All the King's Horses: The Final Mission to Skylab (Part 2)

Skylab and its Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) was a critical asset in observing Comet Kohoutek in the winter of 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA

Skylab and its Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) was a critical asset in observing Comet Kohoutek in the winter of 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty years ago this week, in November 1973, NASA launched its third and final crew to the Skylab space station. As recounted in yesterday’s history article, Commander Gerry Carr, Science Pilot Ed Gibson, and Pilot Bill Pogue were tasked to complete a mission of at least 60 days, open-ended to 84 days, either of which would produce a new world endurance record. The enormous success of Skylab’s first and second crews—who repaired and revived the crippled station, then went on to accomplish 150 percent of their science goals—imbued NASA with a false sense of confidence that it could fully load the final crew with an excessive amount of work. As circumstances would transpire, the experience of Carr, Gibson, and Pogue would teach the agency to regard long-duration spaceflight in a quite different manner to its earlier, shorter-duration missions.

After docking with Skylab, late on 16 November, it was intended that the astronauts would remain aboard their Apollo command module overnight and enter the station early the following morning. The rationale was to aid their adaptation to weightlessness before entering the large, open, disorientating volume of Skylab. After two unsuccessful attempts, docking was duly accomplished eight hours into the mission, and the crew remained awake late into the night stowing equipment, when, all at once, Pogue felt sick. Years later, he explained to the NASA oral historian that the sensation took the form of a severe headache and nausea and that Carr’s suggestion to eat something did not help matters. In fact, a mouthful of stewed tomatoes (the only item left in Pogue’s evening meal) soon sent him scurrying for his sick bag.

One of the greatest ironies was that Pogue had actually taken scopalomine-dextroamphetamine anti-nausea medication before launch, whilst Carr had not … and yet the commander experienced no feelings of sickness whatsoever. Nor did Gibson. Under normal circumstances, Carr knew that he was not even allowed to drive after having taken “Scop-Dex,” and he most definitely did not want his ability to be compromised whilst in charge of a spacecraft. Of the three of them, Pogue, an ex-Thunderbird pilot, was considered the least likely to get sick. Years later, he would see it as evidence that none of the medical community had a real handle on what caused space sickness and, for the most part, the theories and the prescribed medications were inconclusive and of only limited usefulness. Now, of course, with the pressure on them as a crew not to get sick, they faced a real dilemma: what to tell the ground?

The disorientating nature of the weightless environment, particularly in a large open volume like that of Skylab, offered many of the ingredients for "space sickness". Photo Credit: NASA

The disorientating nature of the weightless environment, particularly in a large open volume like that of Skylab, offered many of the ingredients for “space sickness.” Photo Credit: NASA

Skylab had drifted out of direct radio contact at this stage and it was Gibson who suggested simply disposing of the “evidence”—Pogue’s sick bag—in the station’s trash airlock and keeping quiet about the matter. In so doing, Carr agreed, they could avoid getting the medical community “all fuzzed” and hopefully get their mission off to a smooth start. To Gibson, the desire to avoid space sickness was a political one: the multi-billion-dollar shuttle had only recently been approved by Congress, and there were lingering worries that if astronauts could get sick and potentially incapacitated for several days, the whole raison d’etre behind having a reusable winged spacecraft might be compromised.

Things were not looking good. Carr and Gibson tried putting Pogue into the docking tunnel, hoping that air from a cabin fan might make him feel better, but to little effect. Before retiring for the night, Carr read his status report to the ground, admitting to Pogue’s nausea and highlighting that he had not eaten all of one of his meals. Unluckily, one of Pogue’s responsibilities was the spacecraft’s communications system … and, as specified in the checklist, he had left the switch “on” to the equipment which was recording their in-cabin conversations. Whilst the crew slept that night, Mission Control downloaded the tape and heard all of their discussion about concealing the evidence!

Early the next day, 17 November, Pogue felt better, but took things slowly as he and his comrades ate breakfast. By mid-morning, they were inside Skylab. Carr switched on the lights and the men set to work on their respective duties: setting up communications links, starting the environmental control system, and reactivating the station. In the meantime, back in Houston, the tapes from the previous evening were being transcribed and their startling contents led to a medical conference to be convened that afternoon. Later, Chief Astronaut Al Shepard came onto the capcom’s console to address Carr directly.

“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that on the matter of your status reports, we think you made a fairly serious error in judgement here in the report of your condition.”

Carr accepted the rebuke. “Okay, Al, I admit it was a dumb decision.”

Ed Gibson, pictured at the controls of Skylab's Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). Photo Credit: NASA

Ed Gibson, pictured at the controls of Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). Photo Credit: NASA

Shepard was not to be put off. If Pogue’s sick bag had been disposed of in the station’s trash airlock, it could screw up many of the medical experiments. Shepard pressed Carr to assure him that they had not gotten rid of the bag and that its contents would be weighed, as per the crew’s training, for mineral balance studies.

The incident, whilst relatively minor, underlined in some managers’ minds a fear that Carr’s crew were unwilling to engage in frank and open communications with Mission Control. Flight Director Neil Hutchinson did not doubt the crew’s integrity, but made certain that any further problems would require flight controllers to take immediate steps to set matters right. The situation would grow markedly worse over the coming days. Even three decades later, Bill Pogue would recall that he got on perfectly well with both Carr and Gibson, but felt it would have been nice to have had an experienced crewman aboard. They were the first all-rookie U.S. crew since Gemini VIII in March 1966. In hindsight, Gibson acquiesced, they could and should have handled it differently. “We should’ve just said: ‘Hey, guys, your pills didn’t work. They’re wafting across the command module now, along with Bill’s tomatoes!’ That’s probably the most regrettable thing I have about that whole flight … that we were not smart enough to handle it properly, because it caused everybody a lot of problems.”

