Paul Weitz, Skylab Savior and First Challenger Commander, Dies Aged 85

Paul Weitz, pictured at Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), during his 28-day mission in May-June 1973. Photo Credit: NASA

Veteran astronaut Paul “P.J.” Weitz, who spacewalked to save America’s Skylab space station and later commanded shuttle Challenger on its maiden voyage, died yesterday (Monday, 23 October). He was 85. During a NASA career which spanned more than a quarter-century, Weitz spent 33 days in space and logged 96 minutes of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) time, before serving in a series of positions of increasing responsibility within the Astronaut Office and at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

Paul Joseph Weitz was born in Erie, Penn., on 25 July 1932, the son of a Navy chief petty officer, who fought at the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea. In later life, Weitz described himself as “an impressionable young lad during World War II” and the Navy drew him like a magnet. After leaving Harbor Creek High School in Erie, he gained a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to study aeronautical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Whilst there, his instructor advised him to go to sea aboard a destroyer, before entering flight school. Weitz later regretted this decision, “because it put me a year and a half behind my contemporaries”. He earned his wings in September 1956. His first application to enter Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., was rejected, and Weitz was assigned to an air development squadron at China Lake in California’s Mojave Desert. His second application was accepted—and then rejected again—“because I had just been moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, and they weren’t going to move me back to the East Coast again!”

At China Lake, Weitz served as project pilot for five different aircraft types and developed tactics for delivering air-to-ground weapons. Having earned his undergraduate degree, he was sent to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., to study for a master’s credential in aeronautical engineering. At the time, he was sceptical about the need for an advanced degree. However, years later, he recognized that his lack of formal test-piloting qualifications was counterbalanced by a master’s degree and, in Weitz’ mind, it was this which tipped the scales in his favor when NASA selected him to be an astronaut. He graduated from Monterey in 1964. Weitz would later thank a kindly professor for enabling himself and another scholar, Jack Lousma, in finishing their degrees a year early.

Bound for Skylab, the crew (from left) Weitz, Kerwin and Conrad prepare for launch. Photo Credit: NASA

As an operational pilot, Weitz flew the A-3 Skywarrior strategic bomber out of Whidbey Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound. He undertook 132 combat missions over Vietnam in 1965, before “one of those strange forks in the road” came up and he received a message from the Bureau of Naval Personnel, informing him that NASA was looking for astronaut candidates. With no test-piloting credentials, Weitz assumed that his chances were slim, but he was selected with 18 others—including future Skylab flyers Jack Lousma, Gerry Carr and Bill Pogue—in April 1966.

From the start, Weitz and Lousma were associated with the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), which subsequently morphed into Skylab, America’s first space station. The two young astronauts trained to take plugs down and install drains in the hydrogen tank of a converted S-IVB rocket stage, which it was expected would provide the basis for a “wet workshop” station. Weitz went on to serve on the support crew for Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 mission, which flew in November 1969, and it was this which caught the attention of his superiors. Moreover, since Conrad went on to lead the Skylab branch of the Astronaut Office from 1970 onwards, Weitz’ performance cannot have harmed his chances of gaining a seat on a mission to the new space station.

Weitz (far left) follows Kerwin (center) and Conrad (foreground) out to the launch pad on 25 May 1973. Photo Credit: NASA

It was during this time that three Apollo lunar landing missions—18 through 20—were formally removed from NASA’s schedule. No crews were assigned to these flights, although by working out the backup crew rosters and their likelihood of rotating into subsequent prime crews, efforts have been made to determine who might have been aboard Apollos 18 and 19. However, Apollo 20 has proven more of an enigma. It was formally canceled by NASA in January 1970, long before any crew could have been announced. However, according to spaceflight historian Dave Shayler in his book Apollo: The Lost and Forgotten Missions, “various rumors” hinted that Weitz may have been in line for a seat on Apollo 20. Nothing was ever formalized and in early 1970 Weitz followed Conrad and joined Skylab.

Two years later, in January 1972, Weitz was named as Pilot for the first manned mission to Skylab, a record-setting 28-day flight, planned for launch in the spring of the following year. He would be joined by Conrad as Commander and Joe Kerwin as Science Pilot. The plan was for Skylab to launch atop the final Saturn V rocket in early May, with Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz following a day later atop a Saturn IB. In logging 28 days in orbit, they would soundly eclipse the 23-day world endurance record, set by the Soviet Union’s ill-fated Soyuz 11 crew in June 1971. However, as previously outlined by AmericaSpace, Skylab’s launch on 14 May 1973 did not go as planned. A minute after liftoff, the station’s micrometeoroid shield had prematurely deployed and been quickly torn off in the supersonic flow. Part of the shield wrapped itself around one of Skylab’s two solar arrays and broke the latches of the other. Ten minutes into the flight, the Saturn V’s second stage separated as intended, but as it performed a withdrawal maneuver, its thruster plumes impinged broke the hinge of the damaged array and tore it loose. The second array, with bits of micrometeoroid shielding wrapped around it, was effectively pinned to the side of Skylab, unable to deploy.

