Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Search Of...Skylab’s Lost Robotic Arm

HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? Development Model of Skylab Serpentuator Arm, dated Jan. 3, 1969. Found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serpentuator.jpg
Sometimes curiosity can be sparked by a single image. Last week, a member of Space Hipsters posted a black and white, grainy, late 1960s photo of something called the “Serpentuator,” which I’d never heard of before in my life. But apparently, I needed it in my life. The photo, dated Jan. 3, 1969, added by user Ke4roh on Wikimedia Commons, has a caption that states: 
The Serpentuator is a 40-foot long articulated arm to aid astronauts on extravehicular activities with moving equipment and astronauts to particular locations outside Skylab. The Canadarm serves a similar purpose on the Shuttle, though it is not as dexterous. This photograph shows the Serpentuator at Marshall Space Flight Center flat floor facility of building 4711 set to be tested in two dimensions on air bearings in a manner similar to air hockey. At the near end of the Serpentuator is a 5 degrees of freedom (5DF) chair which allows a person strapped in to translate freely in two dimensions as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The switch bank to the right of the chair controls the Serpentuator. Things that look in this picture like jellyfish provide air bearing support along the length of the Serpentuator. NASA caption: Serpentuator … straight, tip control out for viewing, inboard view. Photographer Moss.” (This image is sourced to the book/DVD Wernher von Braun, The Rocket Man: His Weekly Notes, 1961-1969, edited and researched by Ed Buckbee, released in 2010).
Naturally, I started scratching my head, wondering more about the thing that resembled a school of jellyfish rather than the sleek “robotic arm” we’re used to seeing on the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Turns out, the “Serpentuator” (comes from the words “serpent” - the device resembled a snake – and “actuator”) was a part of Skylab before Skylab even became Skylab, if that even makes sense.