14 May 1973

Skylab, the United States’ first space station, is launched.

Skylab (SL-4).jpg
Skylab as photographed by its departing final crew (Skylab 4).
Skylab Program Patch.png
Skylab program insignia
Station statistics
COSPAR ID1973-027A
SATCAT no.06633Edit this on Wikidata
Call signSkylab
Crew3 per mission (9 total)
LaunchMay 14, 1973
17:30:00 UTC
Carrier rocketModified Saturn V
Launch padKennedy Space Center, LC-39A
ReentryJuly 11, 1979
16:37:00 UTC
Mission statusDeorbited
Mass168,750 pounds (76,540 kg)[1]
w/o Apollo CSM
Length82.4 feet (25.1 m)
w/o Apollo CSM
Width55.8 feet (17.0 m)
w/ one solar panel
Height36.3 feet (11.1 m)
w/ telescope mount
Diameter21.67 feet (6.61 m)
Pressurised volume12,417 cubic feet (351.6 m3)
Atmospheric pressure5.0 pounds per square inch (34 kPa) Oxygen 74%, nitrogen 26%[2]
Perigee altitude269.7 miles (434.0 km)
Apogee altitude274.6 miles (441.9 km)
Orbital inclination50.0°
Orbital period93.4 minutes
Orbits per day15.4
Days in orbit2249 days
Days occupied171 days
No. of orbits34,981
Distance travelled~890,000,000 mi (1,400,000,000 km)
Statistics as of Re-entry July 11, 1979
Skylab illustration.jpg
Skylab configuration as planned

Skylab was the first United States space station, launched by NASA,[3] occupied for about 24 weeks between May 1973 and February 1974. It was operated by three separate three-astronaut crews: Skylab 2, Skylab 3 and Skylab 4. Major operations included an orbital workshop, a solar observatory, Earth observation, and hundreds of experiments.

Unable to be re-boosted by the Space Shuttle, which was not ready until 1981, Skylab's orbit decayed and it disintegrated in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979, scattering debris across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.


As of 2021, Skylab was the only space station operated exclusively by the United States. A permanent station was planned starting in 1988, but funding for this was canceled and replaced with United States participation in an International Space Station in 1993.

Skylab had a mass of 199,750 pounds (90,610 kg) with a 31,000 pounds (14,000 kg) Apollo command and service module (CSM) attached[4] and included a workshop, a solar observatory, and several hundred life science and physical science experiments. It was launched uncrewed into low Earth orbit by a Saturn V rocket modified to be similar to the Saturn INT-21, with the S-IVB third stage not available for propulsion because the orbital workshop was built out of it. This was the final flight for the rocket more commonly known for carrying the crewed Apollo Moon landing missions.[5] Three subsequent missions delivered three-astronaut crews in the Apollo CSM launched by the smaller Saturn IB rocket. For the final two crewed missions to Skylab, NASA assembled a backup Apollo CSM/Saturn IB in case an in-orbit rescue mission was needed, but this vehicle was never flown. The station was damaged during launch when the micrometeoroid shield tore away from the workshop, taking one of the main solar panel arrays with it and jamming the other main array. This deprived Skylab of most of its electrical power and also removed protection from intense solar heating, threatening to make it unusable. The first crew deployed a replacement heat shade and freed the jammed solar panels to save Skylab. This was the first time that a repair of this magnitude was performed in space.

Skylab included the Apollo Telescope Mount (a multi-spectral solar observatory), a multiple docking adapter with two docking ports, an airlock module with extravehicular activity (EVA) hatches, and the orbital workshop, the main habitable space inside Skylab. Electrical power came from solar arrays and fuel cells in the docked Apollo CSM. The rear of the station included a large waste tank, propellant tanks for maneuvering jets, and a heat radiator. Astronauts conducted numerous experiments aboard Skylab during its operational life. The telescope significantly advanced solar science, and observation of the Sun was unprecedented. Astronauts took thousands of photographs of Earth, and the (EREP) viewed Earth with sensors that recorded data in the visible, infrared, and microwave spectral regions. The record for human time spent in orbit was extended beyond the 23 days set by the Soyuz 11 crew aboard Salyut 1 to 84 days by the Skylab 4 crew.

Later plans to reuse Skylab were stymied by delays in the development of the Space Shuttle, and Skylab's decaying orbit could not be stopped. Skylab's atmospheric reentry began on July 11, 1979,[6] amid worldwide media attention. Before re-entry, NASA ground controllers tried to adjust Skylab's orbit to minimize the risk of debris landing in populated areas,[7] targeting the south Indian Ocean, which was partially successful. Debris showered Western Australia, and recovered pieces indicated that the station had disintegrated lower than expected.[8] As the Skylab program drew to a close, NASA's focus had shifted to the development of the Space Shuttle. NASA space station and laboratory projects included Spacelab, Shuttle-Mir, and Space Station Freedom, which was merged into the International Space Station.


Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, and other early advocates of crewed space travel, expected until the 1960s that a space station would be an important early step in space exploration. Von Braun participated in the publishing of a series of influential articles in Collier's magazine from 1952 to 1954, titled "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!". He envisioned a large, circular station 250 feet (75 m) in diameter that would rotate to generate artificial gravity and require a fleet of 7,000-ton (6,400 metric tons) space shuttles for construction in orbit. The 80 men aboard the station would include astronomers operating a telescope, meteorologists to forecast the weather, and soldiers to conduct surveillance. Von Braun expected that future expeditions to the Moon and Mars would leave from the station.[9] The development of the transistor, the solar cell, and telemetry, led in the 1950s and early 1960s to uncrewed satellites that could take photographs of weather patterns or enemy nuclear weapons and send them to Earth. A large station was no longer necessary for such purposes, and the United States Apollo program to send men to the Moon chose a mission mode that would not need in-orbit assembly. A smaller station that a single rocket could launch retained value, however, for scientific purposes.[10]

Von Braun's sketch of a Space Station based on conversion of a Saturn V stage, 1964

Early studies

In 1959, von Braun, head of the Development Operations Division at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, submitted his final Project Horizon plans to the U.S. Army. The overall goal of Horizon was to place men on the Moon, a mission that would soon be taken over by the rapidly forming NASA. Although concentrating on the Moon missions, von Braun also detailed an orbiting laboratory built out of a Horizon upper stage,[11] an idea used for Skylab.[12] A number of NASA centers studied various space station designs in the early 1960s. Studies generally looked at platforms launched by the Saturn V, followed up by crews launched on Saturn IB using an Apollo command and service module,[13] or a Gemini capsule[14] on a Titan II-C, the latter being much less expensive in the case where cargo was not needed. Proposals ranged from an Apollo-based station with two to three men, or a small "canister" for four men with Gemini capsules resupplying it, to a large, rotating station with 24 men and an operating lifetime of about five years.[15] A proposal to study the use of a Saturn S-IVB as a crewed space laboratory was documented in 1962 by the Douglas Aircraft Company.[16]

Air Force plans

The Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA cooperated closely in many areas of space.[17] In September 1963, NASA and the DoD agreed to cooperate in building a space station.[18] The DoD wanted its own crewed facility, however,[19] and in December 1963 it announced Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), a small space station primarily intended for photo reconnaissance using large telescopes directed by a two-person crew. The station was the same diameter as a Titan II upper stage, and would be launched with the crew riding atop in a modified Gemini capsule with a hatch cut into the heat shield on the bottom of the capsule.[20][21][22] MOL competed for funding with a NASA station for the next five years[23] and politicians and other officials often suggested that NASA participate in MOL or use the DoD design.[19] The military project led to changes to the NASA plans so that they would resemble MOL less.[18]


NASA's Skylab pre-flight orbital workshop overview, circa 1972
The floor grating of Skylab under construction

Apollo Applications Program

NASA management was concerned about losing the 400,000 workers involved in Apollo after landing on the Moon in 1969.[24] A reason von Braun, head of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center during the 1960s, advocated for a smaller station after his large one was not built was that he wished to provide his employees with work beyond developing the Saturn rockets, which would be completed relatively early during Project Apollo.[25] NASA set up the Apollo Logistic Support System Office, originally intended to study various ways to modify the Apollo hardware for scientific missions. The office initially proposed a number of projects for direct scientific study, including an extended-stay lunar mission which required two Saturn V launchers, a "lunar truck" based on the Lunar Module (LM), a large, crewed solar telescope using an LM as its crew quarters, and small space stations using a variety of LM or CSM-based hardware. Although it did not look at the space station specifically, over the next two years the office would become increasingly dedicated to this role. In August 1965, the office was renamed, becoming the Apollo Applications Program (AAP).[26]

As part of their general work, in August 1964 the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) presented studies on an expendable lab known as Apollo X, short for Apollo Extension System. Apollo X would have replaced the LM carried on the top of the S-IVB stage with a small space station slightly larger than the CSM's service area, containing supplies and experiments for missions between 15 and 45 days' duration. Using this study as a baseline, a number of different mission profiles were looked at over the next six months.

Wet workshop

An early "wet workshop" version of Skylab

In November 1964, von Braun proposed a more ambitious plan to build a much larger station built from the S-II second stage of a Saturn V. His design replaced the S-IVB third stage with an aeroshell, primarily as an adapter for the CSM on top. Inside the shell was a 10 feet (3.0 m) cylindrical equipment section. On reaching orbit, the S-II second stage would be vented to remove any remaining hydrogen fuel, then the equipment section would be slid into it via a large inspection hatch. This became known as a "wet workshop" concept, because of the conversion of an active fuel tank. The station filled the entire interior of the S-II stage's hydrogen tank, with the equipment section forming a "spine" and living quarters located between it and the walls of the booster. This would have resulted in a very large 33 by 45 feet (10 by 14 m) living area. Power was to be provided by solar cells lining the outside of the S-II stage.[27]

One problem with this proposal was that it required a dedicated Saturn V launch to fly the station. At the time the design was being proposed, it was not known how many of the then-contracted Saturn Vs would be required to achieve a successful Moon landing. However, several planned Earth-orbit test missions for the LM and CSM had been canceled, leaving a number of Saturn IBs free for use. Further work led to the idea of building a smaller "wet workshop" based on the S-IVB, launched as the second stage of a Saturn IB.

A number of S-IVB-based stations were studied at MSC from mid-1965, which had much in common with the Skylab design that eventually flew. An airlock would be attached to the hydrogen tank, in the area designed to hold the LM, and a minimum amount of equipment would be installed in the tank itself in order to avoid taking up too much fuel volume. Floors of the station would be made from an open metal framework that allowed the fuel to flow through it. After launch, a follow-up mission launched by a Saturn IB would launch additional equipment, including solar panels, an equipment section and docking adapter, and various experiments. Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of the S-IVB stage, was asked to prepare proposals along these lines. The company had for several years been proposing stations based on the S-IV stage, before it was replaced by the S-IVB.[28]

On April 1, 1966, MSC sent out contracts to Douglas, Grumman, and McDonnell for the conversion of an S-IVB spent stage, under the name Saturn S-IVB spent-stage experiment support module (SSESM).[29] In May 1966, astronauts voiced concerns over the purging of the stage's hydrogen tank in space. Nevertheless, in late July 1966, it was announced that the Orbital Workshop would be launched as a part of Apollo mission AS-209, originally one of the Earth-orbit CSM test launches, followed by two Saturn I/CSM crew launches, AAP-1 and AAP-2.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) remained AAP's chief competitor for funds, although the two programs cooperated on technology. NASA considered flying experiments on MOL or using its Titan IIIC booster instead of the much more expensive Saturn IB. The agency decided that the Air Force station was not large enough and that converting Apollo hardware for use with Titan would be too slow and too expensive.[30] The DoD later canceled MOL in June 1969.[31]

Dry workshop

Design work continued over the next two years, in an era of shrinking budgets.[32] (NASA sought US$450 million for Apollo Applications in fiscal year 1967, for example, but received US$42 million.)[33] In August 1967, the agency announced that the lunar mapping and base construction missions examined by the AAP were being canceled. Only the Earth-orbiting missions remained, namely the and Apollo Telescope Mount solar observatory. The success of Apollo 8 in December 1968, launched on the third flight of a Saturn V, made it likely that one would be available to launch a dry workshop.[34] Later, several Moon missions were canceled as well, originally to be Apollo missions 18 through 20. The cancellation of these missions freed up three Saturn V boosters for the AAP program. Although this would have allowed them to develop von Braun's original S-II-based mission, by this time so much work had been done on the S-IV-based design that work continued on this baseline. With the extra power available, the wet workshop was no longer needed;[35] the S-IC and S-II lower stages could launch a "dry workshop", with its interior already prepared, directly into orbit.


Jumping and flying in weightlessness

A dry workshop simplified plans for the interior of the station.[36] Industrial design firm Raymond Loewy/William Snaith recommended emphasizing habitability and comfort for the astronauts by providing a wardroom for meals and relaxation[37] and a window to view Earth and space, although astronauts were dubious about the designers' focus on details such as color schemes.[38] Habitability had not previously been an area of concern when building spacecraft due to their small size and brief mission durations, but the Skylab missions would last for months.[39] NASA sent a scientist on Jacques Piccard's Ben Franklin submarine in the Gulf Stream in July and August 1969 to learn how six people would live in an enclosed space for four weeks.[40]

Astronauts were uninterested in watching movies on a proposed entertainment center or in playing games, but they did want books and individual music choices.[38] Food was also important; early Apollo crews complained about its quality, and a NASA volunteer found it intolerable to live on the Apollo food for four days on Earth. Its taste and composition were unpleasant, in the form of cubes and squeeze tubes. Skylab food significantly improved on its predecessors by prioritizing palatability over scientific needs.[41]

Each astronaut had a private sleeping area the size of a small walk-in closet, with a curtain, sleeping bag, and locker.[42] Designers also added a shower[43][44] and a toilet[45][46] for comfort and to obtain precise urine and feces samples for examination on Earth.[47] The waste samples were so important that they would have been priorities in any rescue mission.[48]

Skylab did not have recycling systems such as the conversion of urine to drinking water; it also did not dispose of waste by dumping it into space. The S-IVB's 73,280 litres (16,120 imp gal; 19,360 US gal) liquid oxygen tank below the Orbital Work Shop was used to store trash and wastewater, passed through an airlock.


Component Mass[5][49][4] Habitable volume Length Diameter Image
Payload shroud 25,600 pounds (11,600 kg) 0 56.0 feet (17.1 m) 21.6 feet (6.6 m)
Apollo Telescope Mount 24,500 pounds (11,100 kg) 0 14.7 feet (4.5 m) 11.3 feet (3.4 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 3 - ATM).jpg
Multiple Docking Adapter 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg) 1,140 cubic feet (32 m3) 17.3 feet (5.3 m) 10.5 feet (3.2 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 2 - MDA).jpg
Airlock module 49,000 pounds (22,000 kg) 613 cubic feet (17.4 m3) 17.6 feet (5.4 m) 10.5 feet (3.2 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 4 - Airlock).jpg
Saturn V instrument unit 4,600 pounds (2,100 kg) 0 3.0 feet (0.91 m) 21.6 feet (6.6 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 5 - IU).jpg
Orbital Workshop 78,000 pounds (35,000 kg)[4] 9,550 cubic feet (270 m3)[4] 48.1 feet (14.7 m) 21.6 feet (6.6 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 6 - OW).jpg
Total in orbit 168,750 pounds (76,540 kg) 12,417 cubic feet (351.6 m3) 82.4 feet (25.1 m) 21.6 feet (6.6 m)
Apollo CSM 31,000 pounds (14,000 kg) 210 cubic feet (5.9 m3) 36.1 feet (11.0 m) 12.8 feet (3.9 m) Cover3skylabcompontents (cropped 1 - CSM).jpg
Total with CSM 199,750 pounds (90,610 kg)[4] 12,627 cubic feet (357.6 m3) 118.5 feet (36.1 m) 21.6 feet (6.6 m)

Operational history

Completion and launch

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station

On August 8, 1969, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation received a contract for the conversion of two existing S-IVB stages to the Orbital Workshop configuration. One of the S-IV test stages was shipped to McDonnell Douglas for the construction of a mock-up in January 1970. The Orbital Workshop was renamed "Skylab" in February 1970 as a result of a NASA contest.[50] The actual stage that flew was the upper stage of the AS-212 rocket (the S-IVB stage, S-IVB 212). The mission computer used aboard Skylab was the IBM System/4Pi TC-1, a relative of the AP-101 Space Shuttle computers. The Saturn V with serial number SA-513, originally produced for the Apollo program – before the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19, and 20 – was repurposed and redesigned to launch Skylab.[51] The Saturn V's third stage was removed and replaced with Skylab, but with the controlling Instrument Unit remaining in its standard position.

