All the King’s Horses: The Final Mission to Skylab (Part 3)

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. It was only the start of an overloaded work schedule which Ed Gibson later described as “a 33-day fire drill.” 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 last weekend’s history articles, 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.

Already, space sickness had stricken Pogue within hours of arriving at Skylab, and within a few weeks the excessive workload began to take its toll on them all. The three men took a stoical outlook, trying to push on with their work and hope that circumstances would improve. They did not. It was time for Carr to make a stand. Having made it known prior to launch that his crew intended to take the activation of the workshop at a slow pace and ease their adaptation to the strange microgravity environment, on 6 December—two weeks into their mission—he spent several minutes explaining to Mission Control that the schedule was too full. His crew would not be expected to work for 16 hours a day, every day, for 84 days, on Earth, so it was unfair to expect it of them in space. There the issue rested for a time and little more was said during the last couple of weeks of the month.

Christmas—the second one to be celebrated by Americans in space, after Apollo 8’s message from lunar orbit in 1968—helped to distract the men from their workload, together with the anticipated arrival of Comet Kohoutek. Carr’s crew built a crude yuletide tree out of packing material from food containers and decorated it with makeshift ornaments. They even crafted a small, long-tailed star from silver foil and put it in pride of place at the top of the tree, in honour of their cometary visitor. Systematic studies of Kohoutek from Skylab had begun on 23 November, when Pogue used a photometric camera to record its intrinsic brightness, followed by analyses of the composition of its coma and tail a few days later. By the weekend before Christmas, more than a dozen such observations had been completed. Another EVA, conducted by Carr and Pogue, took place on Christmas Day, one of whose objectives was photography of Kohoutek. “Bill and I were out for seven hours,” Carr recalled. “I was amazed when I got back in, because I expected that I’d have to go to the bathroom something fierce, but I didn’t. Apparently, I’d gotten rid of a lot of fluids in the form of sweat through my pores. When I got back in, I was really sweaty, but I really didn’t have to urinate. I was just amazed that, after seven hours, I wasn’t pretty interested in streaking to the urinal!”

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

Photography of Kohoutek was one of Bill Pogue’s tasks, and in his NASA oral history interview he remembered floating in the station airlock, surrounded by cameras, two large film magazines for the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), and tools which Carr would use to routinely service the solar observatory. “Gerry went hand-over-hand to the end of the solar observatory,” Pogue related, “while I got the replacement film magazines ready. I operated an extendable boom to transfer the first film canister to Gerry; he removed it and loaded the exposed canister to the boom; I retracted the boom while Gerry loaded the fresh canister to replace the one he had just removed and when he gave me the okay, I sent the second canister out. We repeated the procedure and were finished in record time.” Next came the photography of the comet. Pogue carefully set up his camera, mounting it onto a strut and positioning it such that one of Skylab’s ATM arrays barely blocked the Sun. He could not physically see the comet, but Mission Control had earlier sent him a diagram on the teleprinter. “The instructions were clear and it was a fairly easy job,” he recalled. “I turned on the camera and I was finished.”

Also finished was Pogue’s experience of spacewalking, for this second excursion would be his last; the next two EVAs would both be undertaken by Carr and Gibson. His adventure ended at the solar “end” of the ATM, offering him a stunning and unobstructed view of Earth; it felt like Pogue was doing a swan-like dive through space. His fun was arrested by a sudden call from Gibson. One of the station’s three gyroscopes had failed during the 22 November EVA and now, as Pogue lingered close to the ATM, he was actually causing a second one to throw a fit. “Our suits were fed by oxygen from inside Skylab,” he explained, “and there was no recycling of the air. It automatically fed in near the back of my head, flowed down across my face and then escaped out the front of the suit near my waist. The outward airflow had acted like a small thruster, like letting the air out of a balloon. Although the force from the escaping air was small, my position at the Sun ‘end’ of the ATM magnified the thrusting effect because I was about 30 feet from the centerline of Skylab. In other words, this lever arm was giving the force of the escaping air a lot of leverage. The airflow from my suit was rotating a one-hundred-ton space station!”

The experience, though, was more than worth it, particularly when the men returned inside the airlock and were advised that, with a duration of six hours and 54 minutes, they had set a new world record for the longest EVA to date. Yet the relentless march of the timeline continued to conspire against them. Pogue complained on 12 December that the tight schedule had lost him the chance to complete a series of assigned photographs, because he had to set up the required equipment in a hurry, and on the 20th Gibson recorded that managing the crew’s time with teleprinter messages which dictated their day on a minute-by-minute basis was “no way to do business.” He even described the first five weeks in space as “nothing but a 33-day fire drill.”

