Last month, NASA marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the final Skylab mission, and less than four weeks later the agency is mourning the loss of Bill Pogue, one of the crewmen of that flight, who has died, aged 84. Had it not been for an unfortunate chain of events, Pogue might have been one of the last men to voyage to the Moon on Apollo 19, but as circumstances transpired he helped establish a human spaceflight endurance record of 84 days, which endured for more than four years in the mid-1970s. In doing so, he also became one of the first Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving in orbit, one of the first Americans to celebrate a New Year in orbit, one of only two Americans to have spacewalked on Christmas Day … and fell victim, in a notoriously public manner, to the malaise of space sickness.
Before November 1973, if anyone was going to get sick in space, one of the least likely candidates was William Reid Pogue, who was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team before his selection into the NASA astronaut corps. If anyone’s stomach could be wrung inside out with aileron rolls and other churning maneuvers, with few ill effects, then Pogue, surely, was the man. It did not turn out to be quite like that.
Pogue was born in Okemah, Okla., on 23 January 1930, making him, at the time of his launch to Skylab in November 1973, the oldest “rookie” astronaut yet sent into orbit in NASA’s history, at 43 years of age. Interestingly, his parents were both of Native American descent, their family line tracing its origin back to the Choctaw people of the southeastern part of the United States, whose territorial homelands centered on Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. He could reasonably claim to be the “first” astronaut of Native American stock, but it was John Herrington, who flew aboard the shuttle in late 2002, who was an actual enrolled member of a tribe.
As a child, Pogue was fascinated by aircraft and aviation, making and flying model aircraft and, aged eight or nine, watching a Ford Tri-motor transport aircraft performing a loop over a field close to his home. In his formative years, Pogue attended primary and secondary schools in Oklahoma and won a bachelor’s degree in education from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1951, with the intention of becoming a mathematics or physics teacher, but the outbreak of the Korean War persuaded him to opt for admission into the Air Force for cadet training. Pogue was originally meant to be a gunner, but was instead sent to flight school and ended up flying 43 missions in the straight-winged F-84 Thunderjet, on interdiction missions by bombing trains and providing close aerial support to front-line American troops. He returned to the United States in December 1953 and was assigned to Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Ariz., as a gunnery instructor. It was at this time that he was approached to join the Thunderbirds, a newly-created aerial demonstration team, based at Luke.
Pogue loved the two-year assignment as a Thunderbird solo and “slot” pilot. “It was a lot of fun,” he told a NASA oral historian. “No paperwork. All we had to do was fly and we traveled all over the country.” At this stage, the team was very much in its infancy, and the first Thunderbird pilots flew the single-seat F-84G Thunderjet, the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak, and, for VIP and press/narrator rides, the two-seat T-33 Shooting Star. Shortly before Pogue finished his tour with the team, in the summer of 1956, the F-100 Super Sabre was introduced to provide them with a supersonic capability and they were relocated from Luke to Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, Nev., where the squadron remains headquartered to this day.
In addition to the flying, another positive aspect of Thunderbirds membership was that Pogue had the pick of his next assignment. He chose postgraduate school and was enrolled for a master’s credential in mathematics at Oklahoma State University, hoping to someday become an instructor at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. He received his degree in 1960 and taught there as an assistant professor for a couple of years, before his attention was drawn to NASA and its astronaut corps. “I had already decided I would like to get into the space program,” Pogue recalled, “and talked to the professor of mathematics. This was kind of a tricky operation, because you had a five-year tour there. A lot of them … really held you feet to the fire, but I went in and explained what it was I wanted to do.” The professor was particularly supportive and sent Pogue to the University of California at Los Angeles in the summer months for “special courses” and recommended the young pilot most favorably.
Those “special courses” were test pilot school, which was—at the time—a pre-requisite for any serious astronaut candidate. However, unlike many other astronauts, he graduated from the Empire Test Pilots’ School in Farnborough, England, as part of an exchange program between the United States and Britain. “That was very interesting,” he told the NASA oral historian, “working with the Brits. Very competent air crewmen.” He flew a variety of aircraft during his time in England, from fighters to transports and sailplanes to the Shakleton four-engine patrol bomber. “The thing about it was, if you asked to fly it, they would let you! They would give you the book; well, actually, it was the plane. I recall many times coming in to land an airplane, before I’d make my let-down, the first time I’d flown it, I’d have to look on the back of it and fortunately on the back of these pilots’ notes … it listed all the air speeds for approaches! So I’d memorize the two or three air speeds and then come in and land fine!” If astronauts-in-waiting needed the “Right Stuff,” it seemed that Bill Pogue had it in spades. He completed his tour in England in September 1965.
His next assignment was to the famed Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where he was placed briefly in Fighter Ops and later taught operational mathematics at the test piloting school and translated all of the mathematics text into vector notation. “I finished that,” he concluded, “about three or four weeks before I came to JSC.” Pogue was surprised, in the light of his lengthy stint in England, that his application to NASA had even arrived on time, but after undergoing the standard battery of physical and physiological tests, he was called to Houston’s Rice Hotel, late in March 1966, for his formal interview. “As I understood it,” he recalled, “they weren’t going to select [more than] about 12 or 15.” Eventually, aware that its lunar programme and Apollo Applications would need the manpower, NASA picked 19 fliers … and Bill Pogue was among them.