Skylab was launched on May 14, 1973, by the modified Saturn V. The launch is sometimes referred to as Skylab 1. Severe damage was sustained during launch and deployment, including the loss of the station's micrometeoroid shield/sun shade and one of its main solar panels. Debris from the lost micrometeoroid shield further complicated matters by becoming tangled in the remaining solar panel, preventing its full deployment and thus leaving the station with a huge power deficit.[52]

Immediately following Skylab's launch, Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center was deactivated, and construction proceeded to modify it for the Space Shuttle program, originally targeting a maiden launch in March 1979. The crewed missions to Skylab would occur using a Saturn IB rocket from Launch Pad 39B.

Skylab 1 was the last uncrewed launch from LC-39A until February 19, 2017, when SpaceX CRS-10 was launched from there.

Crewed missions

Skylab 3's Saturn IB at night, July 1973
Skylab in orbit in 1973 as flown, docking ports in view

Three crewed missions, designated Skylab 2, Skylab 3 and Skylab 4, were made to Skylab in the Apollo command and service modules. The first crewed mission, Skylab 2, launched on May 25, 1973 atop a Saturn IB and involved extensive repairs to the station. The crew deployed a parasol-like sunshade through a small instrument port from the inside of the station, bringing station temperatures down to acceptable levels and preventing overheating that would have melted the plastic insulation inside the station and released poisonous gases. This solution was designed by NASA's "Mr. Fix It" Jack Kinzler, who won the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. The crew conducted further repairs via two spacewalks (extravehicular activity or EVA). The crew stayed in orbit with Skylab for 28 days. Two additional missions followed, with the launch dates of July 28, 1973, (Skylab 3) and November 16, 1973, (Skylab 4), and mission durations of 59 and 84 days, respectively. The last Skylab crew returned to Earth on February 8, 1974.[53]

In addition to the three crewed missions, there was a rescue mission on standby that had a crew of two, but could take five back down.

  • Skylab 2: launched May 25, 1973[54]
  • Skylab 3: launched July 28, 1973
  • Skylab 4: launched November 16, 1973
  • Skylab 5: cancelled
  • Skylab Rescue on standby

Also of note was the three-man crew of Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test (SMEAT), who spent 56 days in 1972 at low-pressure on Earth to evaluate medical experiment equipment.[55] This was a spaceflight analog test in full gravity, but Skylab hardware was tested and medical knowledge was gained.

Orbital operations

Owen Garriott performing an EVA in 1973
Days in Space
Skylab 2
Skylab 3
Skylab 4

Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times during the 171 days and 13 hours of its occupation during the three crewed Skylab expeditions. Each of these extended the human record of 23 days for amount of time spent in space set by the Soviet Soyuz 11 crew aboard the space station Salyut 1 on June 30, 1971. Skylab 2 lasted 28 days, Skylab 3 56 days, and Skylab 4 84 days. Astronauts performed ten spacewalks, totaling 42 hours and 16 minutes. Skylab logged about 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments, 127,000 frames of film of the Sun and 46,000 of Earth.[56] Solar experiments included photographs of eight solar flares, and produced valuable results[57] that scientists stated would have been impossible to obtain with uncrewed spacecraft.[58] The existence of the Sun's coronal holes was confirmed because of these efforts.[59] Many of the experiments conducted investigated the astronauts' adaptation to extended periods of microgravity.

A typical day began at 6 a.m. Central Time Zone.[60] Although the toilet was small and noisy, both veteran astronauts – who had endured earlier missions' rudimentary waste-collection systems – and rookies complimented it.[61][44][62] The first crew enjoyed taking a shower once a week, but found drying themselves in weightlessness[62] and vacuuming excess water difficult; later crews usually cleaned themselves daily with wet washcloths instead of using the shower. Astronauts also found that bending over in weightlessness to put on socks or tie shoelaces strained their stomach muscles.[63]

Breakfast began at 7 a.m. Astronauts usually stood to eat, as sitting in microgravity also strained their stomach muscles. They reported that their food – although greatly improved from Apollo – was bland and repetitive, and weightlessness caused utensils, food containers, and bits of food to float away; also, gas in their drinking water contributed to flatulence. After breakfast and preparation for lunch, experiments, tests and repairs of spacecraft systems and, if possible, 90 minutes of physical exercise followed; the station had a bicycle and other equipment, and astronauts could jog around the water tank. After dinner, which was scheduled for 6 pm, crews performed household chores and prepared for the next day's experiments. Following lengthy daily instructions (some of which were up to 15 meters long) sent via teleprinter, the crews were often busy enough to postpone sleep.[64][65] The station offered what a later study called "a highly satisfactory living and working environment for crews", with enough room for personal privacy.[66] Although it had a dart set,[67] playing cards, and other recreational equipment in addition to books and music players, the window with its view of Earth became the most popular way to relax in orbit.[68]


Spider Anita flown aboard Skylab

Prior to departure about 80 experiments were named, although they are also described as "almost 300 separate investigations".[69]

Experiments were divided into six broad categories:

Because the solar scientific airlock – one of two research airlocks – was unexpectedly occupied by the "parasol" that replaced the missing meteorite shield, a few experiments were instead installed outside with the telescopes during spacewalks or shifted to the Earth-facing scientific airlock.

Skylab 2 spent less time than planned on most experiments due to station repairs. On the other hand, Skylab 3 and Skylab 4 far exceeded the initial experiment plans, once the crews adjusted to the environment and established comfortable working relationships with ground control.

The figure (below) lists an overview of most major experiments.[70] Skylab 4 carried out several more experiments, such as to observe Comet Kohoutek.[71]

Nobel Prize

Riccardo Giacconi shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for his study of X-ray astronomy, including the study of emissions from the Sun onboard Skylab, contributing to the birth of X-ray astronomy.[72]


Chart for the [73]

Film vaults and window radiation shield

A labeled illustration of a Skylab film vault, from Skylab: A Guidebook (EP-107) by NASA

Skylab had certain features to protect vulnerable technology from radiation.[74] The window was vulnerable to darkening, and this darkening could affect experiment S190.[74] As a result, a light shield that could be open or shut was designed and installed on Skylab.[74] To protect a wide variety of films, used for a variety of experiments and for astronaut photography, there were five film vaults.[75] There were four smaller film vaults in the , mainly because the structure could not carry enough weight for a single larger film vault.[75] The orbital workshop could handle a single larger safe, which is also more efficient for shielding.[75] The large vault in the orbital workshop had an empty mass of 2398 lb (1088 kg).[74][75] The four smaller vaults had combined mass of 1,545 lb.[75] The primary construction material of all five safes was aluminum.[75] When Skylab re-entered there was one 180 lb chunk of aluminum found that was thought to be a door to one of the film vaults.[76] The big film vault was one of the heaviest single pieces of Skylab to re-enter Earth's atmosphere.[77] A later example of a radiation vault is the Juno Radiation Vault for the Juno Jupiter orbiter, launched in 2011, which was designed to protect much of the uncrewed spacecraft's electronics, using 1 cm thick walls of titanium.[78]

The Skylab film vault was used for storing film from various sources including the Apollo Telescope Mount solar instruments.[79] Six ATM experiments used film to record data, and over the course of the missions over 150,000 successful exposures were recorded.[79] The film canister had to be manually retrieved on crewed spacewalks to the instruments during the missions.[79] The film canisters were returned to Earth aboard the Apollo capsules when each mission ended, and were among the heaviest items that had to be returned at the end of each mission.[80] The heaviest canisters weighed 40 kg and could hold up to 16,000 frames of film.[80]


Skylab could change its attitude without using propellant by changing the spin of large gyroscopes.

There were two types of gyroscopes on Skylab. Control-moment gyroscopes (CMG) could physically move the station, and rate gyroscopes measured the rate of rotation to find its orientation.[81] The CMG helped provide the fine pointing needed by the Apollo Telescope Mount, and to resist various forces that can change the station's orientation.[82]

Some of the forces acting on Skylab that the pointing system needed to resist:[82]

The Skylab-A attitude and pointing control system has been developed to meet the high accuracy requirements established by the desired experiment conditions. Conditions must be maintained by the control system under the influence of external and internal disturbance torques, such as gravity gradient and aerodynamic disturbances and onboard astronaut motion.

— Skylab Attitude and Pointing Control System (NASA Technical Note D-6068) This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.[82]

Skylab was the first large spacecraft to use big gyroscopes, capable of controlling its attitude.[83] The control could also be used to help point the instruments.[83] The gyroscopes took about ten hours to get spun up if they were turned off.[84] There was also a thruster system to control Skylab's attitude.[84] There were 9 rate-gyroscope sensors, 3 for each axis.[84] These were sensors that fed their output to the Skylab digital computer.[84] Two of three were active and their input was averaged, while the third was a backup.[84] From NASA SP-400 Skylab, Our First Space Station, "each Skylab control-moment gyroscope consisted of a motor-driven rotor, electronics assembly, and power inverter assembly. The 21-inch diameter rotor weighed 155 pounds (70 kg) and rotated at approximately 8950 revolutions per minute".[85]

There were three control movement gyroscopes on Skylab, but only two were required to maintain pointing.[85] The control and sensor gyroscopes were part of a system that help detect and control the orientation of the station in space.[85] Other sensors that helped with this were a Sun tracker and a star tracker.[85] The sensors fed data to the main computer, which could then use the control gyroscopes and or the thruster system to keep Skylab pointed as desired.[85]


Astronaut in the shower with curtain partially down, July 1973
Conrad in the Skylab shower in 1973
Earth testing showing partially and fully enclosed positions of the shower curtain

Skylab had a zero-gravity shower system in the work and experiment section of the Orbital Workshop[86] designed and built at the Manned Spaceflight Center.[87] It had a cylindrical curtain that went from floor to ceiling and a vacuum system to suck away water.[88] The floor of the shower had foot restraints.

To bathe, the user coupled a pressurized bottle of warmed water to the shower's plumbing, then stepped inside and secured the curtain. A push-button shower nozzle was connected by a stiff hose to the top of the shower.[87][89] The system was designed for about 6 pints (2.8 liters) of water per shower,[90] the water being drawn from the personal hygiene water tank.[87] The use of both the liquid soap and water was carefully planned out, with enough soap and warm water for one shower per week per person.[86] The first astronaut to use the space shower was Paul J. Weitz on Skylab 2, the first crewed mission.[86] He said, "It took a fair amount longer to use than you might expect, but you come out smelling good".[91] A Skylab shower took about two and a half hours, including the time to set up the shower and dissipate used water.[92] The procedure for operating the shower was as follows:[89]

  1. Fill up the pressurized water bottle with hot water and attach it to the ceiling
  2. Connect the hose and pull up the shower curtain
  3. Spray down with water
  4. Apply liquid soap and spray more water to rinse
  5. Vacuum up all the fluids and stow items.

One of the big concerns with bathing in space was control of droplets of water so that they did not cause an electrical short by floating into the wrong area.[93] The vacuum water system was thus integral to the shower. The vacuum fed to a centrifugal separator, filter, and collection bag to allow the system to vacuum up the fluids.[89] Waste water was injected into a disposal bag which was in turn put in the waste tank.[55] The material for the shower enclosure was fire-proof beta cloth wrapped around hoops of 43 inches (1,100 mm) diameter; the top hoop was connected to the ceiling.[87] The shower could be collapsed to the floor when not in use.[89] Skylab also supplied astronauts with rayon terrycloth towels which had a color-coded stitching for each crew-member.[91] There were 420 towels on board Skylab initially.[86]

A simulated Skylab shower was also used during the 56-day SMEAT simulation; the crew used the shower after exercise and found it a positive experience.[94]

Cameras and film

A view of the Skylab space station taken with a hand-held 70 mm Hasselblad camera using a 100 mm lens and SO-368 medium speed Ektachrome film
Hurricane Ellen of 1973, as seen from Skylab
The island of Crete as photographed on June 22, 1973, from Skylab
Skylab as Skylab 2 mission departs

There was a variety of hand-held and fixed experiments that used various types of film. In addition to the instruments in the ATM solar observatory, 35 and 70 mm film cameras were carried on board. A TV camera was carried that recorded video electronically. These electronic signals could be recorded to magnetic tape or be transmitted to Earth by radio signal. The TV camera was not a digital camera of the type that became common in the later decades, although Skylab did have a digital computer using microchips on board.

It was determined that film would fog up to due to radiation over the course of the mission.[74] To prevent this, film was stored in vaults.[74]

Personal (hand-held) camera equipment:[95]

  • Television camera
    • Westinghouse color
    • 25–150 mm zoom
  • 16 mm film camera (Maurer), called the 16 mm Data Acquisition Camera.[95] The DAC was capable of very low frame rates, such as for engineering data films, and it had independent shutter speeds.[96] It could be powered from a battery or from Skylab itself.[96] It used interchangeable lenses, and various lens and also film types were used during the missions.[96]
    • There were different options for frame rates: 2, 4, 6, 12 and 24 frames per second[97]
    • Lenses available: 5, 10, 18, 25, 75, and 100 mm
    • Films used:
      • Ektachrome film
      • SO-368 film
      • SO-168 film

Film for the DAC was contained in DAC film magazines, which contained up to 140 feet (42.7 m) of film.[98] At 24 frames per second this was enough for 4 minutes of filming, with progressively longer film times with lower frame rates such as 16 minutes at 6 frames per second.[96] The film had to be loaded or unloaded from the DAC in a photographic dark room.[96]

  • 35 mm film cameras (Nikon)[99]
    • There were 5 Nikon 35 mm film cameras on board, with 55 mm and 300 mm lenses.[100]
    • They were specially modified Nikon F cameras[101]
    • The cameras were capable of interchangeable lenses.[101]
    • 35mm films included:[102]
      • Ektachrome
      • SO-368
      • SO-168
      • 2485 type film
      • 2443 type film
  • 70 mm film camera (Hasselblad)[95]
    • This had an electric data camera system with Reseau plate
    • Films included
      • 70 mm Ektachrome
      • SO-368 film
    • Lenses: 70 mm lens, 100 mm lens.[95]

Experiment S190B was the Actron Earth Terrain Camera.[99]

The S190A was the Multispectral Photographic Camera:[95]

  • This consisted of six 70 mm cameras
  • Each was an Itek 70 mm boresighted camera
  • Lenses were f/2.8 with a 21.2° field of view.