Video Credit: NBC News

Rather than generating 12.4 kilowatts of power, the station was pumping out only 25 watts. This situation was worsened by the absence of the micrometeoroid shield, which caused temperatures inside the station to climb to 82 degrees Celsius (180 degrees Fahrenheit) on the exterior and 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) inside. With these temperatures predicted to more than double, the astronauts’ food, camera film and maybe even Skylab’s structure were in danger. There was also an elevated risk of internal materials—including polyurethane foam and fiberglass, containing the highly toxic toluene diisocynate—“outgassing” and potentially poisoning the crew when they came aboard.

The launch of Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz was postponed, as NASA scrambled to develop a repair plan. On 25 May, armed with modified tree-loppers, aluminum tubes, umbrellas and parasols to effect repairs, the trio set off from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Eight hours later, they reached Skylab and beheld with their own eyes the true extent of the damage. Conrad performed a flyaround inspection, whilst Weitz took photographs, and the crew determined that a Stand-Up EVA with cable cutters could free the jammed solar array and return some power to Skylab.

Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz rise to orbit atop a Saturn IB booster on 25 May 1973. Photo Credit: NASA

Weitz was not originally slated to perform a spacewalk on the mission, but he was assigned the task of using the modified tree-loppers and a shepherd’s crook to free the array. As he poked his head out of the hatch of the Apollo command module, he was passed three aluminum tubes by Kerwin to assemble a 15-foot-long (4.5-meter) pole, with the loppers at its tip, whilst Conrad held the ship steady, a mere two feet (60 cm) from the station. “We had seen…that there was a piece of bolted L-section from the thermal shield that had been wrapped up around the top of the solar wing,” Weitz recalled in his NASA oral history, “and apparently the bolt heads were driven into the aluminum skin. We thought maybe we’d just break it loose, so we got down near the end of the solar array and I got a hold of it with the shepherd’s crook.”

As Weitz heaved on it, he found that he was actually pulling the command module towards Skylab. His task was made harder by the fact that a third of his field-of-view was obstructed by the spacecraft’s open hatch. The shepherd’s crook was having little effect and a torrent of four-letter words prompted Mission Control to subtly remind them to modify their languae, as they were on a “hot-mike”. The main difficulty was that a narrow strip of metal had wrapped itself across the solar array, and was riveted fast, offering them not a hope of breaking it with their tools. The attempt was called off and the disappointed astronauts were forced to close the hatch and dock with Skylab.

Weitz (seated) is flanked by Don Peterson (kneeling) and Musgrave (standing left) and Bobko (standing right) in the STS-6 crew’s F-Troop gag portrait. Photo Credit: NASA

Over the following days, the situation brightened and on 7 June Conrad and Kerwin performed an EVA to free the jammed solar array. Twelve days later, Conrad and Weitz ventured outside for 96 minutes to retrieve camera film from Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). On 22 June, the three men returned to Earth, leaving the station in a far better condition than they had first encountered it. Logging 28 days and 50 minutes in flight, theirs was the longest single space mission at that time. Later in 1973, they each received NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of their efforts.

Weitz retired from the Navy, and his rank of captain, in June 1976, but remained with the space agency as a civilian astronaut. He worked payloads and flight crew documentation issues for the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) and served as deputy chief of the Astronaut Office. In March 1982, he was assigned to command STS-6, the maiden voyage of shuttle Challenger, then planned as a two-day mission in January 1983. This flight eventually expanded in scope to include the shuttle program’s first EVA. Launched on 4 April 1983, it saw the deployment of NASA’s first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) for near-continuous communications with future shuttle crews, and astronauts Story Musgrave and Don Peterson logged four hours of spacewalking time.

 

Video Credit: NASA

 

STS-6’s crew, however, would earn the unwanted moniker of “The Geritol Bunch” from the younger astronauts. Commanded by 50-year-old Weitz, accompanied by 45-year-old Pilot Karol “Bo” Bobko and rounded out by 49-year-old Peterson and 47-year-old Musgrave, their combined age totaled 191 years, greater than any crew before them. Before launch, Weitz had dubbed his crew “The F-Troop”, since they were the sixth (“F”) shuttle flight, and arranged a gag photo of the four of them in Civil War attire, with cavalry hats, braces, red-and-white neckties, swords, a Winchester lever-action rifle and bugle.

STS-6 ended after five days and Weitz returned to the Astronaut Office and resumed his previous duties as its deputy chief. Following the loss of Challenger in early 1986, he was temporarily assigned as technical assistant to the director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and in 1987 was appointed deputy director, under Director Aaron Cohen. In February 1992, when Cohen assumed the role of acting NASA deputy administrator, Weitz stepped into his shoes as acting center director. Upon Cohen’s return to JSC in November 1992, Weitz returned to his deputy role. In January 1994, he announced his retirement from NASA and left the agency in May, after 28 years of service.

“Paul is one of the most distinguished alumnus ever to walk our halls,” said Kelly Hess, superintendent of the Harbor Creek School District, quoted in an obituary notice by GoErie.com. “Though we didn’t see him in recent years, Paul always kept a really deep connection with Harbor Creek. About two years ago, he contacted us and sent us his commemorative wings sent by NASA for his Skylab mission.”

 

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