“Life is a Dance”: The Changing Fortunes of Skylab 3

Skylab, as seen by the crew of the second visiting mission in the late summer of 1973. Theirs would snatch success from the jaws of defeat, when a problem with the Apollo spacecraft threatened to bring the mission to a premature end. Photo Credit: NASA

When Gregory Peck starred in a movie called Marooned in 1969, he could hardly have foreseen that many of its events would come close to being duplicated in reality just a few years later. The movie dealt with a three-man Apollo crew, returning from a five-month space station mission, whose lives were abruptly placed into jeopardy by an engine failure just before re-entry which left them powerless and helpless. Unable to return to Earth, unable to redock with the station and unable to remain aloft for more than a few days, Hollywood came eventually to the rescue with an impromptu recovery and, despite the death of one of the men, most of those involved lived happily ever after. Four years after Marooned, a three-member Apollo crew, aboard the Skylab space station for a months-long mission, came close to mirroring many of the difficulties faced by Peck and his men.

By July 1973, Skylab’s fortunes had turned from despair into triumph. During launch in mid-May, one of its solar arrays and a critical micrometeoroid shield had been torn away by aerodynamic forces, but a remarkable recovery had seen it restored to near-fully-operational status by the station’s first crew. A month later, the second Skylab crew – Commander Al Bean, Science Pilot Owen Garriott and Pilot Jack Lousma – prepared for launch. They would spend 59 days in orbit, longer than any other spacegoing crew, and would conduct dozens of experiments. They would also battle delibitating space sickness and face the real possibility of a space rescue.

The surprises and challenges which Skylab 3 would bring prompted Bean to sagely remark, years later: “Life is a dance. You learn as you go.”

By the third week in July, NASA settled on the 28th as the preferred launch date, since it offered the best conditions for rendezvous and docking with Skylab during their Apollo spacecraft’s fifth orbit. That morning, more than 35,000 people crammed the Kennedy Space Center’s press site, viewing areas and causeways…but the day dawned dreary and overcast, with only a few lights in the vicinity of Pad 39B and the gigantic Saturn IB booster twinkling in the gloom.

When the astronauts arrived at the pad, Lousma still had to pinch himself. Clambering into the transfer van, encumbered by his bulky suit and oxygen hoses, he had to constantly remind himself that this was not a simulation or a drill. The flashlights of the press were for real, as were the checkpoints, the last-minute examinations by the flight surgeon, the traditional breakfast of steak and eggs, the biomedical electrodes on their chests and the pressure checks of their suits. “The technicians…weren’t saying much of anything,” Lousma recollected in a NASA oral history, “because I think they were afraid they would disturb you. You could tell that they knew that this was the moment of truth and it was quite clear that this was the day we were all waiting for.”

Rollout of the Saturn IB booster for the second manned Skylab mission. Note the presence of the pedestal – nicknamed the ‘milk stool’ – which elevated the Saturn IB to the proper level for umbilical and other interfaces on a launch platform originally designed for the much larger Saturn V. Photo Credit: NASA

Out on the gantry, awaiting his turn to board the command module, Lousma noticed that the normal beehive of activity was gone, replaced by eerie silence. “This was the absolute 2001 experience,” Lousma said, “really spacey.” As the science pilot, occupant of the command module’s centre seat, Garriott was the last to enter and had a few moments of private reflection, gazing across the Florida landscape. “A fiery rocket would soon take our speed from zero to over five miles a second…in less than ten minutes!” It was a sobering realisation, which, by Garriott’s own admission, he would remember lucidly, decades later. “We’re out there on the launch pad, all by ourselves now,” remembered Lousma, “and we can feel the [Saturn sway] in the breeze a little bit and we’re hoping for good weather. We’re there for about two and a half hours before liftoff, helping the ground crew check out the spacecraft. I fell asleep for a little while…”

From the press site, CBS anchorman Morton Dean relayed live commentary to his audience. Next to him sat former astronaut Wally Schirra, the network’s special expert consultant. “T minus 40 seconds,” Dean intoned, as television images showed the Saturn IB, atop its milk stool, scarcely visible against the murk of the early morning. A few searchlights glimmered through the pre-dawn darkness. “The spacecraft commander has now made the final guidance alignment,” he continued. “That’s the final action to be taken by the crew on-board the spacecraft until after the launch. T minus 30 seconds…the eight first-stage engines will ignite at 3.1 seconds in our countdown. They’ll be held down while thrust is built up at the zero mark, at which time we’ll get liftoff…”

Dean’s voice notched up an octave as he prepared his audience for the big event and those final few seconds before the mighty Saturn was set to tear itself loose from Earth: “T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four” – then a tongue of brilliant orange flame, which steadily thickened and expanded into a vast, blinding sheet, erupted from the base of the booster and licked at the metallic trusses of Pad 39B’s milk stool – “three, two, we have ignition sequence start, all engines are running” – as the eight H-1 engines roared to near-full power, almost obscuring the rocket from view with their glare – “we have a liftoff…and the second manned crew has cleared the tower!”

From his couch, Lousma noticed a very definite “heavy vibration” at the instant of liftoff. This sensation very quickly damped out, but the initial ‘chugging’ of the Saturn IB did little to disguise the tremendous acceleration, which peaked at around four and a half times the force of gravity. As the S-IB first stage expended its load of propellant and separated, the three men were greeted by a temporary, silence, as they coasted for a while, and were abruptly jarred by the detonation of explosive charges, then the seat-of-the-pants push as the single J-2 engine of the S-IVB second stage took over and continued the boost into orbit. Through his window, Lousma vividly remembered seeing a circular ‘fan’ of debris, glinting in the sunlight. For Garriott, the sensation of being pressed into his seat at several times his Earthly weight to suddenly floating in his harness was electrifying.


Captured from a televised transmission aboard Skylab, Jack Lousma works with the lower-body negative pressure device. Although a quarter of all space travellers have suffered from the effects of space sickness, it came as a surprise that Lousma – a veteran Marine Corps aviator – was the first member of the Skylab 3 crew to fall victim to the malaise. Photo Credit: NASA

Ten minutes after leaving Florida, the second Skylab crew were in space, primed for an eight-hour chase of the station and a late-afternoon rendezvous and docking. Yet problems did not take long to catch up with the mission. About three hours into the flight, Bean reported “some kind of sparklers” streaming past one of the windows after the first firing of Apollo’s big Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine. Lousma spotted it first and called Garriott to take a look. “I looked out his window,” Garriott recalled, “and here came what looked to be the nozzle of one of the reaction control thrusters just floating by the window! It couldn’t have come off the spacecraft…the propellant line to that nozzle had sprung a leak, so when the propellant comes out of the fuel line, it then freezes on the nozzle and then after a certain amount of it escapes, it acquired the shape of the nozzle. What floated away was an ice sculpture of that reaction control thruster!” A few seconds later, Bean was startled by the blaring of a master alarm, indicating low temperatures in one of the ship’s Reaction Control System (RCS) thruster quads.

All three men realised that a propellant leak of either hydrazine or nitrogen tetroxide had most likely occurred in ‘Quad B’, one of four sets of RCS thrusters, spaced at 90-degree intervals around the service module. It was not good that it had come during the rendezvous with Skylab and so early into their mission. They quickly set about shutting down the entire quad on Lousma’s side of the spacecraft. The data revealed a clear drop in pressure, as both the hydrazine and pressurising helium rapidly fell to off-scale lows. What Garriott and Lousma had seen in their ‘ice sculpture’ was the effect of a small leak, which slowly crawled around the inner surface of the thruster and froze into the shape of the exhaust cone. This sculpture was then shaken loose when the thruster next fired.

In their book Homesteading Space, David Hitt, Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin noted that, due to the “reduced authority” of only having three sets of RCS quads at his disposal, Bean was obliged to pulse the remaining thrusters for longer periods to achieve a perfect rendezvous. “It really incapacitated us a lot,” Bean recalled. “The main effect we had was any time I did anything, we went off-attitude in the other axes.” During training, their instructors had thrown them hundreds of failures and they managed to overcome each one without so much as a blink of the eye or a bead of sweat on the brow. Now, said Bean, “we realised we were lucky we didn’t have some sort of explosion and blow that leaky quad thruster right off and really have a problem.”

The situation was compounded by the reality that, in 1973, devices to precisely measure a spacecraft’s closing range rate with the target had not yet been invented. Owen Garriott, tasked with helping Bean to stick to the correct trajectory, had trained to use two range measurements from the on-board radar transponder at two different times, then dividing the range difference by the time difference. By Garriott’s own admission, it was far from perfect, and it quickly became apparent that it was not slowing them down sufficiently to complete the rendezvous with Skylab.

Owen Garriott trims Al Bean’s hair during the mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Conversely, added Bean, “one of the worst things you could ever do was slow down too much, because then you had to use fuel to get closing again, all the timing’s off, you came into daylight too soon – all these things were going on in my mind.” He lauded Garriott as “a great ‘back-of-the-envelope’ guy”, capable of making accurate and rapid calculations and recommendations, but doubted his crewmate’s reminders that they were closing too fast and needed to apply more braking. They were indeed closing too fast. Had it not been for Garriott’s admonitions, they would have closed too rapidly and sailed straight past Skylab, which would have necessitated a re-rendezvous and an unnecessary wastage of precious manoeuvring propellant. The astronauts’ first view of Skylab had come at a distance of more than 400 miles and docking occurred a little under nine hours into the mission, with the mighty Amazon River as a spectacular backdrop.