There was also a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera,[103] and a pair of Leitz Trinovid 10 × 40 binoculars modified for use in space to aid in Earth observations.[99]

The SX-70 was used to take pictures of the Extreme Ultraviolet monitor by Dr. Garriot, as the monitor provided a live video feed of the solar corona in ultraviolet light as observed by Skylab solar observatory instruments located in the Apollo Telescope Mount.[104]


Computational cycle of the Skylab computer program

Skylab was controlled in part by a digital computer system, and one of its main jobs was to control the pointing of the station; pointing was especially important for its solar power collection and observatory functions.[105] The computer consisted of two actual computers, a primary and a secondary. The system ran several thousand words of code, which was also backed up on the Memory Load Unit (MLU).[105] The two computers were linked to each other and various input and output items by the workshop computer interface.[106] Operations could be switched from the primary to the backup, which were the same design, either automatically if errors were detected, by the Skylab crew, or from the ground.[105]

The Skylab computer was a space-hardened and customized version of the TC-1 computer, a version of the IBM System/4 Pi, itself based on the System 360 computer.[105] The TC-1 had a 16,000-word memory based on ferrite memory cores, while the MLU was a read-only tape drive that contained a backup of the main computer programs.[105] The tape drive would take 11 seconds to upload the backup of the software program to a main computer.[107] The TC-1 used 16-bit words and the central processor came from the 4Pi computer.[107] There was a 16k and an 8k version of the software program.[108]

The computer had a mass of 100 pounds (45.4 kg), and consumed about ten percent of the station's electrical power.[105][109]

  • Apollo Telescope Mount Digital Computer[107]
  • Attitude and Pointing Control System (APCS)[105]
  • Memory Load Unit (MLU).[105]

After launch the computer is what the controllers on the ground communicated with to control the station's orientation.[110] When the sun-shield was torn off the ground staff had to balance solar heating with electrical production.[110] On March 6, 1978 the computer system was re-activated by NASA to control the re-entry.[111]

The system had a user interface that consisted of a display, ten buttons, and a three-position switch.[112] Because the numbers were in octal (base-8), it only had numbers zero to seven (8 keys), and the other two keys were enter and clear.[112] The display could show minutes and seconds which would count down to orbital benchmarks, or it could display keystrokes when using the interface.[112] The interface could be used to change the software program.[112] The user interface was called the Digital Address System (DAS) and could send commands to the computer's command system. The command system could also get commands from the ground.[108]

For personal computing needs Skylab crews were equipped with models of the then new hand-held electronic scientific calculator, which was used in place of slide-rules used on prior space missions as the primary personal computer. The model used was the Hewlett Packard HP 35.[113][114] Some slide rules continued in use aboard Skylab, and a circular slide rule was at the workstation.[115]

Plans for re-use after the last mission

Skylab Rescue vehicle Apollo CSM being removed from its Saturn IB rocket after the last Skylab mission

Calculations made during the mission, based on current values for solar activity and expected atmospheric density, gave the workshop just over nine years in orbit. Slowly at first—dropping 30 kilometers by 1980—and then faster—another 100 kilometers by the end of 1982—Skylab would come down, and some time around March 1983 it would burn up in the dense atmosphere.[116]

The three crewed Skylab missions used only about 16.8 of the 24 man-months of oxygen, food, water, and other supplies stored aboard Skylab.[citation needed] A fourth crewed mission was under consideration, which would have used the launch vehicle kept on standby for the Skylab Rescue mission. This would have been a 20-day mission to boost Skylab to a higher altitude and do more scientific experiments.[117] Another plan was to use a Teleoperator Retrieval System (TRS) launched aboard the Space Shuttle (then under development), to robotically re-boost the orbit. When Skylab 5 was cancelled, it was expected Skylab would stay in orbit until the 1980s, which was enough time to overlap with the beginning of Shuttle launches. Other options for launching TRS included the Titan III and Atlas-Agena. No option received the level of effort and funding needed for execution before Skylab's sooner-than-expected re-entry.[118]

The Skylab 4 crew left a bag filled with supplies to welcome visitors, and left the hatch unlocked.[118] Skylab's internal systems were evaluated and tested from the ground, and effort was put into plans for re-using it, as late as 1978.[119] NASA discouraged any discussion of additional visits due to the station's age,[120] but in 1977 and 1978, when the agency still believed the Space Shuttle would be ready by 1979, it completed two studies on reusing the station.[118][121] By September 1978, the agency believed Skylab was safe for crews, with all major systems intact and operational.[122] It still had 180 man-days of water and 420-man-days of oxygen, and astronauts could refill both;[118] the station could hold up to about 600 to 700 man-days of drinkable water and 420 man-days of food.[123] Before Skylab-4 left they did one more boost, running the Skylab thrusters for 3 minutes which added 11 km in height to its orbit. Skylab was left in a 433 by 455 km orbit on departure. At this time, the NASA-accepted estimate for its re-entry was nine years.[116]

The studies cited several benefits from reusing Skylab, which one called a resource worth "hundreds of millions of dollars"[124] with "unique habitability provisions for long duration space flight".[125] Because no more operational Saturn V rockets were available after the Apollo program, four to five shuttle flights and extensive space architecture would have been needed to build another station as large as Skylab's 12,400 cubic feet (350 m3) volume.[126] Its ample size – much greater than that of the shuttle alone, or even the shuttle plus Spacelab[127] – was enough, with some modifications, for up to seven astronauts[128] of both sexes,[129] and experiments needing a long duration in space;[124] even a movie projector for recreation was possible.[125]

Proponents of Skylab's reuse also said repairing and upgrading Skylab would provide information on the results of long-duration exposure to space for future stations.[118] The most serious issue for reactivation was attitude control, as one of the station's gyroscopes had failed[116] and the attitude control system needed refueling; these issues would need EVA to fix or replace. The station had not been designed for extensive resupply. However, although it was originally planned that Skylab crews would only perform limited maintenance,[130] they successfully made major repairs during EVA, such as the Skylab 2 crew's deployment of the solar panel[131] and the Skylab 4 crew's repair of the primary coolant loop.[132][133][134] The Skylab 2 crew fixed one item during EVA by, reportedly, "hit[ting] it with [a] hammer".[135]

Some studies also said, beyond the opportunity for space construction and maintenance experience, reactivating the station would free up shuttle flights for other uses,[124] and reduce the need to modify the shuttle for long-duration missions.[136] Even if the station were not crewed again, went one argument, it might serve as an experimental platform.[137]

Shuttle mission plans

Concept for proposed Skylab re-boost

The reactivation would likely have occurred in four phases:[118]

  1. An early Space Shuttle flight would have boosted Skylab to a higher orbit, adding five years of operational life. The shuttle might have pushed or towed the station, but attaching a space tug – the Teleoperator Retrieval System (TRS) – to the station would have been more likely, based on astronauts' training for the task. Martin Marietta won the contract for US$26 million to design the apparatus.[138] TRS would contain about three tons of propellant.[139] The remote-controlled booster had TV cameras and was designed for duties such as space construction and servicing and retrieving satellites the shuttle could not reach. After rescuing Skylab, the TRS would have remained in orbit for future use. Alternatively, it could have been used to de-orbit Skylab for a safe, controlled re-entry and destruction.[140]
  2. In two shuttle flights, Skylab would have been refurbished. In January 1982, the first mission would have attached a docking adapter and conducted repairs. In August 1983, a second crew would have replaced several system components.
  3. In March 1984, shuttle crews would have attached a solar-powered Power Expansion Package, refurbished scientific equipment, and conducted 30- to 90-day missions using the Apollo Telescope Mount and the Earth resources experiments.
  4. Over five years, Skylab would have been expanded to accommodate six to eight astronauts, with a new large docking/interface module, additional logistics modules, Spacelab modules and pallets, and an orbital vehicle space dock using the shuttle's external tank.

The first three phases would have required about US$60 million in 1980s dollars, not including launch costs. Other options for launching TRS were Titan III or Atlas-Agena.[118]

After departure

Skylab in February 1974, as Skylab 4 departs

After a boost of 6.8 miles (10.9 km) by Skylab 4's Apollo CSM before its departure in 1974, Skylab was left in a parking orbit of 269 miles (433 km) by 283 miles (455 km)[116] that was expected to last until at least the early 1980s, based on estimates of the 11-year sunspot cycle that began in 1976.[141][142] NASA had first considered the potential risks of a space station reentry in 1962, but decided not to incorporate a retrorocket system in Skylab due to cost and acceptable risk.[143]

The spent 49-ton Saturn V S-II stage which had launched Skylab in 1973 remained in orbit for almost two years, and made a controlled reentry on January 11, 1975.[144]The re-entry was mistimed however and deorbited slightly earlier in the orbit than planned.[145]

Solar activity

Skylab captured this view of the Sun
Solar prominence recorded by Skylab on August 21, 1973[146]

British mathematician Desmond King-Hele of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) predicted in 1973 that Skylab would de-orbit and crash to Earth in 1979, sooner than NASA's forecast, because of increased solar activity.[142] Greater-than-expected solar activity[147] heated the outer layers of Earth's atmosphere and increased drag on Skylab. By late 1977, NORAD also forecast a reentry in mid-1979;[141] a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist criticized NASA for using an inaccurate model for the second most-intense sunspot cycle in a century, and for ignoring NOAA predictions published in 1976.[148]

The reentry of the USSR's nuclear powered Cosmos 954 in January 1978, and the resulting radioactive debris fall in northern Canada, drew more attention to Skylab's orbit. Although Skylab did not contain radioactive materials, the State Department warned NASA about the potential diplomatic repercussions of station debris.[149] Battelle Memorial Institute forecast that up to 25 tons of metal debris could land in 500 pieces over an area 4,000 miles (6,400 km) long and 1,000 miles (1,600 km) wide. The lead-lined film vault, for example, might land intact at 400 feet per second.[8]

Ground controllers re-established contact with Skylab in March 1978[150] and recharged its batteries.[7] Although NASA worked on plans to reboost Skylab with the Space Shuttle through 1978 and the TRS was almost complete, the agency gave up in December 1978 when it became clear that the shuttle would not be ready in time;[138][151] its first flight, STS-1, did not occur until April 1981. Also rejected were proposals to launch the TRS using one or two uncrewed rockets[118] or to attempt to destroy the station with missiles.[8]

Re-entry and debris

Equirectangular projection relief map of the Skylab re-entry site and final orbits, as predicted by NASA
Fragment of Skylab recovered after its re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Skylab's demise in 1979 was an international media event, with T-shirts and hats with bullseyes[8] and "Skylab Repellent" with a money-back guarantee,[152] wagering on the time and place of re-entry, and nightly news reports. The San Francisco Examiner offered a US$10,000 prize for the first piece of Skylab delivered to its offices; the competing San Francisco Chronicle offered US$200,000 if a subscriber suffered personal or property damage.[7] A Nebraska neighborhood painted a target so that the station would have "something to aim for", a resident said.[152]

A report commissioned by NASA calculated that the odds were 1 in 152 of debris hitting any human, and odds of 1 in 7 of debris hitting a city of 100,000 people or more.[153] Special teams were readied to head to any country hit by debris.[7] The event caused so much panic in the Philippines that President Ferdinand Marcos appeared on national television to reassure the public.[142]

A week before re-entry, NASA forecast that it would occur between July 10 and 14, with the 12th the most likely date, and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) predicted the 14th.[142] In the hours before the event, ground controllers adjusted Skylab's orientation to minimize the risk of re-entry on a populated area.[7] They aimed the station at a spot 810 miles (1,300 km) south-southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, and re-entry began at approximately 16:37 UTC, July 11, 1979.[6] The Air Force provided data from a secret tracking system.[154] The station did not burn up as fast as NASA expected. Debris landed about 300 miles (480 km) east of Perth, Western Australia due to a four-percent calculation error,[6] and was found between Esperance, Western Australia and Rawlinna, from 31° to 34° S and 122° to 126° E, about 130–150 km (81–93 miles) radius around Balladonia, Western Australia. Residents and an airline pilot saw dozens of colorful flares as large pieces broke up in the atmosphere;[8] the debris landed in an almost unpopulated area, but the sightings still caused NASA to fear human injury or property damage.[154] The Shire of Esperance light-heartedly fined NASA A$400 for littering.[155] (The fine was written off three months later, but was eventually paid on behalf of NASA in April 2009, after Scott Barley of Highway Radio raised the funds from his morning show listeners.[156][157])

Stan Thornton found 24 pieces of Skylab at his home in Esperance, and a Philadelphia businessman flew him, his parents, and his girlfriend to San Francisco where he collected the Examiner prize and another US$1,000 from the businessman.[6][8] The Miss Universe 1979 pageant was scheduled for July 20, 1979 in Perth, and a large piece of Skylab debris was displayed on the stage.[158] Analysis of the debris showed that the station had disintegrated 10 miles (16 km) above the Earth, much lower than expected.[8]

After the demise of Skylab, NASA focused on the reusable Spacelab module, an orbital workshop that could be deployed with the Space Shuttle and returned to Earth. The next American major space station project was Space Station Freedom, which was merged into the International Space Station in 1993 and launched starting in 1998. Shuttle-Mir was another project and led to the US funding Spektr, Priroda, and the Mir Docking Module in the 1990s.

Rockets, rescue, and cancelled missions

5-person Apollo Command module for the Apollo Rescue mission
SA-209 served on standby for Skylab 4 and ASTP, and has been preserved at the Kennedy Space Center rocket garden.

There was a Skylab Rescue mission assembled for the second crewed mission to Skylab, but it was not needed. Another rescue mission was assembled for the last Skylab and was also on standby for ASTP. That launch stack might have been used for Skylab 5 (which would have been the fourth crewed Skylab mission), but this was cancelled and the Saturn IB rocket was put on display at NASA Kennedy Space Center.[159]

Launch vehicles:[159]

  • SA-206 (Skylab 2)
  • SA-207 (Skylab 3)
  • SA-208 (Skylab 4)
  • SA-209 (Skylab Rescue, not-launched)

Skylab 5

Skylab 5 would have been a short 20-day mission to conduct more scientific experiments and use the Apollo's Service Propulsion System engine to boost Skylab into a higher orbit. Vance Brand (commander), William B. Lenoir (science pilot), and Don Lind (pilot) would have been the crew for this mission, with Brand and Lind being the prime crew for the Skylab Rescue flights.[160] Brand and Lind also trained for a mission that would have aimed Skylab for a controlled deorbit.[154]

The mission would have launched in April 1974 and supported later use by the Space Shuttle by boosting the station to higher orbit.[161]

Skylab B

In addition to the flown Skylab space station, a second flight-quality backup Skylab space station had been built during the program. NASA considered using it for a second station in May 1973 or later, to be called Skylab B (S-IVB 515), but decided against it. Launching another Skylab with another Saturn V rocket would have been very costly, and it was decided to spend this money on the development of the Space Shuttle instead. The backup is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Engineering mock-ups

A full-size training mock-up once used for astronaut training is located at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center visitor's center in Houston, Texas. Another full-size training mock-up is at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Originally displayed indoors, it was subsequently stored outdoors for several years to make room for other exhibits. To mark the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program, the Orbital Workshop portion of the trainer was restored and moved into the Davidson Center in 2013.[162][163] NASA transferred Skylab B (the backup Skylab) to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975. On display in the Museum's Space Hall since 1976, the orbital workshop has been slightly modified to permit viewers to walk through the living quarters.[164]

Mission designations

The numerical identification of the crewed Skylab missions was the cause of some confusion. Originally, the uncrewed launch of Skylab and the three crewed missions to the station were numbered SL-1 through SL-4. During the preparations for the crewed missions, some documentation was created with a different scheme – SLM-1 through SLM-3 – for those missions only. William Pogue credits Pete Conrad with asking the Skylab program director which scheme should be used for the mission patches, and the astronauts were told to use 1–2–3, not 2–3–4. By the time NASA administrators tried to reverse this decision, it was too late, as all the in-flight clothing had already been manufactured and shipped with the 1–2–3 mission patches.[165]

Mission Emblem Commander Science Pilot Pilot Launch date Landing date Duration (days)
Skylab 1 SL-1
Skylab Program Patch.png
uncrewed launch of space station 1973-05-14
17:30:00 UTC
16:37:00 UTC
Skylab 2 SL-2 (SLM-1)
Pete Conrad Joseph Kerwin Paul Weitz 1973-05-25
13:00:00 UTC
13:49:48 UTC
Skylab 3 SL-3 (SLM-2)
Alan Bean Owen Garriott Jack Lousma 1973-07-28
11:10:50 UTC
22:19:51 UTC
Skylab 4 SL-4 (SLM-3)
Gerald Carr Edward Gibson William Pogue 1973-11-16
14:01:23 UTC
15:16:53 UTC
Skylab 5 Vance Brand William B. Lenoir Don Lind (April 1974, Cancelled) 20 (notional)
Skylab Rescue Vance Brand Don Lind (Survivors) (On Standby)

NASA Astronaut Group 4 and NASA Astronaut Group 6 were scientists recruited as astronauts. They and the scientific community hoped to have two on each Skylab mission, but Deke Slayton, director of flight crew operations, insisted that two trained pilots fly on each.[166]


The Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test or SMEAT was a 56-day (8-week) Earth analog Skylab test.[167] The test had a low-pressure high oxygen-percentage atmosphere but it operated under full gravity, as SMEAT was not in orbit. The test had a three-astronaut crew with Commander Robert Crippen, Science Pilot Karol J. Bobko, and Pilot William E. Thornton;[168] there was a focus on medical studies and Thornton was an M.D.[169] The crew lived and worked in the pressure chamber, converted to be like Skylab, from July 26 to September 20, 1972.[55]

Mission Emblem Commander Science Pilot Pilot Start date End date Duration
SMEAT patch.jpg
Bob Crippen Karol Bobko William Thornton July 26, 1972 September 20, 1972[55] 56 days

Program cost

From 1966 to 1974, the Skylab program cost a total of US$2.2 billion, equivalent to US$10 billion in 2010 dollars. As its three three-person crews spent 510 total man-days in space, each man-day cost approximately US$20 million, compared to US$7.5 million for the International Space Station.[170]


Overview of most major experiments

Depictions in film

The 1969 film Marooned depicts three astronauts stranded in orbit after visiting the unnamed Apollo Applications Program space lab.