His relationship with Apollo Applications—the effort which later morphed into Skylab—began early, when he was assigned to work with astronaut Al Bean. Subsequent assignments included supporting Apollo 7, in which one of Pogue’s duties was to reduce the crew’s notes and checklists and simplify the approaches to working with the spacecraft systems. In true support-crew fashion, his general role was “sort of a go-fer,” and he and fellow 1966 selectees Ron Evans and Jack Swigert spent much of their time undertaking tests which the prime and backup crews were too busy to conduct.
An actual flight assignment for Pogue was a long time coming, but in the spring of 1970 he was placed on what he described as “a phantom backup crew” for Apollo 16, with an anticipated—though not formally announced—future assignment as Command Module Pilot (CMP) on Apollo 19. This mission was scheduled to occur in late 1973 or early 1974, after Skylab, and would have been the final piloted lunar landing. Unluckily for Pogue and his phantom-crew mates, Commander Fred Haise and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Gerry Carr, the prospects for Apollo 19 did not look good that spring, and on 2 September 1970, due to steadily tightening budgets, the flight was canceled. Haise, Pogue, and Carr were on a field geology trip in Arizona when they learned the news, and all three were devastated as they saw their chance to go to the Moon evaporate. “We came back to Flagstaff, stayed at a motel,” Pogue recalled. “The next morning, I walked out the door … and Fred was holding this newspaper that said Apollos 18 and 19 Canceled. That’s how we found out!”
Yet their chances of flying in space were still there. Early in 1971, Deke Slayton named Pogue and Carr as prime crew members, along with scientist-astronaut Ed Gibson, to the third and final Skylab mission. They were publicly announced as a crew by NASA in January 1972. Since Pogue had previously trained as a CMP, he was assigned as the pilot on the crew, because many of his former duties would translate smoothly across from one role to the other. Gerry Carr, on the other hand, had originally been training as an LMP and, with no lunar module involved in Skylab, it made sense, in Slayton’s mind, to give him command of the mission. He would thus be the first rookie astronaut to command a U.S. space mission since Neil Armstrong on Gemini VIII in March 1966. Slayton had another reason to give Carr this command. Personal recommendation went a long way, and Carr’s sterling work for Charles “Pete” Conrad on the Apollo 12 support crew had earned him deserved brownie points. Conrad, of course, was now “Sky King” and was not only in charge of the Skylab branch of the astronaut corps, but had a big say in who should fly each mission. With these factors in mind, it is unsurprising that Carr received the Skylab command.
Pogue never openly commented about receiving the junior position on the crew, even though (as an Air Force colonel at the time of the mission, as compared to Carr’s rank of lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps) he was the senior military officer, and one can only assume that the two men were too professional for such an issue to arise between them. In David Hitt, Owen Garriott, and Joe Kerwin’s 2008 book Homesteading Space, Ed Gibson referred to Pogue as “an average, mild-mannered mathematician,” but added that “he was once grounded for flying too low behind enemy lines … [and is] a sharp, aggressive guy.” In Gibson’s mind, that said it all. “When assigned to the mission,” the scientist-astronaut noted, “I knew I was in fast company!”
Pogue’s first and only space mission got underway on 16 November 1973, when he, Carr, and Gibson launched from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, atop a Saturn IB booster, bound for Skylab. The launch itself was picture-perfect, and all three men would relate lucidly their memories of riding the Saturn IB. As propellants flooded into the combustion chambers of the eight H-1 engines of the rocket’s first stage, Bill Pogue likened the sound to someone having simultaneously flushed every toilet in the Astrodome.
Naturally, for a veteran Thunderbird, Pogue thought he stayed cool and calm throughout the experience, although a subsequent conversation with flight surgeon Fred Kelly assured him that his pulse rate had actually accelerated from 50 to 120 at the instant of liftoff. The vibrations in the command module’s cabin were intense throughout the climb; one of Pogue’s responsibilities was to follow the launch profile in his procedures book, and he quickly found that his hands—and the book—were shaking so much that he could hardly read it. The noise was so intense that the men could hardly hear each other’s voices over the intercom. “Once you go supersonic,” Pogue continued, “the noise stops, because the shockwave detaches and you no longer get the air noise. Then, after you get above about 40,000 feet, the turbulence cuts down considerably. By the time you hit 60,000, there’s none. The sky turns black and so forth and you’re on your way, but it’s a real soft ride after that.”
For Pogue, the euphemism of “stomach awareness” very soon took center stage. NASA decided that, after docking with Skylab, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue would remain aboard the command module for their first night’s sleep in space and enter the station the following morning; the rationale was to assist their adaptation to weightlessness before entering the large, open volume of the workshop. After two unsuccessful attempts, docking was accomplished some eight hours into the mission and the crew remained awake late into the night, stowing equipment, when, all at once, Pogue felt sick. Really sick. Years later, he explained that the sensation took the form of a severe headache and nausea and that Carr’s suggestion to eat something did not help. In fact, a mouthful of stewed tomatoes—the only item left in Pogue’s evening meal—sent him scurrying for his sick bag.