The crew of America's final Skylab mission: Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue. They were the first humans to spend New Year in space in 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA
The crew of America’s final Skylab mission: Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue. They were the first humans to spend New Year in space in 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA

On 28 December, after submitting his status report for the day, Carr told Capcom Dick Truly that he was preparing a special message for Mission Control to be sent later that evening before retiring to sleep. He wanted a discussion about the concerns the following day. If it took a couple of hours, everything else would have to wait. Any hope that the conversation could be aired on a private loop was gone and the press jumped hungrily on the matter. “We started talking … as we came up over Goldstone [tracking station in California],” Carr explained. “We had the whole U.S. pass, essentially, for me to tell them all the things that were bothering us. We need more time to rest. We need a schedule that’s not quite so packed. We don’t want to exercise after a meal. We need to get the pace of things under control.” Carr concluded his remarks by asking for Mission Control’s response during the next communications pass. Throughout this 20-minute period of recess, he conferred with Gibson and Pogue to put together a summation of their needs. “During the next pass, they bent our ear with all of the things that we were doing, including our rigidity that made it difficult for them to have the flexibility to schedule us how they needed to.”

All told, the conversation ran for almost an hour and covered a multitude of issues. Dick Truly assured them that everyone was happy with their performance. With Deke Slayton and Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft in attendance, Truly felt the need to provide an assurance. “Gerry, let me say one thing,” he said. “Dr. Kraft and Deke have been here and listened … and they’re very happy with the way you’re doing business … and they think we’ve made about a million dollars tonight.”

It was not vain praise. Mission managers had already lauded the crew’s performance after a month in orbit, and Skylab Program Manager Bill Schneider had told the press on 13 December that Carr’s team had completed 84 hours of solar observations, 12 Earth-resources passes, 80 photographic and visual surveys, all of their assigned medical tasks, and three major repair jobs. Unless something unforeseen transpired, Schneider told the gathered journalists, he was optimistic of a mission lasting at least 60 days, “open-ended to 84.” Years later, Ed Gibson would laud Gerry Carr for making a stand on the matter of the schedule, although, tellingly, he noted that Mission Control was by no means blameless, even describing their continuous demands and requests as “obnoxious.”

The makeshift Christmas tree built by Carr, Gibson and Pogue from old food containers and packaging also included a long-tailed star at its tip: Comet Kohoutek. Photo Credit: NASA
The makeshift Christmas tree built by Carr, Gibson, and Pogue from old food containers and packaging also included a long-tailed star at its tip: Comet Kohoutek. Photo Credit: NASA

Next morning, 30 December, Houston came back with a list of recommendations. One was that the crew’s menial, routine chores would be put on a “shopping list” to be completed when time permitted during the course of the day. Moreover, the men would no longer be hassled during meal times and they would be given no major assignments after dinner in the evening. The experiments, however, which needed to be “hard-scheduled” to a particular time slot, would need to remain as they were. Fine, Carr replied, aware that this opening-up of the schedule had already taken much of the pressure off their shoulders. In fact, this schedule even allowed them to conjure some experiments suitable for television audiences on Earth. Several of these, including demonstrations of the behaviour of water in weightlessness, are still used today as part of classroom science experiments. From Mission Control’s perspective, Flight Director Neil Hutchinson admitted that there were indeed several serious scheduling and performance problems in the flight. Indeed, Harvard Business School would later publish a case study about Carr’s “strike” in space, detailing unrealistic expectations and miscommunication as part of a flawed management process.

To this day, perhaps unfairly, the achievements of Carr’s crew are overwhelmed in the popular press by the unfortunate label that they were the first to stage a “mutiny” in space. In a sense, the over-performance of Al Bean’s team had contributed to the stress under which Carr, Gibson, and Pogue had worked for the first six weeks of their own mission. Years later, Bean would accept that NASA had failed to properly switch gears after his flight and appreciate that Carr and his men would be aloft for a much longer period of time. More detrimental was that Mission Control started Carr’s crew at the same point that Bean’s crew had reached at the end of their mission. At one stage, Chris Kraft called Bean and Pete Conrad to his office to discuss the issue. “Mission Control plans to lighten up on these guys,” Bean implored Kraft, “but they don’t ever do it. They have to lighten up and let these guys catch their breath!” Also aware of the problem was unflown astronaut Bob Crippen, who had led the ground-based Skylab Medical Experiments Altitude Test (SMEAT) a year earlier; he felt that Charles “Pete” Conrad’s crew had spent much of its time repairing Skylab, with relatively little time on the experiments, and Bean’s men had the advantage of a slow start, ramping up into a more aggressive final few weeks, when they were properly adapted to the new environment. Carr, Gibson, and Pogue were being literally burned out from the start. It was not a good philosophy for executing a long-duration space mission.

As one of the team of capcoms for this flight, Crippen knew that the events of 28 December by no means reflected any kind of rebellion on Carr’s part; rather, they offered Mission Control a wake-up call to understand the problems that the astronauts faced. After the heart-to-heart, everything smoothed out and the final six weeks ran much more smoothly and pleasantly. The drive to achieve the highest possible performance from the crew was a hard-won lesson, Ed Gibson recounted, but it was a lesson which would have untold ramifications in the planning of future long-term missions, including those aboard today’s International Space Station.


The final part of this series of articles will appear tomorrow.


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