The 1974 episode of The Six Million Dollar Man "Rescue of Athena One" has Farrah Fawcett's Major Woods character using Skylab as an emergency shelter after experiencing an event while piloting a space mission, with Lee Majors's Steve Austin character coming to Skylab on the rescue rocket mission.

David Wain's 2001 comedy film Wet Hot American Summer depicts a fictionalized version of Skylab's re-entry, in which debris from the station is expected to land on a summer camp in Maine.

The documentary Searching for Skylab was released online in March 2019. It was written and directed by Dwight Steven-Boniecki and was partly crowdfunded.[171]

The historical-fiction Apple TV+ original series For All Mankind depicts the use of the satellite in the first episode of the second season.[172]

Skylab, 2011 film in which a family gathers in France and waits for the satellite to fall out of orbit. Directed by Julie Delpy.


See also



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  3. ^ Belew, Leland F., ed. (1977). "2 Our First Space Station". Skylab, Our First Space Station. NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. p. 15.
  4. ^ a b c d e "EP-107 Skylab: A Guidebook. Chapter IV: Skylab Design and Operation". NASA History. Retrieved May 29, 2016. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
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  6. ^ a b c d Benson & Compton (1983), p. 371
  7. ^ a b c d e "Skylab's Fiery Fall". Time. July 16, 1979. p. 20.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Lewis, Richard S. (1984). The Voyages of Columbia: The First True Spaceship. Columbia University Press. pp. 80–82. ISBN 0-231-05924-8 – via Google Books.
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  11. ^ Benson & Compton (1983), p. 23 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
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Works cited

Further reading

External links


Third party

29 March 1973

Operation Barrel Roll, a covert American bombing campaign in Laos to stop communist infiltration of South Vietnam, ends.

Operation Barrel Roll
Part of the Vietnam War
Date14 December 1964 – 29 March 1973
Northeastern Laos
Result Strategic US failure
Failure to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail
United States United States
South Vietnam Republic of Vietnam
Thailand Thailand
Laos Kingdom of Laos
North Vietnam Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Laos Pathet Lao
Commanders and leaders
United States Lyndon B. Johnson
Laos Souvanna Phouma
Laos Vang Pao
North Vietnam Đồng Sĩ Nguyên
Casualties and losses
U.S.: 131 aircraft Unknown

Operation Barrel Roll was a covert U.S. Air Force 2nd Air Division and U.S. Navy Task Force 77, interdiction and close air support campaign conducted in the Kingdom of Laos between 14 December 1964 and 29 March 1973 concurrent with the Vietnam War.

The original purpose of the operation was to serve as a signal to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to cease its support for the insurgency then taking place in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). This action was taken within Laos due to the location of North Vietnam's expanding logistical corridor known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Truong Son Road to the North Vietnamese), which ran from southwestern North Vietnam, through southeastern Laos, and into South Vietnam. The campaign then centered on the interdiction of that logistical system. Beginning during the same time frame (and expanding throughout the conflict) the operation became increasingly involved in providing close air support missions for Royal Lao Armed Forces, CIA-backed tribal mercenaries, and Thai Volunteer Defense Corps in a covert ground war in northern and northeastern Laos. Barrel Roll and the "Secret Army" attempted to stem an increasing tide of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Pathet Lao offensives.

Barrel Roll was one of the most closely held secrets and one of the most unknown components of the American military commitment in Southeast Asia. Due to the ostensible neutrality of Laos, guaranteed by the Geneva Conference of 1954 and 1962, both the U.S. and North Vietnam strove to maintain the secrecy of their operations and only slowly escalated military actions there. As much as both parties would have liked to have publicized their enemy's own alleged violation of the accords, both had more to gain by keeping their own roles quiet.[1] Regardless, by the end of the conflict in 1975, Laos emerged from nine years of war just as devastated as any of the other Asian participants in the Vietnam War.

Preliminaries (1962–1964)


After a series of political and military machinations conducted by the U.S., the Pathet Lao, and the North Vietnamese in Laos that are described in the History of Laos since 1945, a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos was signed in Geneva, Switzerland on 23 July 1962.[2][3] The agreement, an attempt to end a civil war between the Communist-dominated (and Hanoi-directed) Pathet Lao, neutralists, and American-backed rightists, included provisions that required the removal of all foreign military forces and precluded the use of Lao territory for interfering in the internal affairs of another country – a blatant effort to shut down North Vietnam's growing logistical corridor through southeastern Laos that would become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[4]

A coalition Government of National Union was installed in the capital of Vientiane, but it soon ran into difficulties. By the 2 October 1962 deadline for the removal of foreign troops, the North Vietnamese had pulled out only 40 personnel, leaving approximately 6,000 troops in the eastern half of the country.[4]:72 Meanwhile, rightist elements (in control of the army) opposed the new government. The U.S. played its part by increasing its assistance to the right by covertly supplying the army through Thailand.[4]:72 Despite another international accord, Laos remained ensnared by the political and territorial ambitions of communist neighbors, the security concerns of Thailand and the United States, and geographic fate.[5]

Fighting soon erupted between elements of the Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Army. Although tentative negotiations resumed between the factions, matters took a turn for the worse when neutralist Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma was arrested during a right-wing coup attempt. U.S. Ambassador Leonard S. Unger then notified the generals that the U.S. government would continue to support Souvanna. This turn of events had a profound effect on Laotian politics: First, it affirmed American support for Souvannah, only a few years after the U.S. had denounced him as a tool of the leftists; It also caused the neutralists to shift political allies from the left to the right; Finally, in May 1964, Souvannah announced the political union of the rightists and neutralists against the left.[4]:74

Heavy fighting broke out on the Plain of Jars as the members of each political grouping chose sides. Souvanna called upon the U.S. for support and was answered in the affirmative by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was eager to support a rightist/neutralist alliance in Laos.[6] In November 1963 General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had proposed that U.S. armed reconnaissance missions be conducted over Laos as part of a two phase program that would warn Hanoi of U.S. determination to support the Saigon government.[7] The missions were to take place along North Vietnamese infiltration routes then developing in the Laotian panhandle.

On 19 May 1964 low-level photo reconnaissance flights (codenamed Yankee Team) over southern Laos were authorized and launched by RF-101 Voodoo aircraft. When they were fired upon during a mission, escort aircraft were provided. Two days later American aircraft began flying low-level photo recon missions over the northern part of the country. The American aerial commitment to the covert war had begun.

Covert war

Barrel Roll operational area, 1964

For the Americans, Laos became almost exclusively an air war, a reversal of the role air power played in the conflict in neighboring South Vietnam. In Laos, the USAF applied conventional air power in the support of an unconventional ground war. The mission of the USAF was to seal off the southern Mekong River Valley, thus providing a buffer for Thailand; insulating the Vientiane government from direct communist threat; draining PAVN manpower and resources; and interdiction of the approaches to the Ho Chi Minh trail.

For U.S. interests, the aerial interdiction effort against the trail and the protection of Thailand were preeminent, and they became the raison d'être for the covert war in the northeast. According to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, after 1964 and the increasing U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, "Laos was only the wart on the hog."[8]

Originally, the American arrangement in Laos was based on the premise that the situation in South Vietnam would be controlled within a year or two. A holding action in Laos was all that was thought necessary. No one expected that the conflict would last ten years.[8]:137 Air Force historian Colonel Perry F. Lamy described Washington's view of the situation succinctly:

Since the fate of Laos did not depend on a military solution in the air or on the ground in Laos and could only be decided by the outcome in Vietnam, winning the war against the DRV in northern Laos was not the objective. Instead, maintaining access to the country was paramount and keeping the Royal Lao government in power became the primary objective.[9]

For Hanoi, Laos was also a "limited war" with goals and objectives that were tied to its continued use of the Ho Chi Minh trail.[7]:187 The covert nature of the North Vietnamese logistical effort through Laos also had to be maintained in order to support the fiction that the conflict in South Vietnam was a popular uprising that was not directed by the north.[10]

Back in 1959 a Laotian Lieutenant Colonel of the minority Hmong tribe had been taken under the wing of the CIA effort in Laos. The highland Hmong were more aggressive than the lowland Lao and Vang Pao was quickly elevated to their leadership in hopes of creating a paramilitary force that would counter the Pathet Lao in the northeast.[6]:107–8 Historian John Prados believed that the need to keep the Vientiane government weak, and to give free rein to the Hmong army, flew in the face of fostering the type of national government that could defeat the Pathet Lao.[11] During 1961, the first weapons were delivered to the Hmong and their training was begun. Nine CIA specialists, nine U.S. Army Special Forces personnel, and 99 Thai members of the Police Aerial Reconnaissance Unit (PARU) participated in the training and equipping of what became known as the Armée Clandestine or the secret army.[8]:135

The neutralization agreement forced the abandonment of the Hmong program, but that was not going to last long. Due to North Vietnamese violations of the agreement, President John F. Kennedy authorized a return to covert activities in 1963. The previous year the CIA and the Thai military had established "Headquarters 333" at Udon Thani, which acted as a joint U.S./Thai command center for covert military and intelligence collection activities in Laos.[5]:60–1 By the end of 1963, the numbers of the Hmong army had grown to 10,000. To supply the Hmong and Royal Lao armies with more firepower, the Thai government covertly dispatched artillery units to northeastern Laos. Logistical airlift for the covert effort was provided by Air America, , and Continental Air Services, all of which were CIA proprietary airlines.

The next stage of the military evolution took place during mid-March 1964, when the USAF began Project Waterpump, a program to train Laotian, Thai, Hmong, and Air America aircrews in flight and maintenance of U.S.-supplied AT-28 Trojan ground-attack aircraft. This training was conducted by Detachment 6, 1st Air Commando Wing personnel at Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.[12] The first mission in support of Vang Pao's forces took place on 25 May.[13] Eventually, the Royal Laotian Air Force would consist of five wings of ten aircraft each.[10]:41 Water Pump could never produce enough pilots, however, since graduation rates barely exceeded the death rate of graduates, who simply flew until they died.[13]:193 The American "civilian pilots" program was phased out in 1966 and Detachment 6 (which continued its training program) was absorbed by the 606th Air Commando Squadron in the same year.[13]:188 In 1967 the 606th was integrated into the 56th Special Operations Wing. The air program did, however, create the world's only guerrilla army with air superiority.

Field Marshal

According to President Kennedy's "Country Team" directive of 29 May 1961, all U.S. government agencies operating in a foreign nation were to be placed under the direct supervision of the ambassador.[14][5]:54–5 Within Laos that meant the U.S. military was under civilian control, since according to the neutralization agreement, there could never be a senior U.S. military commander within the country. The covert war was, therefore, going to be planned and directed by a civilian within the walls of the embassy.

The American official most associated with the conflict in Laos was Ambassador William H. Sullivan, who served from December 1964 until June 1969. He was also one of the most controversial. Considered brilliant by most and tyrannical by many, Sullivan was despised by the American high command (both Army and Air Force) in Saigon, Sullivan's demand that he alone maintain complete control over every aspect of American military operations in Laos and the stringent restrictions that he imposed upon those operations, earned him few friends among the military.[5]:77 General William C. Westmoreland, overall commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam sarcastically referred to Sullivan as the "Field Marshal."[10]:30[13]:179 Few of his detractors, however, considered the difficulties of the ambassador's position. He had to balance the competing interests of the CIA, the Seventh Air Force, MACV and the Thais, and this had to be done without alienating Souvanna Phouma, an ally in all but name who acquiesced to almost every U.S. action within his country, short of outright invasion.[10]:30

The most senior military officer in-country was the AIRA, the ambassador's air attaché, an Air Force colonel. The air attaché office originally consisted of that officer and six other personnel. The burgeoning air programs in Laos however, dictated the dispatch of 117 more Air Force personnel during 1966.[10]:29 The USAF conducted its operations under the aegis of Project 404, whose mission was to support the Royal Laotian military, the clandestine Hmong army, and to support project personnel, who coordinated the operational end of covert activities in Laos.[5]:85–6 Eventually, five air operations centers were created in Laos – at Vientiane, Pakse, Savannakhet, Long Tieng, and Luang Prabang. These centers supported the ambassador with intelligence, administrative services, and communications as well as the actual air operations under a program called Palace Dog.

After the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained aerial campaign against North Vietnam that had begun on 5 March 1965, the Barrel Roll area of operations was divided on 3 April. Barrel Roll was to continue in the northeast while the southern portion of the area, where interdiction missions against the Ho Chi Minh trail were paramount, was redesignated Tiger Hound. Command and control of that area was handed over to the American commander in Saigon, General Westmoreland.

At a 29 March 1965 Southeast Asia Coordinating Committee meeting at Udon Thani, Thailand attended by Ambassador Sullivan, representatives from the 2nd Air Division, MACV, and Air America, responsibilities within the Barrel Roll operational area were ironed out. Command and control of the air program would remain in the ambassador's hands. Operational control of U.S. air assets devolved from the commander-in-chief, Pacific Forces (CINCPAC) in Honolulu through his air deputy at Pacific Air Forces or PACAF, to the 2nd Air Division (after 1 April 1966, the Seventh Air Force). Targets could be requested by the Royal Lao government, the CIA or by MACV.

Northern Laos, however, was not going to be a priority for the Americans. It was decided at the Honolulu Executive Conference of April 1965 that U.S. aircraft could be used for interdiction in Laos only after close air support needs were met in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland was also granted veto power over bombing, interdiction, and reconnaissance programs outside territorial South Vietnam. That decision placed Barrel Roll behind South Vietnam, Rolling Thunder, and Steel Tiger in order of precedence. Only an estimated two percent of the total U.S. aerial effort in Southeast Asia was going to be utilized in northern Laos.[7]:188

On the offensive (1964–1970)

Barrel Roll begins

On 12 December 1964, Barrel Roll was approved by Souvanna Phouma. The program originally consisted of only two U.S. bombing sorties per week that were to be conducted by no more than four aircraft in each strike. Due to the nature of the American agreement with the Thai government (most U.S. strike aircraft flew from bases in Thailand), the aircraft had to first fly to South Vietnam, land, and then take off again for Laos. By 24 December, six armed reconnaissance missions were being conducted per day, but the hoped for reaction from Hanoi did not materialize.[15]

The aircraft utilized to support the covert war were an odd assortment of vintage propeller-driven attack aircraft, high performance jet fighter-bombers, and World War II-era cargo airplanes. This hodgepodge of an air force with its peculiar mix of aircraft and aircrews flew for eight years in the crowded skies over Laos.[6]:117 The majority of the close air support missions flown in the northeast were conducted by Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and AT-28 Trojans. These propeller-driven Korean War-era aircraft came into their own in Southeast Asia, where their heavy ordnance loads, long loiter times, and high maneuverability at low altitudes made them more effective than the "fast movers" of the more modern jet Air Force.