One of the greatest ironies was that Pogue had actually taken anti-nausea medication before launch and Carr had not … and yet the commander experienced no feelings of sickness. Nor did Gibson. Years later, Pogue saw it as evidence that no one in 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 limited use. Now, with the pressure on them as a crew not to get sick, and with all the medications aboard, they faced a real dilemma: what to tell the ground?
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. Carr agreed that 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 very much a political one: As already noted earlier, the space shuttle program 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 reason for 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. Hopefully, “Old Iron Ears” Pogue would feel better the next morning and no harm would have been done. With regard to the food that the pilot had not eaten, they would say that he was just not hungry. 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 and watched the Alps and southeastern Europe drift beneath them. 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 generally reactivating and testing the workshop. 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 himself came onto the Capcom’s console to address Carr directly. Shepard did not mince words.
“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.”
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, as part of the 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 grew markedly worse over the coming weeks, and, by late December, the overworked crew neared breaking point. This led to a much-publicized heart-to-heart between Carr and Mission Control to ease up on their workload.
Simply finding things in the vastness of Skylab was difficult. “One evening,” Pogue related, “my flight activity message for the next day directed me to recharge the fluid level in a water loop used to cool an electronics package.” The task seemed straightforward enough … and it was, but Pogue did not count on the fact that it would a considerable period of time just to locate all of the required parts. He found a small flashlight to observe the accumulator, then went in search of a long hose which he would hook up between the water tanks to the work site. He could not find it. Unfortunately, at the time, Skylab was out of direct communications with the ground and Pogue had to wait 20 minutes until the next Stateside pass. Mission Control got in touch with his predecessor, astronaut Jack Lousma, who happened to be at home in Friendswood, Texas, mowing the lawn at the time. “He wiped some of his sweat off,” continued Pogue, “and said he did remember using it, but if it wasn’t in the designated stowage location, he didn’t have the foggiest notion of where it might be.” Eventually, Pogue found two shorter sections of hose, which he connected together to span the distance. In his 84 days aboard Skylab, he never found the hose for which he had so diligently searched. On other occasions, calibration weights would mysteriously disappear and a systems checklist would float away and not be seen again for several weeks. Even Pogue’s reading glasses vanished for a time.
Aside from adaptation to their new environment, the crew’s first week in space included a spacewalk by Pogue and Gibson to reload film into Skylab’s 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. Late on the morning of 22 November 1973, Thanksgiving Day, the astronauts ventured outside to begin work. Their space suits, Pogue remembered, were hard to work with, particularly in view of the reality that the astronauts’ spines lengthened slightly after a few days in weightlessness. “Our space suits had been very carefully custom-fitted … so when we got up in space and our bodies increased in length, it was not only difficult to get into them, but you got back after working six or seven hours outside [and] you’d have cable burns on your shoulders because, from crotch to shoulder, you’d grown two inches and that put a lot of pressure on the shoulders.” The excursion itself was highly successful, running to 6.5 hours. As the S-193 experiment had not been designed for an EVA repair, there were no handholds or foot restraints. Pogue and Gibson improvised by moving, hand-over-hand, along a rigid dump pipe for the station’s molecular sieve, giving it an additional role to its normal job of getting rid of carbon dioxide and water vapour. The S-193 repair was awkward—“a Dixie screwdriver operation,” according to Pogue—but the two men succeeded.
The day concluded in fine style, with an ample Thanksgiving dinner, the first to be celebrated in orbit by American citizens. 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 could be used only sparingly, particularly salt, lest they interfere with the medical experiments. In the weeks that followed, they became only the second U.S. astronaut crew—after Apollo 8—to spend Christmas in space. On the traditional date of Christ’s birth, Pogue and Carr also performed an EVA, one of whose key objectives was to photograph Comet Kohoutek. To this day, it remains the only time that U.S. spacewalkers have ventured outside their craft on Christmas Day. With two EVAs under his belt, Pogue accrued more than 13 hours of spacewalking time. A week later, on 1 January 1974, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue became the first group of Americans to celebrate a New Year in a location other than Earth. They returned home on 8 February, after a record-breaking 84 days in orbit. This achievement would not be surpassed until March 1978, when Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko completed 96 days aboard Salyut 6.
Pogue retired from the Air Force in 1975 and left NASA two years later. He subsequently worked as an independent technical contractor for a number of aerospace and energy firms and in 1984-1988 provided technical support for Boeing as part of the fledgling Space Station Freedom program. That eventually developed into today’s International Space Station (ISS), whose many long-duration missions have been founded on the accomplishments of Skylab and other orbital outposts. Pogue died of natural causes during the night of 3/4 March 2014 at his Florida home. He is survived by his wife, Tina, together with three children and four stepchildren, to whom AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences.