Sprinting a Marathon
You lost a crewman? How could you lose a crewman inside a spacecraft?
Skylab III Mission Announcement
The third manned Skylab mission is scheduled for launch November io
at 11:40 a. m. EST for a mission duration of 60 days or more,
William Schneider, Skylab Program Director, announced.
The mission will be planned as a 60-day open-ended mission
with consumables aboard to provide for as many as 85 days.
Mission extensions would be considered on the 56th, 63rd, 70th and 77th days of the
flight based on the medical well being of the crew,
consumables and work load. The extension of the mission to
85 days would substantially increase the scientific return.
NASA—Press Release, 26 October 19/3
Skylab ill was to break new ground in mission duration and accomplishments. And it would do it with an all-rookie crew. When they launched, the three crewmembers did not have a single day of spaceflight experience amongst them. But when they returned, each would have spent more continuous time in space than any other human being.
For the mission’s commander, Jerry Carr, and its pilot, Bill Pogue, the Skylab assignment started off as practically a consolation prize. “I was tentatively scheduled to fly on Apollo 19,” Carr recalled. “Our crew was to be Fred Haise, the commander; Bill Pogue, the Command Module pilot; and
me, the Lunar Module pilot. We got started on that assignment and began our training program. Then if my memory serves me correctly, it was around 1970, early 1970 or so, when it was decided that Apollos 18, 19, and 20 would be canceled. So that was a bad day at Black Rock for the three of us. We had lost our opportunity to go to the moon.
“We moped around for quite a few weeks,” he said. “Then Tom Stafford called me into his office and informed me that I was to be the commander of the third Skylab mission and asked, ‘Do you think you can work with Bill Pogue and Ed Gibson?’ And I said, ‘Of course I can.’ At that time they took us off our roles as the backup crew for Apollo 16 and put another crew in there, and we began focusing on the Skylab mission.
“I was delighted to get a seat, and I was absolutely floored that they would select me to be a commander because there hadn’t been a rookie commander at NASA since, what was it? I guess it was probably Armstrong on Gemini 8. And so I was really flabbergasted to be selected and very happy to do it. What delighted me the most was that I was going to be working with Al Bean, Pete Conrad, and people like that again, which was really a wonderful thing.”
Ed Gibson recalled: “When assigned to the mission, I knew I was in fast company. Bill Pogue initially appeared to be just an average mild-mannered mathematician, who he had been; but he was also once grounded for flying too low behind enemy lines, was an Air Force test pilot, and flew with the Thunderbirds. He is a sharp, aggressive guy. Jerry Carr had a good education in aeronautics and was a Marine aviator, which pretty much said it all. The all-rookie crew aspect didn’t faze me. I was just happy to get a seat, and flying with guys I really respected. In retrospect, I lucked out. I got to do great science, be fully immersed in all aspects of astronaut activities, and fly high-performance aircraft. It just couldn’t get any better than that!”
While the three rookie astronauts were excited to be getting their chance to fly, they had little idea that before Skylab ill even launched, it already had two major strikes against it—the past and the future. The strike in the future was the next great thing looming over the horizon—the Space Shuttle program. Early development of the Shuttle was already underway by the time of Skylab, and the orbiter contract had been signed the month before the sl-i launch with a critical design review scheduled for 1975. However, the program still faced opposition in Congress. A major part of the system was a one-shot pilot-controlled landing from orbit with no go-around capability. There were those who felt that landing would be too large a challenge, particularly if the pilot were suffering from space sickness. The Skylab ill crew had been made aware of how important it was that they not give the orbit – er’s enemies ammunition against the program in that respect.
The past affected them in the form of the two Skylab missions that flew before them. Both Skylab I and II had been behind their timeline early in flight. In both cases there were obvious factors that contributed to these slow starts. The Skylab I crew had to deal with the high temperatures and power shortages on a crippled spacecraft. The Skylab II crew was slowed by motion sickness. Those obvious factors, though, obscured the fact that the major cause was simply that people had to get considerable on-the-job training to efficiently perform tasks in weightlessness—especially when large habitable volumes are involved. With repetition the second crew in particular became extremely efficient and was accomplishing more than their scheduled science work by the end of their mission. While the actual factors involved in the slow starts of the first two crews would become a major issue once the third crew was in orbit, the efficiency the second crew developed over the course of the mission had an impact on the third crew while Carr and his colleagues were still on the ground.
Upon learning of the 150 percent return of the Bean crew, scientists and mission planners saw an opportunity. Clearly, they had not sent enough work for the second crew to do—and they began making sure the third crew was going to have plenty of work to accomplish. “We got to Skylab ill, which was going to be the last mission in the program,” flight director Neil Hutchinson recalled in a NASA oral history interview. “The train was leaving the station, and all kinds of experiments and experimenters were running for a seat.”
In addition NASA decided to use the third crew’s flight to capitalize on another opportunity. In late December 1973 and early January 1974 the Comet Kohoutek would be passing through the inner solar system. Tasking the third crew with observing Kohoutek from Skylab would let the agency show off the potential of orbital astronomy by performing an unprecedented feat—no comet had been observed from space before. “Some other training we got at the last minute included that on Comet Kohoutek,” Pogue recalled. “Early in the year it was discovered at the Hamburg Observatory in West Germany that this comet was headed toward the sun and was going to reach its perihelion about Christmas Day of 1973. There was a lot of talk about the period of the comet being about two thousand years, which led to speculation that it was actually the Christmas comet, the one cited in Biblical stories of the new star. At any rate, we did some studying and training for that experiment as well.”
Press releases from the time illustrate the situation that confronted the third crew.
nasa-jsc Release No.: 73-107
nasa today announced tentative plans to observe the Comet Kohoutek during the Skylab iii mission which is planned for launch on or about November у from the Kennedy Space Center. The November date is the original planned launch date for Skylab iii. The Comet Kohoutek was identified earlier this year and will be clearly visible from Earth. It is expected to be the brightest object in the night sky except for the Moon in late December and early January. Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount instruments, designed to obtain data on the Sun, will observe Kohoutek during its nearest proximity to the Sun late in December.