Before neutralization, one of the first American activities in support of the Hmong had been the establishment of Lima Sites, rough air strips across the country; during the early 1960s their number had grown to 200.[13]:168–9 The strategic Plain of Jars, was contested between the Hmong forces, PAVN, and the Pathet Lao, was a plateau north and northeast of Vientiane 40 miles (64 km) wide, covered with grass and small hills spread over an area of approximately 500 square miles (1,300 km2).

It quickly became evident that the cyclical pattern of the monsoon weather would dictate the timing and pace of military operations in the northeast. From November through May (the dry season), North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces advanced out of Sam Neua Province along Route 6 and out of the Barthelemy Pass through Ban Ban toward the Plain of Jars. The lack of roads and the primitive state of those that did exist forced the communists to stretch their lines of communication taut, inviting counterattack. This Vang Pao's forces did from June through October (the wet season), utilizing air power, air mobility, and guerrilla tactics to push the communists back to their starting places.

Continuous U.S. air support for Barrel Roll operations was provided by the aircraft of the 602nd and 606th Special Operations Squadrons, elements of the 56th Air Commando Wing (as of 8 April 1967 the 56th Special Operations Wing), based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. On 25 October 1967, they were joined by the 22nd Special Operations Squadron. Pre-planned airstrikes in the Barrel Roll area were rare. Until 1968, most U.S. jet fighter-bomber sorties only occurred when aircraft were returning to Thailand from Rolling Thunder missions carrying unexpended ordnance loads. They would then be directed to targets in northeastern Laos.

Electronic tactical air navigation (TACAN) became an absolute necessity in Laos, where mountain peaks and unexpected inclement weather made flying extremely hazardous, especially for older aircraft. This problem was solved by establishing unmanned Air Force stations that broadcast continuous radio transmissions, allowing aerial navigation from fixed geographic reference points. The Air Force also emplaced TSQ-81 radar sites in the north and northeast to direct Rolling Thunder missions over North Vietnam.

Rules of engagement

During the entire covert war in Laos there was little love lost between the Air Force commanders at Udon Thani and Saigon and the embassy in Vientiane.[13]:179:192 Richard Secord, then an Air Force captain serving as liaison between the CIA and the Seventh Air Force, complained that:

We were always trying to pry assets out of the Air Force at times and places they didn't want to go. You had to push'em, cajole'em, at times threaten them... My people were always trying to corrupt the process because the process itself simply was not structured for our kind of war... It was a continual frustration.[1]:195–6

Secord's criticism may have been a little extreme. The Department of Defense had created the 7th/13 Air Force at Udon in November 1965 for the express purpose of conducting the air war in Laos. According to historian Timothy Castle, Sullivan relegated the USAF commander and his staff "to the status of clerks hired to carry out his airpower decisions."[5]:90 The unconventional arrangement bred frustration and the 7th/13th constantly harped about the use of its air assets in northern Laos. There was constant criticism over the use of air power "serving targets" or utilizing modern fighter-bombers as "long-range artillery." It was very difficult for the USAF to grasp that a guerrilla force did not fight like a conventional army.

The aerial rules of engagement applied in Laos (which prescribed the offensive action of pilots and the locations and circumstances under which offensive actions could be taken) were created to protect the civilian population of the country. To the American pilots that conducted the missions, however, they became complex to the point of incomprehensibility. The rules were constantly altered and elaborated upon by the political decision makers in Washington and Vientiane and bore little relation to the reality on the ground. There were different rules for every type of activity, for each different branch of service, and in each military region.[citation needed]

Examples from the early days of aerial operations stipulated that there would be no use of napalm in Laos, that no PAVN trucks could be struck more than 200 meters from a road, and that no enemy forces could be bombed within 1,000 meters of a pagoda.[15]:66[8]:33–7 Although these restrictions were later altered, there were always others to take their place. There were "no bomb zones" that granted sanctuaries to PAVN and Pathet Lao forces. Pagodas and suspected PAVN hospitals (which were unmarked) were simply turned into ammunition dumps, supply caches, and anti-aircraft sites by an enemy that intently studied American actions and adjusted to them.[citation needed]

Butterflies and Ravens

One of the key problems for the early phase of the U.S. air program in Laos was the lack of forward air control (FAC) that would have pinpointed ground targets in the rugged, jungle-covered terrain for strike aircraft. The USAF had no such aircraft in Laos, or anywhere else, having phased out its own programs after the Korean War.[13]:216 In 1963 the Air Force dispatched four "sheep-dipped"[16] Air Commandos of the Combat Control Teams to Laos to work with the CIA. Combat Control Teams consisted of personnel who parachuted into a forward zone and provided air control for the aerial delivery of another unit (usually paratroops).

The Cessna O-1 Bird Dog FAC aircraft was unmarked when flown by Raven Forward Air Controllers.

The Air Commando sergeants, James J. Stanford and Charles Larimore Jones discovered the problem, obtained manuals on forward air control and went to work to resolve the issue. In short order, they arranged rides in Air America and Continental Air Services aircraft and began marking ground targets. The expedient worked and the sergeants, using radio call sign Butterfly, succeeded brilliantly.[17]

The program continued for three years (until 1966) without any questions being raised by higher headquarters. It was not until a visit by General William Momyer, commander of the Seventh Air Force, that the unconventional nature of the program became a problem. Discovering that the Butterflies were neither officers nor pilots, Momyer was incensed and ordered that "that will cease."[13]:217 The program that replaced the Butterflies (and which became an even more "sensitive" issue with Momyer) would contain some of the most colorful personnel of the covert war – the Raven FACs.

The Ravens were volunteer USAF officers who already had 500 flying hours (six months) as FACs in South Vietnam and who would serve six-month tours in Laos. There were always going to be shortages of both personnel and aircraft in the new program. Only six Ravens were assigned between 1966 and 1968 to control the ever-expanding amounts of U.S. airpower being utilized in Laos. Even at the height of the program, when they would control one-third to two-thirds of the tactical air strikes in the Barrel Roll area, there were never more than 22 Ravens.[8]:71–2[9]:36

The Ravens flew the entire gamut of U.S. observation aircraft, from O-1 Bird Dogs, and U-17s, to T-28s and, eventually more modern O-2 Skymasters and OV-10 Broncos. Each Raven carried aloft a Laotian observer, who could provide almost immediate clearance for air strikes.[18] On the ground, Laotian Forward Air Guides (FAGs) also called in for air support missions.[citation needed]

See-saw war

From 1965 through 1968, the war in the northeast followed the monsoon cycle, with dry season communist offensives followed by wet season Hmong (and later Thai) counteroffensives. Each year the conflict slowly escalated. PAVN would introduce more (and better equipped) units and the U.S. would counter by the application of more airpower, producing a strategic stalemate.

In July 1966, PAVN and Pathet Lao forces consisting of three infantry regiments, one independent infantry battalion, and an artillery battalion, seized the town of Nam Bac and then established a defensive line north of Luang Prabang.[19] The communist advance, however, was gradually eroded due to the destruction of its supplies by air power. Vang Pao's forces counterattacked in August, driving the enemy back to within 45 miles (72 km) of the North Vietnamese border. More communist forces then entered the battle, forcing the Hmong back.

The communists moved out to take the Plain of Jars again in 1967. Laotian victories were few and far between and by the end of the year the situation had become critical, even with the support provided by the American and Laotian Air Forces. PAVN, having a complete understanding of the American military system, began to attack TACAN facilities. U.S. intelligence indicated that between December 1967 and August 1968, the combined strength of PAVN and Pathet Lao forces increased from about 51,000 to over 110,000. The PAVN contingent comprised an estimated 34,000 combat troops, 6,000 advisors, and 18,000 support troops.[11]:282 On 6 December Lima Site 44 was overrun and on the 25th PAVN forces captured Lima Site 61, the site of a mobile facility. All of these attacks were part of a coordinated effort to reduce the ability of the Americans to strike the communist logistical system during the Tet Offensive.

In coordination with Tet, PAVN and the Pathet Lao launched a series of coordinated offensives in northern and southern Laos during 1968. The dry season offensive in northern Laos began with the communists again seizing the Nam Bac region of Military Region 1. This they adroitly managed, killing 200 Royal Army troops and capturing 2,400 more by 13 January.[20] The offensive ground forward, slowly seizing more territory in the north.

In the panhandle, the Laotian garrison at Ban Houi Sane, along Route 9 and 21 miles (34 km) west of the U.S. Marines' Khe Sanh Combat Base, was overrun by the PAVN 24th Regiment, 314th Division supported by Soviet-built PT-76 tanks.[21] Further south, PAVN Group 565 advanced in Khammouane Province, seizing the rice harvest and placing themselves in position to overrun the cities of Saravane and Attopeu with little forewarning. The offensive then wound down and PAVN forces in southern Laos reorganized.

On 12 January, one of the most unusual aerial battles of the Vietnam War took place. Two Soviet-built An-2 Colt biplanes of the North Vietnamese Vietnam People's Air Force attacked Lima Site 85 atop a craggy peak known as Phou Pha Thi. An Air America Bell 205 helicopter, which had taken off to avoid air-dropped 120mm mortar rounds, then began chasing one of the Colts which had already been struck by ground fire. The aircraft crashed while making evasive maneuvers. The Bell then went after the other Colt, and the helicopter's crew chief fired an AK-47 through a sliding window, shooting the biplane down.[20]:190–1

The PAVN were not through with Phou Pha Thi. The combined TACAN/TSQ-81 site was, by January, controlling 55 percent of Rolling Thunder strikes in northern North Vietnam and 20 percent of the strikes in the Barrel Roll area.[20]:189 On 11 March, Lima Site 85 was struck by an attack spearheaded by the sappers of the PAVN 41st Dac Cong Battalion and supported by the 923rd Infantry Battalion and the site was quickly overrun.[20]:193 Five of the USAF technicians manning the site managed to escape, but 11 more were missing in action.[20]:204

To replace Lima Site 85, Vang Pao moved against Moung Son and Na Khang, where a new site was erected in July. During July and August, the Hmong forces were assisted by 742 U.S. airstrikes, while another 450 others were conducted throughout the Barrel Roll area.[20]:197 1968 had proved to be a turning point in the conflict, with PAVN forces displaying unprecedented determination in maintaining pressure against Royal forces, regardless of the weather cycles.

To preempt the traditional wet season offensive in 1969, the USAF approved a major offensive bombing campaign within Barrel Roll named Operation Raindance. It was timed to coincide with spoiling operations that Vang Pao had planned against the Plain of Jars. The operation began on 17 March and launched 80 strikes per day for 12 days. Raindance was extended through 7 April, by which time 730 U.S. sorties had been flown.[20]:210 On 22 May the Air Force conducted Operation Stranglehold, a five-day campaign focused on Routes 6 and 7, PAVN's logistical lifeline. Regardless, the PAVN launched Campaign Thoan Thang (Total Victory) during late June and managed to take Muang Soui with the assistance of armoured units. A total of 103 Air Force and 44 RLAF strikes were flown in the defense of the town, but to no avail. Part of the PAVN success could be attributed to the record number of its units then available in the northeast. Seven new battalions having arrived since April.[20]:211–3

In June, William Sullivan was replaced as ambassador by G. McMurtrie Godley, who immediately loosened the rules of engagement and increased the bombing campaign in the north and northeast.[22] The results were almost immediate. Nearly 50 percent of the population of the once heavily populated Plain of Jars had moved into refugee camps in the south. Refugee rolls for the Agency for International Development, which had averaged 130,000 between 1964 and 1968, jumped to 230,000 in February 1970.[10]:46

On 6 August 1969, in Military Region 2, Hmong forces launched a major counterattack, the Kou Kiet (Redeem Honor) Campaign, against the communists on the Plain of Jars and in the Xieng Kouang area, supported by its own air units and the USAF. The offensive was a success due not to American airpower, but to unseasonably rainy weather: 46 inches (as opposed to the normal 16) fell in July, cutting sharply into the communist logistical flow. After the weather broke, the Hmong were supported by 145 sorties per day. Communist forces, cut off from resupply, fled to the west. For the first time since 1961 all of the strategic Plain of Jars was under government control. This course of events led Ambassador Sullivan to declare: "We believe that damage to the enemy represents the best results per sortie by tactical air in Southeast Asia."[20]:217 By the end of the campaign in October, the operation had netted 25 tanks, 113 vehicles, six million rounds of ammunition, 6,400 weapons, and 202,000 gallons of fuel.[20]:248 That summer, sorties throughout the Barrel Roll area had risen from an average of 300 missions per month to an average 200 sorties per day.[10]:42–5

On the defensive (1970–1972)

Beginning of the end

The nature of the conflict in the northeast changed radically in mid-September 1969, when the communists were reinforced by the remaining two regiments of the 312th Division (the 165th and 209th), the refitted 316th Division, the 866th PAVN Infantry Regiment], the 16th PAVN Artillery Regiment, a tank company, six sapper and engineer battalions and ten Pathet Lao battalions.[19]:255 On 11 February 1970, these units launched Campaign 139, and by the 20th the Plain of Jars had been taken. Royal Lao forces withdrew to Muang Soui and five days later they abandoned Xieng Khouang. On 18 March Xam Thong fell and Vang Pao's stronghold at Long Tieng was threatened. As a stopgap, Washington approved Operation Goodlook, the first usage of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers in northern Laos. During the first mission on 18 February 36 bombers delivered 1,078 tons of bombs.[10]:45 On 25 April the battered communist forces fell back, but the 316th PAVN Division and the 866th PAVN Infantry Regiment remained behind to assist the Pathet Lao.[19]

A CIA study concluded during the year that "About the most positive thing that can be said about Laos is that it still exists as a non-communist state."[4]:105 Souvannah Phouma was then 69 years old, visibly losing his vigour, and he had no apparent successor. The see-saw, seasonal conflict dragged on, but at the end of each cycle, the balance was somewhat more favorable to PAVN and the Pathet Lao.

Due to the withdrawal of U.S. forces under the policy of Vietnamization, from 1 November 1968 until 23 February 1973, Barrel Roll competed for a share of diminishing U.S. tactical air assets. In December 1968, approximately 700 American strike aircraft had been available in-theater. By the spring of 1972, that number had fallen to 313.[23] On 18 July, the Nakhon Phanom-based 22nd Special Operations Squadron was disbanded. Its sister squadron, the 602nd Special Operations Squadron, closed out on 20 December, leaving only the 1st Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom to support Royal Laotian ground operations.[20]:264 The RLAF attempted to make up for the diminishing number of American sorties. During 1968 the Laotians flew 10,000 strike sorties. During 1970 through 1972 that number increased to over 30,000 in each year.[9]:29

Under the existing command and control arrangement between the CIA, the AIRA, and the Seventh Air Force, the Air Force wielded little actual control over air support. In order to increase its dominance, a reduction in the role of the Raven FACS was called for. Instead, greater use was to be made of Nail FACs from Nakhon Phanom's 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron which had recently begun transitioning to OV-10 Bronco aircraft.[20]:265 In the end, the Nails made increasing appearances over Military Region 2, but they never seriously encroached on the role of the Ravens.