With Pogue recovered, the crew realized that they were behind schedule and needed to work hard in order to catch up. Aside from adaptation to their new environment, the crew’s first week in space included a spacewalk by Pogue and Gibson on 22 November—Thanksgiving Day—to reload film into the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) and check out an inoperable antenna on an external radiometer/scatterometer and altimeter, known by the experiment code number of “S-193,” which was part of the Earth resources payload. The day concluded in fine style, with an ample Thanksgiving dinner. Carr selected prime ribs, Gibson went with turkey, and Pogue chose chicken. It was very good food, but they did note a tendency of blandness. Condiments helped a little, although they had to be used sparingly, lest they interfere with the medical experiments.

Whether afflicted by sickness or not, the three men also needed time to get themselves adapted to their strange new environment. During the first few days, Carr elected to swap roles with Pogue, “because my job was more sedentary than his.” Gradually, this enthusiasm became wearing, for the performance of Bean, Garriott, and Lousma had encouraged mission planners to pile more work onto Carr’s team. If they missed a step or made a mistake with a task, the timeline was so densely packed for all three men that they would end up racing against the clock, fighting a losing battle to keep up. “It was hard on morale,” Carr recalled. “We were rushed and not able to get things done and experiments completed.” The low morale was accompanied by an acute feeling that they were letting down the principal investigators; they pictured the scientists on the ground grinding their teeth as the three astronauts kept reporting that they were unable to complete all tasks on time because they were rushing around too much, making mistakes.

This image of Comet Kohoutek was acquired by a member of the final Skylab crew, 40 years ago. Photo Credit: NASA

This image of Comet Kohoutek was acquired by a member of the final Skylab crew, 40 years ago. Photo Credit: NASA

Circumstances were not aided by the rather unpleasant attitude taken toward the astronauts by several of the scientists, some of whom regarded the crew as little more than a trio of semi-trained chimps. Early in the mission, Pogue was assigned to photograph a barium cloud, exploded by a Black Brant IV rocket launch from Fairbanks, Alaska. The objective of the NASA-funded study was that the barium vapor would be injected into Earth’s magnetosphere and, after ionization by solar ultraviolet radiation, would illuminate geomagnetic field lines and make them visible to sensitive equipment on the ground. However, after struggling to find each piece of equipment needed for the camera, Pogue positioned everything in the correct angle, checked his watch to ensure that all was ready … and saw nothing. “Where’s the barium cloud?” he recalled later. “I missed it. I don’t know why none of the numbers worked, but in any event I missed the cloud.”

Despite not understanding the problems that Carr’s crew faced in space, particularly during initial adaptation, those first few days of the mission seemed to reinforce this notion. “Then we discovered that we had been scheduled at nearly the same rate that the second crew had achieved at the end of their flight,” Carr continued. “That explained why we were having so much trouble keeping up. But by the time that was finally recognized, we had achieved a skill level that was adequate to get the work done.” They ate dinner together, partly for the social contact and partly to cement their cohesiveness as a crew, but found themselves hurrying off to work on experiments until well into the evening. By bedtime, none of them felt ready to sleep, because there were tools and pieces of equipment to put away or set up for the following morning. Their minds were moving too fast to rest, which impaired their ability to sleep and caused their productivity to suffer. Planners on the ground began to reschedule their exercise sessions to enable them to catch up on the experiments. There was nothing wrong with that, it seemed … until it became clear that at least one exercise session was scheduled right after dinner! “That’s no time to be exercising,” observed Carr afterward, “particularly up there, where you couldn’t belch, because with your food floating around inside you, you were liable to get it back with your belch.”

The final Skylab crew was tasked with its first EVA only a week after arriving in space. Photo Credit: NASA

The final Skylab crew was tasked with its first EVA only a week after arriving in space. Photo Credit: NASA

Not surprisingly, as time wore on the crew became quite testy with Mission Control. Carr had requested before launch that their first day off, scheduled for 19 November, should be cancelled, but Flight Director Neil Hutchinson felt that they would benefit from the free time and two opportunities were made available in the first few days. On the evening of their second free day, Carr told mission controllers that the week had been “frantic” and that they were struggling to keep to the timeline.

Words of wisdom from Ed Gibson’s high school track coach summed up the crew’s feeling: If you want to win the quarter-mile race, sprint the first hundred yards, then just gradually increase your pace. Aboard Skylab, they were moving so fast, and so constantly, that it was impossible to avoid making mistakes. On more than one occasion, Gibson recalled floating through the multiple docking adaptor, muttering creative profanities, little realizing that the voice recording link to the ground was open. “The situation,” he explained, “was compounded a bit because people had not yet fully come to grips with the fact that Skylab was a different animal than all the relatively short missions to date.” For ascent and re-entry, fine, it was necessary to have their timelines spelled out in second-by-second detail, or at least in blocks of a few minutes, but on an extended mission of three months, such micromanagement was neither suitable nor appropriate.

Nor was there an option to simply have a heart-to-heart with the ground and thrash things out, because all communications had to be open for the whole world to hear, including the press. At one stage, the astronauts decided to make better use of their time by having one of them listening for radio traffic at a time, thereby allowing the others to switch off the distraction of their radios and get on with their work. This worked well for a time … until, during one particular orbit, they forgot and all three of them left their radios switched off for an entire pass. “That caused a lot of concern on the ground,” Carr said, “and, of course, the press just thought that was wonderful.” In their sensationalist minds, the astronauts were on strike, on the brink of mutiny, turning their radios off deliberately. It was an unfair accusation which led to a stigma that would hang over Carr’s crew for decades.


This series of articles will conclude next weekend


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