Today, June 22, 2023 marks 50 years since the splashdown of the Skylab 2 crew. As a 15-year-old space geek, and model rocket nut, I was totally revved up to do something Skylab-like… and the answer was…
Spaceflight is as much about inspiration as it is about exploration and thus following the Skylab 2 mission, I was inspired to make my own flying “workshop.” Taking one of my 1/200 scale AMT model Apollo Service Modules and cracking it open I began to install balsa “habitation” equipment in it.
My plan was to catch three little red ants from our patio, stick them inside the thing and see how they would survive. I called the project “Antlab 1.” Sure, I had to drill a small window into it so the critters could look out and perhaps even get some air. Using a single edged razor blade, I attempted to cut a small hatch in the side. A single slip of the hand and I sliced two fingers! The blood would have panicked my mom so I used my Civil Air Patrol first aid training and applied direct pressure with my paint rag until the bleeding stopped. Lucky the paint on the rag disguised the blood and Mom never knew how much I had hemorrhaged. Later in the day when mom finally saw the wound, she decided that I should get an Xacto knife set as a belated birthday gift; it was a little safer than the razor blade.
Once I had Antlab 1 fully configured I had to, of course, ground test it. Using the un-mutilated fingers that I had left I caught three ants and stuck their helpless little butts into the workshop. Waiting 24 hours I opened it up and they crawled out; success! Now it was time for Antlab 1 to be tested in flight.
Any rocket geek from the 1970s can tell you that the Apollo SM from the AMT 1/200 model kit fit quite well into an Estes BT-20 flying model rocket body tube. I just happened to have an Estes X-Ray rocket whose payload section had separated and drifted away to God knows where. That X-Ray’s BT-20 booster tube would be adapted to boost Antlab 1. It did, however need to be repainted black and white like a Saturn V first.
My scheme was to make a huge parachute out of a drycleaning plastic bag that would be attached to the lab. The booster would be jettisoned because, A: there was no room in the tube for a second parachute and B: I never liked the X-Ray kit anyhow. The clear parachute would be so big that the Antlab would practically hover in the sky and give the ants a lot of time to… crawl around… in the sky. Frankly, if I had thought of it at the time I could have applied to the United States FDA and gotten a huge federal grant for the project— it was that strange.
On a calm summer morning in mid-July of 1973, Antlab 1 lifted off from 3324 Lexington Drive. The cut-down fins of the booster allowed for a higher than expected flight and after a seven second coast the lab and its chute ejected as planned.
Blossoming open, the lightweight parachute did exactly what I wanted and Antlab 1 seemed to simply hang in the sky. Ever so slowly it descended with its crew of three ants aboard. The mission would have been perfection if it had not been for the power lines behind our house. The following October, when we moved from that house, Antlab 1 was still hanging there on the upper-most wire. The mission lasted a lot longer than I had expected. I
t was a good thing that I gave the ants a window to look through.