On 2 February 1971 PAVN and Pathet Lao forces launched their dry season offensive (Campaign 74B) to recapture the Plain of Jars. PAVN forces taking part in the operation included the 316th Division, the 165th Regiment of the 312th Division, the 866th Infantry Regiment, and three sapper battalions (the 13th, 27th, and 41st).[19]:288 Communist forces rolled west and southwest, securing territory in anticipation of a possible cease-fire.[24] By February they had occupied the entire Plain of Jars, Long Tieng had been surrounded, and, for the first time since 1962, Pathet Lao forces were camped within sight of the royal capital of Luang Prabang.[7]:207

Ominously, PAVN and the Pathet Lao did not withdraw to North Vietnam during the rainy season. Previously during the conflict, air mobility by STOL aircraft into the Lima Sites had provided the Hmong with an advantage over the road-bound PAVN and Pathet Lao forces. This advantage was now going to be overcome by road improvement and the prepositioning of supplies which allowed the communists to maintain year-round use of their lines of communication.

The American command in Saigon and the politicians in Washington were opposed to a wet season Hmong offensive, supporting instead a holding action on the edge of the Plain of Jars as a prelude to a possible cease-fire. Washington also insisted that U.S. airpower be used to interdict PAVN supply lines, not as close air support for ground operations.[20]:299 Vang Pao took up the offensive anyway, but his forces could only occupy half of the Plain before his offensive sputtered out at the end of July.

There was also a growing public awareness in the U.S. of military activities in Laos. During October 1969, Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO) chaired hearings of the Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad. The testimony of subpoenaed witnesses revealed the history of U.S. involvement in the covert commitment to Laos. Due to the closed nature of the sessions and its heavily censored transcript, however, the nature and extent of that commitment was still very little understood by the American public.

That changed, however, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which disclosed the earliest stages of Yankee Team, Barrel Roll, and the Thai commitment. President Richard M. Nixon was eventually forced to disclose the extent of U.S. participation, which further weakened ability of the U.S. to respond to the increasing PAVN and Pathet Lao threat.[9]:33 The spring of 1972 was not a happy one in either Washington D.C. or Vientiane. A U.S. Congressional delegation, after investigating the situation on the ground in Laos, reported that "No one we met in Laos, American or Lao, seemed to have any prescription for the future other than to continue what's being done now."[4]:104

Running out of resources

Vietnamization was catching up with the conflict in Laos. During the 1970–1971 dry season, USAF strike missions in support of Hmong operations had dropped by 70 percent from the previous year from 114 sorties per day to 38.[7]:207 The grinding nature of the conflict was also having a cumulative effect on the adult male population of the Hmong. Severe attrition had forced the Hmong into a numbers game that they could not win. Although only contributing 13 percent of Laotian military strength, Vang Pao's men accounted for 70 percent of the total casualties inflicted on government forces.[20]:249

In March 1971 South Vietnamese forces, supported by U.S. air power, launched Operation Lam Son 719, the long-awaited offensive to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail in southeastern Laos. However, the result was a failure. PAVN and Pathet Lao forces had already begun to expand the trail system westward, pushing Royal Lao forces toward the Mekong, slowly extending the territory it controlled, moving west of the trail and creating a larger buffer zone between its logistical system and the South Vietnamese. After Lam Son 719, that process accelerated. Hanoi's effort was simplified by the fact that the Royalist forces in the south had little experience fighting PAVN and they were quickly overwhelmed. Inept and ineffective were terms utilized to describe their defense.[4]:103 On 30 April 1971 the key town of Attopeu was seized by the PAVN.

Vang Pao himself was not blind to the realities facing his people. He had threatened to launch a mass migration of the Hmong to Thailand on three previous occasions. In November 1969, he tried a different tack, contacting the Pathet Lao and attempted to negotiate a quid pro quo: the Hmong would cease fighting if the communists would allow them to establish a semiautonomous state in Xieng Khouang Province.[20]:254

The diminishing number of troops available to Vang Pao demanded their replacement by growing numbers of Thai volunteers (Project Unity), who increasingly took over the ground war in the north. By the end of 1971, the entire 55-man battalion of Thais were in action, whose total numbers were 6,000–8,000 men. During the following year, those numbers had ballooned to 17,800. The total force eventually deployed was three artillery and 27 infantry battalions.[20]:405

Withdrawal (1972–1973)

Talking and fighting

By October 1971 Prince Souvanna had little alternative but to accept the Pathet Lao program as the basis for negotiations. The Pathet Lao agreed to the new negotiating effort and on 14 October, representatives of the party arrived in Vientiane. Two weeks later they were followed by Phoumi Vongvichit, secretary general of the Pathet Lao. Communist demands included: a cessation of the U.S. bombing of Lao territory; withdrawal of all U.S. advisors and military personnel; an election for a new National Assembly; the establishment of a coalition government; and compensation and resettlement for those Lao who had been forcibly relocated would be undertaken.[4]:105 The pace of negotiations in Laos, however, mirrored those in South Vietnam, the impetus of which was determined by the perceived military success of the protagonists.

The dreaded PAVN wet season offensive (Campaign Z) began on 17 December 1971. The multi-division offensive was commanded by Major General Lê Trọng Tấn, who had commanded the PAVN counteroffensive against Operation Lam Son 719. Once again the PAVN rolled across the Plain of Jars and to the outskirts of Long Tieng. This time however, they had brought along a battery of 130mm artillery, which proceeded to pummel the defenders. By 17 January 1972, reinforcement by Unity troops and strikes by B-52s had driven the PAVN from the high ground surrounding the valley, but they could not be pushed out of the area. General Tấn then shifted the focus of his forces to the southwest and seized Sam Thong on 18 March. The fighting around Long Tieng did not cease until 28 April.

On 21 May 1972 Royal Lao and Hmong forces, supported by air strikes, attempted to retake the Plain of Jars. The fighting raged for 170 days (until 15 November), but the communists could not be evicted. PAVN and the Pathet Lao claimed to have killed 1,200 enemy troops and to have captured 80.[19]:302 The PAVN/Pathet Lao made additional gains during the year, but failed to overwhelm government forces.

The launching of PAVN's Nguyen Hue Offensive in April 1972 had the effect of returning major American air assets to the theater and eventually increased the tempo of operations in northeastern Laos. As a result, Royal Lao armed forces, Hmong and Thai mercenaries went on the offensive, as did PAVN and the Pathet Lao, all of whom wished to become "well postured for the peace negotiations."[9]:33 Although there was no provision for a Laotian cease-fire written into the Paris Peace Accords signed on 27 January 1973, it had been verbally agreed between the U.S. and North Vietnamese representatives that one would be instituted within 15 days of the signing of the agreement. The fates of Laos and Cambodia were disposed of in Article 20 of the agreement, in which the North Vietnamese and the U.S. promised to respect the neutrality of both nations and to end their military intervention. Unfortunately, there was no means by which to enforce the agreement. That the North Vietnamese would uphold it, after violating two previous neutrality accords, "took optimism bordering on an act of faith that they would now abandon the ambitions and struggles of thirty years because of a clumsily drafted afterthought in a document they had no intention of honoring anyway."[8]:365

The Americans were pulling out of Southeast Asia as quickly as negotiations with the North Vietnamese would allow them. Ambassador Godley, stunned by the diplomatic developments, ruminated that "We had led him (Souvanna) down the garden path. Let's face it, we were cutting and running... Once we were out of Vietnam the only way we could have protected Laos was with an Army corps. It was totally out of the question and we knew it. We were licked."[8]:365 Souvanna then faced a dilemma, sign a separate agreement with the Pathet Lao on almost any terms, or continue the war with no prospect of success. Hanoi was also desirous to obtain a quick agreement with Vientiane. The sooner the fighting in Laos ceased, the sooner the Hanoi would obtain unimpeded use of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

On 21 February, Souvanna signed an Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and Reconciliation in Laos between the central government and the Pathet Lao. The agreement was preceded by intense fighting, as both sides attempted to seize as much territory as possible before the cease-fire went into effect.[4]:106 The agreement was moot, however, since Hanoi had no intention of removing its troops or abandoning its logistical system.


The cease-fire went into effect on 22 February 1973. Not all of the fighting, however, had ended. This was particularly true around the town of Paksong, the last Royal Laotian stronghold on the Bolovens Plateau – the strategic high ground overlooking the Mekong River. At the request of Souvanna, nine B-52s and 12 U.S. tactical fighters struck the outskirts of the town on 24 February. By mid-month, the bombers had flown 1,417 sorties and struck 286 targets in northern Laos.[24]:272 Once again acceding to a request from Souvanna, B-52s returned for two more days of bombing on 16 and 17 April, dropping ordnance in support of government forces under attack around Ban Tha Vieng on the Plain of Jars.

On 5 April 1974 a coalition government was finally established by a royal decree with Souvanna as president. Due to the defeatism and political deterioration of the rightists within the kingdom, the Pathet Lao moved adroitly, slowly preempting the government and military and soon winning a surprising popularity among the Lao population.[4]:133

On 4 June, as per the agreement, all U.S. and Thai personnel left the country, leaving 50–60,000 PAVN troops still ensconced within Laos.[4]:133 The previous month an airlift had begun at Long Tieng which evacuated as many of the Hmong as possible to Thailand. They were soon followed by approximately 40,000 others who set out on foot for exile. On 2 December 1975 the coalition government and the monarchy were abolished by the provisional government, which then disestablished itself. The Lao People's Democratic Republic then came into existence.


For 100 months, the USAF, the CIA, and the Thai government had assisted the Royal Lao government in staving off defeat at the hands of its enemies. If one measures the success of Barrel Roll by the priorities assigned to it by the U.S. government and military, it was a success. It had allowed the continuous prosecution of the Steel Tiger (and, post-1968, Operation Commando Hunt) interdiction campaigns against the Ho Chi Minh trail by keeping the neutralists in power. At the time of the cease-fire, communist forces controlled two-thirds of the land area and one-third of the population of Laos, approximately the same amounts that they had under their control in 1961.[9]:37 The imposition of a strategic stalemate had prevented the fall of the Vientiane government, which accomplished the secondary goal of the operation, protecting Thailand from communist attack (however unrealistic that threat appears today). This stalemate had been achieved with the loss of 131 U.S. aircraft between 1964 and 1973, a very low loss rate when compared to the operations discussed above.[9]:48 In his work Vietnam Air Losses, author Chris Hobson lists only 118 losses – 113 Air Force, four Navy, and one Marine Corps in Northern Laos.

For the USAF, this success was achieved by conducting a shoestring operation, one that was fourth in priority for American air assets behind operations in South Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Steel Tiger. After the close-out of aerial operations over North Vietnam, Barrel Roll still remained in last place. During its existence the campaign had utilized an average of only ten percent of the Air Force's tactical air effort in Southeast Asia. During the 1972 Nguyen Hue PAVN offensive, the number of airstrikes over northern Laos was reduced to only five percent of the total.[9]:40

There were problems - inflated bomb damage assessment reports during operations in northeastern Laos were common, but the cause was not difficult to discern.[9]:42 Mountainous terrain, poor weather, ground cover, the lack of ground forces for confirmation, and the language barrier all contributed to overestimation of the damage inflicted on communist forces by the bombing effort. The result was a skewed sense of the effectiveness and the capabilities of the campaign. The results of the campaign (which were made obvious by the repeating seasonal nature of PAVN and Pathet Lao offensives), however, indicated that American airpower was quite effective.[9]:47

The covert war in Laos was one of the quintessential Cold War insurgency/counterinsurgency, low-intensity conflicts and offers many lessons in the conduct of irregular covert operations supported by modern military technology. It also remains one of only a few military operations of the Vietnam War about which both major belligerent parties (the U.S. and North Vietnam) are still reluctant to discuss openly their participation. For the North Vietnamese, this is understandable. Hanoi has no more incentive to discuss its operations today than it had in the 1960s or 1970s. Although the U.S. has been more open about its participation, the covert war remains a touchy subject.[25]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website http://www.afhra.af.mil/.

  1. ^ a b Warner, Roger (1996). Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos. Steerforth Press. p. 135. ISBN 9781883642365.
  2. ^ Adams, Nina; McCoy, Alfred (1970). Laos: War and Revolution. Harper & Row.
  3. ^ Langer, Paul; Zasloff, Joseph (1970). North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao: Partners in the Struggle for Laos. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674626751.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Isaacs, Arnold; Hardy, Gordon (1987). The Vietnam Experience Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos. Boston Publishing Company. p. 69. ISBN 9780939526246.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Castle, Timothy (1993). At War in the Shadow of Vietnam. Columbia University Press. p. 46. ISBN 9780231079778.
  6. ^ a b c Lipsman, Samuel; Paschall, Rod (1988). The Vietnam Experience War in the Shadows. Boston Publishing Company. p. 113. ISBN 9780939526383.
  7. ^ a b c d e Schlight, John (1986). A War Too Long: The History of the USAF in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975 (PDF). Air Force History and Museums Program. p. 19.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Robbins, Christopher (2000). The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos. Asia Books. p. 140. ISBN 9780517566121.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lamy, Perry (1996). Barrel roll, 1968–73 an air campaign in support of national policy. Air University Press. p. 26. ISBN 9782721206404.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Morocco, John (1988). The Vietnam Experience: Rain of Fire: Air War, 1968-1975. Boston Publishing Company. p. 26. ISBN 9780939526147.
  11. ^ a b Prados, John (1996). President's Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II Through the Persian Gulf War. Elephant Paperbacks. p. 273. ISBN 9781566631082.
  12. ^ Sheehan, Neil (1971). The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. Bantam Books. p. 289. ISBN 9781631582929.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Haas, Michael (1997). Apollo's Warriors: US Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War. Air University Press. p. 180. ISBN 9781410200099.
  14. ^ Robbins, Christopher (1979). Air America. Avon Books. p. 151. ISBN 9781908059017.
  15. ^ a b Van Staaveren, Jacob (1993). Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1960–1968 (PDF). Center of Air Force History. p. 47. ISBN 9781410220608.
  16. ^ Sanitization or "sheep-dipping" involved the resignation of the individual from their branch of service, the construction of an elaborate cover story explaining their new employment (complete with letters to their families), and a dual system of record-keeping, so that when the service provided was completed, the individual could return to their former military branch with no loss of rank or privileges.
  17. ^ Kelly, pp. 177–179.
  18. ^ U.S. Strike aircraft without a FAC had to obtain individual clearance from the embassy, which precluded quick reaction to targets.
  19. ^ a b c d e Pribbenow, Merle (2002). Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975 (Modern War Studies). University Press of Kansas. p. 213. ISBN 9780700621873.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Conboy, Kenneth; Morrison, James (1995). Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. Paladin Press. p. 187. ISBN 9781581605358.
  21. ^ This was the first time that PAVN had fielded an armoured unit during the conflict.
  22. ^ Godley was no stranger to CIA paramilitary operations. As ambassador to the Congo in the mid-1960s, he had participated in the crushing of the Simba Rebellion movement by white mercenaries and anti-Castro Cubans in the agency's employ.
  23. ^ Lavalle, A.J.C. (1985). Air Power and the 1972 Spring Invasion (PDF). Air University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780912799278.
  24. ^ a b Tilford, Earl (1991). Setup: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why. Air University Press. p. 272.
  25. ^ "CIA's Covert War in Laos - Article at DOX magazine". Documentary Campus. Retrieved 29 March 2013.


Published government documents

Secondary sources

  • Hobson, Chris, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia, 1961–1973. Hinckley, UK: Midland Publishing, 2001.


  • Briggs, Thomas Leo (2009). Cash on delivery : CIA special operations during the secret war in Laos. Rockville, MD: Rosebank Press. ISBN 978-0-9841059-4-6.
  • Cain, Jim (2010). Butterfly 70/Raven 41. Peyton, CO: Peak Vista Press. OCLC 753468377.