Despite the good health of the station and – it seemed – the Apollo spacecraft, the first major obstacle quickly reared its head, when all three men fell victim to space sickness. The first was Lousma, who had begun experiencing the symptoms shortly after reaching orbit. He took a scopalomine-dextroamphetamine pill for anti-motion sickness and felt well enough to fulfil his duties during the rendezvous. However, Bean and Garriott soon reported stomach ‘awareness’ and were unable to move quickly around Skylab. At length, even with the benefit of the anti-motion-sickness medication, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the astronauts to prevent themselves from becoming ill. “We hadn’t spent a lot of time in…a volume [this large],” Lousma recollected. “It was mostly in confined quarters, where you don’t have to move very much, but now we were climbing out of the command module and going through the tunnel into this big volume and we had all kinds of room to operate in and move around in.”

By the morning of 29 July, after an unpleasant night’s sleep, breakfasts were left partially uneaten and the astronauts quickly found themselves behind on their timeline. A concerned Bean asked Mission Control for the opportunity to allow them to rest for a while and to move their first off-duty day from 3 August to 30 July; additionally, it was decided to postpone their first EVA by 24 hours. Originally, according to a detailed timeline published by NASA a few weeks earlier, no fewer than three EVAs were scheduled for the mission – on 31 July, 24 August and 19 September – primarily to install and retrieve film from Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount. However, the first EVA was especially critical, since it would deploy a backup sunshade to help cool Skylab.

Lousma was perplexed at his unpleasant reaction to the space environment. He was a Marine Corps aviator, used to sickening aileron rolls and other stomach-churning manoeuvres and, along with his crewmates, had trained extensively in rotating chairs, making deliberate head movements to induce nausea and ‘condition’ himself. It all appeared to have been for nothing. “On the ground, we were one of the most resistant crews to that kind of experience,” he explained, “but when we got in there, we were one of the least resistant!”

“Now, Alan and I never got frankly sick,” Garriott admitted in his NASA oral history, “but we were feeling what I call lethargic, you know…really not up to speed, not ready to charge full-speed like you wanted to do.” They paced themselves for the first couple of days, limiting their movements and changes of orientation, taking more time to rest, stopping and shutting their eyes whenever they felt ill, then going back to work, when, as Lousma put it, they had allowed their “gyros to unspin”. Medical specialists advised them to continue taking their scopalomine-dextroamphetamine pills and recommended several brief sessions of head movements to alleviate the nausea.

Al Bean practices space gymnastics in the wide open volume of Skylab. The differences between operating in this vast space – as opposed to the relatively cramped conditions in the Apollo command module – led many astronauts to suspect that this was a contributory factor in the onset of space sickness. Photo Credit: NASA

As August began, all three men were in far finer spirits – with Bean demonstrating space gymnastics to his television audience and Lousma admitting that the food tasted better – although mission managers had by now elected to postpone the EVA for a second time. Smaller-sized meals were recommended in order to avoid nausea, but Bean later argued that it was the timeline which conspired against them. Everything they did took time, even tracking down new heads for their shavers, and as Houston sent them additional work to do, they found themselves bogged down with other tasks.

‘Losing’ things, in fact, was a constant problem throughout the mission, since finding them again was quite unlike the chances of finding a lost item back on Earth. “We always seemed to look on hard surfaces,” said Garriott, “where we would normally have left it, but three-dimensional space is just too difficult to search visually.” After a while, they learned to start by checking the intake duct of the station’s air-circulation fans, where lint and debris – and, quite often, pens, pencils, notes and so on – would be rediscovered. Lousma turned the familiar Earthly problem upside down: instead of looking on the tops of places to find his lost possessions, he inverted his normal frame of reference to look underneath. “When you’re upside down,” he explained, “and look for something, you look at those places that you don’t normally see, or that your eye doesn’t get drawn to, because you tend [on Earth] to expect things to be sitting on something.” By adopting an unusual perspective, he ‘de-tuned’ his normal search strategy.

Aside from the time consumed by losing and having to find things, the pace of that first week aboard Skylab was hectic and Bean was convinced that zooming around, unpacking equipment and supplies and activating systems was aggravating their feelings of malaise. “We were not eating on time,” he explained, “we were not getting to bed on time and we were not exercising.” All three, Bean felt, were absolutely crucial in ensuring a smooth adaptation from an Earthly lifestyle to the new environment and he strongly advised the next crew, led by Gerry Carr, to give them priority over the activation of the station. At last, around six days after launch, they finally began to hit their stride.

Then a problem arose which almost spelled the end of the mission.


The second part of this History article will appear tomorrow.

Missions » Apollo »

One Comment

  1. Thank you for a very fascinating article Ben. Skylab, to me, has always been the most fascinating space station. And the bravery and professionalism of the Skylab astronauts impresses me deeply. I look forward to seeing more of your articles.

International Space University Closing Ceremony Held

Opinion: One Year Later Finds Shuttle Workers Still Struggling