniecki)

While the interviews were shot in 4K, the film has been mastered in 2K as the makers felt the 16mm film footage didn't hold up too well against crystal-clear talking heads.

The film eventually premiered in the US earlier this year and the gang are currently looking into distribution options, including streaming platforms and Blu-ray.

Until then, those keen to spend 90 minutes or so in the company of America's first space station could do a lot worse than splashing the cost of a pint of London's finest over Vimeo. ®

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