20 October 1973

The Sydney Opera House is opened by Elizabeth II after 14 years of construction.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Australia. (21339175489).jpg
Sydney Opera House is located in Sydney
Sydney Opera House
Location in Sydney
Sydney Opera House is located in New South Wales
Sydney Opera House
Location in New South Wales
Sydney Opera House is located in Australia
Sydney Opera House
Location in Australia
General information
TypePerforming arts centre
Architectural styleExpressionist
LocationBennelong Point, Sydney
Coordinates33°51′31″S 151°12′51″E / 33.85861°S 151.21417°E / -33.85861; 151.21417Coordinates: 33°51′31″S 151°12′51″E / 33.85861°S 151.21417°E / -33.85861; 151.21417
Elevation4 m (13 ft)
Current tenants
Groundbreaking1 March 1959; 62 years ago (1959-03-01)
Construction started1 March 1959; 62 years ago (1959-03-01)
Completed1973; 48 years ago (1973)
Opened20 October 1973; 47 years ago (1973-10-20)
Inaugurated20 October 1973; 47 years ago (1973-10-20)
CostA$102 million, equivalent to A$962 million in 2018[1]
ClientNSW government
OwnerNSW Government
Height65 m (213 ft)
Other dimensions
  • length 183 m (600 ft)
  • width 120 m (394 ft)
  • area 1.8 ha (4.4 acres)
Technical details
Structural systemConcrete frame & precast concrete ribbed roof
Design and construction
ArchitectJørn Utzon
Structural engineerOve Arup & Partners
Main contractorCivil & Civic (level 1), M.R. Hornibrook (level 2 and 3 and interiors)
Other information
Seating capacity
  • Concert Hall 2,679
  • Joan Sutherland Theatre 1,507
  • Drama Theatre 544
  • Playhouse 398
  • The Studio 400
  • Utzon Room 210
  • Total 5,738
Designated2007 (31st session)
Reference no.166rev
State PartyAustralia
Criteriaa, b, e, f, g, h
Designated12 July 2005; 15 years ago (2005-07-12)
Reference no.105738
Criteriaa, b, c, d, e, f, g
Designated3 December 2003; 17 years ago (2003-12-03)
Reference no.01685

The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre on Sydney Harbour located in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It is one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings.[3]

Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, but completed by an Australian architectural team headed by Peter Hall, the building was formally opened on 20 October 1973[4] after a gestation beginning with Utzon's 1957 selection as winner of an international design competition. The Government of New South Wales, led by the premier, Joseph Cahill, authorised work to begin in 1958 with Utzon directing construction. The government's decision to build Utzon's design is often overshadowed by circumstances that followed, including cost and scheduling overruns as well as the architect's ultimate resignation.[5]

The building and its surrounds occupy the whole of Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, between Sydney Cove and Farm Cove, adjacent to the Sydney central business district and the Royal Botanic Gardens, and close by the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The building comprises multiple performance venues, which together host well over 1,500 performances annually, attended by more than 1.2 million people.[6] Performances are presented by numerous performing artists, including three resident companies: Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As one of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia, the site is visited by more than eight million people annually, and approximately 350,000 visitors take a guided tour of the building each year.[7] The building is managed by the Sydney Opera House Trust, an agency of the New South Wales State Government.

On 28 June 2007, the Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage Site,[8] having been listed on the (now defunct) Register of the National Estate since 1980, the National Trust of Australia register since 1983, the City of Sydney Heritage Inventory since 2000, the New South Wales State Heritage Register since 2003, and the Australian National Heritage List since 2005.[9][10] Furthermore, the Opera House was a finalist in the New7Wonders of the World campaign list.[11][12][13]


The facility features a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete "shells",[14] each composed of sections of a sphere of 75.2 metres (246 ft 8.6 in) radius,[15] forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium. The building covers 1.8 hectares (4.4 acres) of land and is 183 m (600 ft) long and 120 m (394 ft) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25 m (82 ft) below sea level. The highest roof point is 67 metres above sea-level which is the same height as that of a 22-storey building. The roof is made of 2,194 pre-cast concrete sections, which weigh up to 15 tonnes each.[16]

Although the roof structures are commonly referred to as "shells" (as in this article), they are precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs, not shells in a strictly structural sense.[17] Though the shells appear uniformly white from a distance, they actually feature a subtle chevron pattern composed of 1,056,006 tiles in two colours: glossy white and matte cream. The tiles were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs AB which generally produced stoneware tiles for the paper-mill industry.[18]

Apart from the tile of the shells and the glass curtain walls of the foyer spaces, the building's exterior is largely clad with aggregate panels composed of pink granite quarried at Tarana. Significant interior surface treatments also include off-form concrete, Australian white birch plywood supplied from Wauchope in northern New South Wales, and brush box glulam.[19]

Of the two larger spaces, the Concert Hall is in the western group of shells, the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the eastern group. The scale of the shells was chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, with low entrance spaces, rising over the seating areas up to the high stage towers. The smaller venues (the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio) are within the podium, beneath the Concert Hall. A smaller group of shells set to the western side of the Monumental Steps houses the Bennelong Restaurant. The podium is surrounded by substantial open public spaces, and the large stone-paved forecourt area with the adjacent monumental steps is regularly used as a performance space.

Performance venues and facilities

The main Concert Hall during a performance
The Bennelong Restaurant, located at the southernmost sail

The Sydney Opera House includes a number of performance venues:[20]

A low-angle view of the southern exterior of the Bennelong Restaurant at the Opera House.
  • Concert Hall: With 2,679 seats, the home of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and used by a large number of other concert presenters. It contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ, the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world, with over 10,000 pipes.[21]
  • Joan Sutherland Theatre: A proscenium theatre with 1,507 seats,[22] the Sydney home of Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet. Until 17 October 2012 it was known as the Opera Theatre.[23][24]
  • Drama Theatre: A proscenium theatre with 544 seats, used by the Sydney Theatre Company and other dance and theatrical presenters.
  • Playhouse: A non-proscenium end-stage theatre with 398 seats.
  • Studio: A flexible space with 280 permanent seats (some of which can be folded up) and a maximum capacity of 400, depending on configuration.
  • Utzon Room: A small multi-purpose venue for parties, corporate functions and small productions (such as chamber music performances).
  • Recording Studio
  • Outdoor Forecourt: A flexible open-air venue with a wide range of configuration options, including the possibility of utilising the Monumental Steps as audience seating, used for a range of community events and major outdoor performances.

Other areas (for example the northern and western foyers) are also used for performances on an occasional basis. Venues are also used for conferences, ceremonies and social functions.

Other facilities

The building also houses a recording studio, cafes, restaurants, bars and retail outlets. Guided tours are available, including a frequent tour of the front-of-house spaces, and a daily backstage tour that takes visitors backstage to see areas normally reserved for performers and crew members.


Construction history


Bennelong Point with tram depot in the 1920s (top left-hand side of photograph)

Planning began in the late 1940s when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. The normal venue for such productions, the Sydney Town Hall, was not considered large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site: Cahill had wanted it to be on or near Wynyard Railway Station in the northwest of the CBD.[25]

An international design competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received 233 entries, representing architects from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3,000 and a small hall for 1,200 people, each to be designed for different uses, including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances, and other presentations.[26]

Utzon's initial sketches in 1957

The winner, announced in 1957, was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. According to legend, the Utzon design was rescued by noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen from a final cut of 30 "rejects".[27] The runner-up was a Philadelphia-based team assembled by Robert Geddes and George Qualls, both teaching at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. They brought together a band of Penn faculty and friends from Philadelphia architectural offices, including Melvin Brecher, Warren Cunningham, Joseph Marzella, Walter Wiseman, and Leon Loschetter. Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham went on to found the firm GBQC Architects. The grand prize was 5,000 Australian pounds.[28] Utzon visited Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project.[29] His office moved to Palm Beach, Sydney in February 1963.[30]

Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture's highest honour, in 2003.[31] The Pritzker Prize citation read:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city but a whole country and continent.

Design and construction

The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958 and construction began in March 1959. It was built in three stages: stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium; stage II (1963–1967) the construction of the outer shells; stage III (1967–1973) interior design and construction.

Stage I: Podium

Stage I commenced on 2 March 1959 with the construction firm Civil & Civic, monitored by the engineers Ove Arup and Partners.[32] The government had pushed for work to begin early, fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However, Utzon had still not completed the final designs. Major structural issues still remained unresolved. By 23 January 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind,[32] mainly because of unexpected difficulties (inclement weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper construction drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed in February 1963. The forced early start led to significant later problems, not least of which was the fact that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure, and had to be re-built.[33]

Stage II: Roof

The shells of the competition entry were originally of undefined geometry,[34] but, early in the design process, the "shells" were perceived as a series of parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs. However, engineers Ove Arup and Partners were unable to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. The formwork for using in-situ concrete would have been prohibitively expensive, and, because there was no repetition in any of the roof forms, the construction of precast concrete for each individual section would possibly have been even more expensive.

Sydney Opera House shell ribs
The glazed ceramic tiles of the Sydney Opera House

From 1957 to 1963, the design team went through at least 12 iterations of the form of the shells trying to find an economically acceptable form (including schemes with parabolas, circular ribs and ellipsoids) before a workable solution was completed. The design work on the shells involved one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis, to understand the complex forces to which the shells would be subjected.[35][36] The computer system was also used in the assembly of the arches. The pins in the arches were surveyed at the end of each day, and the information was entered into the computer so the next arch could be properly placed the following day. In mid-1961, the design team found a solution to the problem: the shells all being created as sections from a sphere. This solution allows arches of varying length to be cast in a common mould, and a number of arch segments of common length to be placed adjacent to one another, to form a spherical section. With whom exactly this solution originated has been the subject of some controversy. It was originally credited to Utzon. Ove Arup's letter to Ashworth, a member of the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee, states: "Utzon came up with an idea of making all the shells of uniform curvature throughout in both directions."[37] Peter Jones, the author of Ove Arup's biography, states that "the architect and his supporters alike claimed to recall the precise eureka moment ... ; the engineers and some of their associates, with equal conviction, recall discussion in both central London and at Ove's house."

He goes on to claim that "the existing evidence shows that Arup's canvassed several possibilities for the geometry of the shells, from parabolas to ellipsoids and spheres."[35] Yuzo Mikami, a member of the design team, presents an opposite view in his book on the project, Utzon's Sphere.[38][39] It is unlikely that the truth will ever be categorically known, but there is a clear consensus that the design team worked very well indeed for the first part of the project and that Utzon, Arup, and Ronald Jenkins (partner of Ove Arup and Partners responsible for the Opera House project) all played a very significant part in the design development.[40]

As Peter Murray states in The Saga of the Sydney Opera House:[33]

... the two men—and their teams—enjoyed a collaboration that was remarkable in its fruitfulness and, despite many traumas, was seen by most of those involved in the project as a high point of architect/engineer collaboration.

The design of the roof was tested on scale models in wind tunnels at University of Southampton and later NPL in order to establish the wind-pressure distribution around the roof shape in very high winds, which helped in the design of the roof tiles and their fixtures.[41][42]

The shells of the Opera House at night, viewed from the south

The shells were constructed by Hornibrook Group Pty Ltd,[43] who were also responsible for construction in Stage III. Hornibrook manufactured the 2400 precast ribs and 4000 roof panels in an on-site factory and also developed the construction processes.[33] The achievement of this solution avoided the need for expensive formwork construction by allowing the use of precast units and it also allowed the roof tiles to be prefabricated in sheets on the ground, instead of being stuck on individually at height.

The tiles themselves were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs Keramik. It took three years of development to produce the effect Utzon wanted in what became known as the Sydney Tile, 120mm square. It is made from clay with a small percentage of crushed stone.[44]

Ove Arup and Partners' site engineer supervised the construction of the shells, which used an innovative adjustable steel-trussed "erection arch" (developed by Hornibrook's engineer Joe Bertony) to support the different roofs before completion.[36] On 6 April 1962, it was estimated that the Opera House would be completed between August 1964 and March 1965.

Stage III: Interiors

Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Robert Askin government declared the project under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. Due to the Ministry's criticism of the project's costs and time,[45] along with their impression of Utzon's designs being impractical, this ultimately led to his resignation in 1966 (see below).

The cost of the project so far, even in October 1966, was still only A$22.9 million,[46] less than a quarter of the final $102 million cost. However, the projected costs for the design were at this stage much more significant.

The second stage of construction was progressing toward completion when Utzon resigned. His position was principally taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E. H. Farmer as government architect, D. S. Littlemore and Lionel Todd.

Following Utzon's resignation, the acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed to the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC) that Utzon's original acoustic design allowed for only 2,000 seats in the main hall and further stated that increasing the number of seats to 3,000 as specified in the brief would be disastrous for the acoustics. According to Peter Jones, the stage designer, Martin Carr, criticised the "shape, height and width of the stage, the physical facilities for artists, the location of the dressing rooms, the widths of doors and lifts, and the location of lighting switchboards."[47]

Significant changes to Utzon's design

The foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, showing the internal structure and steel framing of the glass curtain walls; the final constructions were modified from Utzon's original designs
The Opera House at sunset
  • The major hall, which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, became solely a concert hall, called the Concert Hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, incorporated opera and ballet functions and was called the Opera Theatre, later renamed the Joan Sutherland Theatre. As a result, the Joan Sutherland Theatre is inadequate to stage large-scale opera and ballet. A theatre, a cinema and a library were also added. These were later changed to two live drama theatres and a smaller theatre "in the round". These now comprise the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio respectively. These changes were primarily because of inadequacies in the original competition brief, which did not make it adequately clear how the Opera House was to be used. The layout of the interiors was changed, and the stage machinery, already designed and fitted inside the major hall, was pulled out and largely thrown away, as detailed in the 1968 BBC TV documentary Autopsy on a Dream, which "chronicles the full spectrum of controversy surrounding the construction of the Sydney Opera House".[48]
  • Externally, the cladding to the podium and the paving (the podium was originally not to be clad down to the water, but to be left open).
  • The construction of the glass walls (Utzon was planning to use a system of prefabricated plywood mullions, but a different system was designed to deal with the glass).
  • Utzon's plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating designs for the interior of both major halls, were scrapped completely. His design for the Concert Hall was rejected as it only seated 2000, which was considered insufficient.[35] Utzon employed the acoustic consultant Lothar Cremer, and his designs for the major halls were later modelled and found to be very good. The subsequent Todd, Hall and Littlemore versions of both major halls have some problems with acoustics, particularly for the performing musicians. The orchestra pit in the Joan Sutherland Theatre is cramped and dangerous to musicians' hearing.[49] The Concert Hall has a very high roof, leading to a lack of early reflections onstage—perspex rings (the "acoustic clouds") hanging over the stage were added shortly before opening in an (unsuccessful) attempt to address this problem.

Completion and cost

The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million.[50] H.R. "Sam" Hoare, the Hornibrook director in charge of the project, provided the following approximations in 1973: Stage I: podium Civil & Civic Pty Ltd approximately $5.5m. Stage II: roof shells M.R. Hornibrook (NSW) Pty Ltd approximately $12.5m. Stage III: completion The Hornibrook Group $56.5m. Separate contracts: stage equipment, stage lighting and organ $9.0m. Fees and other costs: $16.5m.

The original cost and scheduling estimates in 1957 projected a cost of £3,500,000 ($7 million) and completion date of 26 January 1963 (Australia Day).[35] In reality, the project was completed ten years late and 1,357% over budget in real terms.

Strike and Workers' Control

In 1972, a construction worker was fired, leading the BLF affiliated workers to demand his rehiring and a 25% wage increase. In response to this, all the workers were fired, and in revenge the workers broke into the construction site with a crowbar and brought their own toolboxes. Workers' control was applied to the site for five weeks as the construction workers worked 35 hours a week with improved morale, more efficient organization and fewer people skipping work. The workers agreed to end their work-in when management agreed to give them a 25% wage increase, the right to elect their foremen, four weeks annual leave and a large payment for their troubles.[51]

Utzon and his resignation

The building illuminated at night

Before the Sydney Opera House competition, Jørn Utzon had won seven of the 18 competitions he had entered but had never seen any of his designs built.[52] Utzon's submitted concept for the Sydney Opera House was almost universally admired and considered groundbreaking. The Assessors Report of January 1957, stated:

The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.

For the first stage, Utzon worked successfully with the rest of the design team and the client, but, as the project progressed, the Cahill government insisted on progressive revisions. They also did not fully appreciate the costs or work involved in design and construction. Tensions between the client and the design team grew further when an early start to construction was demanded despite an incomplete design. This resulted in a continuing series of delays and setbacks while various technical engineering issues were being refined. The building was unique, and the problems with the design issues and cost increases were exacerbated by commencement of work before the completion of the final plans.

After the 1965 election of the Liberal Party, with Robert Askin becoming Premier of New South Wales, the relationship of client, architect, engineers and contractors became increasingly tense. Askin had been a "vocal critic of the project prior to gaining office."[53] His new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, was even less sympathetic. Elizabeth Farrelly, an Australian architecture critic, wrote that:

at an election night dinner party in Mosman, Hughes' daughter Sue Burgoyne boasted that her father would soon sack Utzon. Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree. The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius.[53]

The Opera House seen from the north

Differences ensued. One of the first was that Utzon believed the clients should receive information on all aspects of the design and construction through his practice, while the clients wanted a system (notably drawn in sketch form by Davis Hughes) where architect, contractors, and engineers each reported to the client directly and separately. This had great implications for procurement methods and cost control, with Utzon wishing to negotiate contracts with chosen suppliers (such as Ralph Symonds for the plywood interiors) and the New South Wales government insisting contracts be put out to tender.[33]

Utzon was highly reluctant to respond to questions or criticism from the client's Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC).[54] However, he was greatly supported throughout by a member of the committee and one of the original competition judges, . Utzon was unwilling to compromise on some aspects of his designs that the clients wanted to change.

Utzon's ability was never in doubt, despite questions raised by Davis Hughes, who attempted to portray Utzon as an impractical dreamer. Ove Arup actually stated that Utzon was "probably the best of any I have come across in my long experience of working with architects"[55] and: "The Opera House could become the world's foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head."

The Opera House, backed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, from the eastern Botanic Gardens

In October 1965, Utzon gave Hughes a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III.[citation needed] Utzon was at this time working closely with , a manufacturer of plywood based in Sydney and highly regarded by many, despite an Arup engineer warning that Ralph Symonds's "knowledge of the design stresses of plywood, was extremely sketchy" and that the technical advice was "elementary to say the least and completely useless for our purposes." Australian architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly has referred to Ove Arup's project engineer Michael Lewis as having "other agendas".[53] In any case, Hughes shortly after withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors,[citation needed] and the relationship between Utzon and the client never recovered. By February 1966, Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees.[56] Hughes then withheld funding so that Utzon could not even pay his own staff. The government minutes record that following several threats of resignation, Utzon finally stated to Davis Hughes: "If you don't do it, I resign." Hughes replied: "I accept your resignation. Thank you very much. Goodbye."[57]

The Opera House viewed from the south

Utzon left the project on 28 February 1966. He said that Hughes's refusal to pay him any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation and later famously described the situation as "Malice in Blunderland". In March 1966, Hughes offered him a subordinate role as "design architect" under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House's construction, but Utzon rejected this. Utzon left the country never to return.

Following the resignation, there was great controversy about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The Sydney Morning Herald initially opined: "No architect in the world has enjoyed greater freedom than Mr Utzon. Few clients have been more patient or more generous than the people and the Government of NSW. One would not like history to record that this partnership was brought to an end by a fit of temper on the one side or by a fit of meanness on the other." On 17 March 1966, the Herald offered the view that:[58] "It was not his [Utzon's] fault that a succession of Governments and the Opera House Trust should so signally have failed to impose any control or order on the project ... his concept was so daring that he himself could solve its problems only step by step ... his insistence on perfection led him to alter his design as he went along."

The Sydney Opera House opened the way for the immensely complex geometries of some modern architecture. The design was one of the first examples of the use of computer-aided design to design complex shapes. The design techniques developed by Utzon and Arup for the Sydney Opera House have been further developed and are now used for architecture, such as works of Gehry and blobitecture, as well as most reinforced concrete structures. The design is also one of the first in the world to use araldite to glue the precast structural elements together and proved the concept for future use.

It was also a first in mechanical engineering. Another Danish firm, Steensen Varming, was responsible for designing the new air-conditioning plant, the largest in Australia at the time, supplying over 600,000 cubic feet (17,000 m3) of air per minute,[59] using the innovative idea of harnessing the harbour water to create a water-cooled heat pump system that is still in operation today.[60]


Tourists on the steps of the Opera House

The Sydney Opera House was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia on 20 October 1973. A large crowd attended. Utzon was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name mentioned. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.[61]

Architectural design role of Peter Hall

After the resignation of Utzon, the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, and the Government Architect, Ted Farmer, organised a team to bring the Sydney Opera House to completion. The architectural work was divided between three appointees who became the Hall, Todd, Littlemore partnership. David Littlemore would manage construction supervision, Lionel Todd contract documentation, while the crucial role of design became the responsibility of Peter Hall.[62]:45

Peter Hall (1931–1995) completed a combined arts and architecture degree at Sydney University. Upon graduation a travel scholarship enabled him to spend twelve months in Europe during which time he visited Utzon in Hellebæk.[63] Returning to Sydney, Hall worked for the Government Architect, a branch of the NSW Public Works Department. While there he established himself as a talented design architect with a number of court and university buildings, including the Goldstein Hall at the University of New South Wales, which won the Sir John Sulman Medal in 1964.

Hall resigned from the Government Architects office in early 1966 to pursue his own practice. When approached to take on the design role, (after at least two prominent Sydney architects had declined), Hall spoke with Utzon by phone before accepting the position. Utzon reportedly told Hall: he (Hall) would not be able to finish the job and the Government would have to invite him back.[62](p46) Hall also sought the advice of others, including architect Don Gazzard who warned him acceptance would be a bad career move as the project would "never be his own".[62]:47[64]

Hall agreed to accept the role on the condition there was no possibility of Utzon returning. Even so, his appointment did not go down well with many of his fellow architects who considered that no one but Utzon should complete the Sydney Opera House.[63] Upon Utzon's dismissal, a rally of protest had marched to Bennelong Point. A petition was also circulated, including in the Government Architects office. Peter Hall was one of the many who had signed the petition that called for Utzon's reinstatement.[63]

When Hall agreed to the design role and was appointed in April 1966, he imagined he would find the design and documentation for the Stage III well advanced. What he found was an enormous amount of work ahead of him with many aspects completely unresolved by Utzon in relation to seating capacity, acoustics and structure.[62]:42 In addition Hall found the project had proceeded for nine years without the development of a concise client brief. To bring himself up to speed, Hall investigated concert and opera venues overseas and engaged stage consultant Ben Schlange and acoustic consultant Wilhelm Jordan, while establishing his team. In consultation with all the potential building users, the first Review of Program was completed in January 1967. The most significant conclusion reached by Hall was that concert and opera were incompatible in the same hall.[62]:53 Although Utzon had sketched ideas using plywood for the great enclosing glass walls, their structural viability was unresolved when Hall took on the design role.[62]:49 With the ability to delegate tasks and effectively coordinate the work of consultants, Hall guided the project for over five years until the opening day in 1973.

A former Government Architect, Peter Webber, in his book Peter Hall: the Phantom of the Opera House, concludes: when Utzon resigned no one was better qualified (than Hall) to rise to the challenge of completing the design of the Opera House.[62]:126

Performance firsts

During the construction phase, lunchtime performances were often arranged for the workers, with American vocalist Paul Robeson the first artist to perform, in 1960.

Various performances were presented prior to the official opening:

After the opening:

Reconciliation with Utzon; building refurbishment

In the late 1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust resumed communication with Utzon in an attempt to effect a reconciliation and to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. In 1999, he was appointed by the Trust as a design consultant for future work.[69]

The Utzon Room: rebuilt to a design (and endowed with an original tapestry) by Utzon

In 2004, the first interior space rebuilt to an Utzon design was opened, and renamed "The Utzon Room" in his honour. It contains an original Utzon tapestry (14.00 x 3.70 metres) called Homage to Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.[70] In April 2007, he proposed a major reconstruction of the Opera Theatre, as it was then known.[71] Utzon died on 29 November 2008.[72]

A state memorial service, attended by Utzon's son Jan and daughter Lin, celebrating his creative genius, was held in the Concert Hall on 25 March 2009 featuring performances, readings and recollections from prominent figures in the Australian performing arts scene.

Refurbished Western Foyer and Accessibility improvements were commissioned on 17 November 2009, the largest building project completed since Utzon was re-engaged in 1999. Designed by Utzon and his son Jan, the project provided improved ticketing, toilet and cloaking facilities. New escalators and a public lift enabled enhanced access for the disabled and families with prams. The prominent paralympian athlete Louise Sauvage was announced as the building's "accessibility ambassador" to advise on further improvements to aid people with disabilities.[73]

On 29 March 2016, an original 1959 tapestry by Le Corbusier (2.18 x 3.55 metres), commissioned by Utzon to be hung in the Sydney Opera House and called Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast), was finally unveiled in situ after being owned by the Utzon family and held at their home in Denmark for over 50 years. The tapestry was bought at auction by the Sydney Opera House in June 2015. It now hangs in the building's Western Foyer and is accessible to the public.

In the second half of 2017, the Joan Sutherland Theatre was closed to replace the stage machinery and for other works. The Concert Hall is scheduled for work in 2020–2021.

Public and commemorative events

The Sydney Opera House during Vivid Sydney (2013).

In 1993, Constantine Koukias was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House Trust in association with REM Theatre to compose Icon, a large-scale music theatre piece for the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House.[74]

During the 2000 Summer Olympics, the venue served as the focal point for the triathlon events. The event had a 1.5 km (0.9 mi) swimming loop at Farm Cove, along with competitions in the neighbouring Royal Botanical Gardens for the cycling and running portions of the event.[75]

Since 2013, a group of residents from the nearby Bennelong Apartments (better known as 'The Toaster'), calling themselves the Sydney Opera House Concerned Citizens Group, have been campaigning against Forecourt Concerts on the grounds that they exceed noise levels outlined in the development approval (DA). In February 2017 the NSW Department of Planning and the Environment handed down a $15,000 fine to the Sydney Opera House for breach of allowed noise levels at a concert held in November 2015. However, the DA was amended in 2016 to allow an increase in noise levels in the forecourt by 5 decibels. The residents opposing the concerts contend that a new DA should have been filed rather than an amendment.[76][77]

The Sydney Opera House sails formed a graphic projection-screen in a lightshow mounted in connection with the International Fleet Review in Sydney Harbour on 5 October 2013.[78]

On 31 December 2013, the venue's 40th anniversary year, a New Year firework display was mounted for the first time in a decade.[79] The Sydney Opera House hosted an event, 'the biggest blind date' on Friday 21 February 2014 that won an historic Guinness World Record.[80] The longest continuous serving employee was commemorated on 27 June 2018, for 50 years of service.[81]

On 14 June 2019, a state memorial service for former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was held at the Sydney Opera House.

Advertising controversy

On 5 October 2018 the Opera House chief executive Louise Herron clashed with Sydney radio commentator Alan Jones, who called for her sacking for refusing to allow Racing NSW to use the Opera House sails to advertise The Everest horse race. Within hours, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian overruled Herron. Two days later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison supported the decision, calling the Opera House "the biggest billboard Sydney has".[82] The NSW Labor Party leader, Luke Foley, and senior federal Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese had supported the proposal.[83] The political view was not supported by significant public opinion, with a petition against the advertising collecting over 298,000 names by 9 October 2018.[84] 235,000 printed petition documents were presented to the NSW Parliament in the morning.[85] A survey conducted on 8 October by market research firm Micromex found that 81% of those surveyed were not supportive of the premier's direction.[86]

Notable performances

  • 1960 – The first person to perform at the Sydney Opera House was Paul Robeson – he sang "Ol' Man River" to the construction workers as they ate lunch.
  • 1973 – Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace, on 28 September 1973.[87]
  • 1973 - Opening gala concert in the concert hall with music by Richard Wagner. Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. Soloist: The great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, on 29 September 1973.
  • 1974 – Opera singer Joan Sutherland performed for the first time in the theatre that would be named for her.
  • 1978 – Irish rockers Thin Lizzy (played a free concert on the steps) and was brought out on the record Thin Lizzy Live at Sydney Harbour '78.[88]
  • 1985 – Ray Lawler's classic Doll Trilogy.
  • 1987 – Pope John Paul II gave a speech in the Concert Hall during his visit to Australia.
  • 1990 – Nelson Mandela addressed a crowd of 40,000 and attended a choral performance of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica ("God Bless Africa").
  • 1991 – Joan Sutherland gives her final performance.
  • 1995 – Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan: starring Jacqueline McKenzie in the title role of Joan of Arc.[89]
  • 1996 – Crowded House played their record-breaking Farewell to the World concert on the steps.
  • 2000 – Swimmer Samantha Riley stands on top of one of the Concert Hall's shells with the Olympic Torch, before sending the flame on its final journey to light the cauldron at Stadium Australia.[90]
  • 2003 – Pulitzer Prize winning play Proof by David Auburn, starring Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto.
  • 2004 – Canadian singer Michael Bublé performed in the Concert Hall.
  • 2008 – Oprah Winfrey filmed her Ultimate Australian Adventure in the forecourt.[91]
  • 2008 – First VIVID Live Music program curated by Brian Eno.
  • 2020 - First Six performance in Australia was held in The Studio theatre, making it one of the first hit musical performances in The Studio theatre.


  • RAIA Merit Award, 1974.
  • Meritorious Lighting Award of the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia, 1974.
  • RAIA Civic Design Award, 1980.
  • RAIA Commemorative Award, Jørn Utzon – Sydney Opera House, 1992.

Cultural references

The opera house, along with the harbour bridge, frequently features in establishing shots in film and television to represent Sydney and the Australian nation.

  • The Sydney Opera House appeared on the cover of the Phoenix Force adventure novel Down Under Thunder in 1986.
  • The Sydney Opera House appeared in the 1990 Disney animated film The Rescuers Down Under.
  • In the 1991 season 5, episode 5 of Inspector Morse, titled , Morse climbs the steps at the end of the episode to attend an opera performance.
  • Near the end of the 1996 film Independence Day, the Sydney Opera House appeared after an alien ship near Sydney was destroyed.
  • The Sydney Opera House appeared in the 2003 Disney/Pixar animated film Finding Nemo.
  • The Sydney Opera House featured in the 2004 Godzilla movie, Godzilla Final Wars, in which the titular character dispatched an enemy, Zilla, destroying the famous landmark in the process.
  • The Sydney Opera House appeared in the final scene of 2007 film Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle.
  • In Better Call Saul, the father of Werner Ziegler, a German engineer who helped build Gus Fring's drug laboratory, had reportedly worked on the construction of the Sydney Opera House.
  • The Opera House appeared during the closing credits of the 2011 film Cars 2, in which the building's podium was modelled on the front of a Holden FC.
  • In the 2013 video game SimCity the building is featured as a placable landmark building.[92]
  • In the 2016 superhero film X-Men: Apocalypse, the building and other parts of Sydney are destroyed when Magneto manipulates the Earth's magnetic poles.
  • In the 2016 4X video game Civilization VI, the Opera House is a constructible Atomic Era wonder which grants bonuses to a civilization's cultural output and points toward earning musicians.

See also


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CC-BY-icon-80x15.png This Wikipedia article contains material from Sydney Opera House, listed on the "New South Wales State Heritage Register" published by the Government of New South Wales under CC-BY 3.0 AU licence (accessed on 3 September 2017).


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  • Murray, Peter "The Saga of Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia", Publisher Taylor & Francis, 2004, ISBN 0415325226, 9780415325226
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Archival holdings

External links