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Forty-Five Years Ago: Splashdown of Third and Final Skylab Crew

February 8, 2019

The longest human spaceflight—at the time—ended on Feb. 8, 1974. The Skylab 4 crew of Commander Gerald P. Carr, Pilot William R. Pogue and Science Pilot Edward G. Gibson splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after their record-breaking 84-day mission, during which they completed significantly more science experiments than planned. Their spaceflight duration record stood for four years.


Left: Pogue at the controls of the Apollo Telescope Mount. Right: Gibson floats through the hatch from Airlock Module into the Orbital Workshop. Image Credits: NASA

Carr, Gibson and Pogue launched to the Skylab space station on Nov. 16, 1973. During their first two months on orbit, they completed three spacewalks to retrieve and replace film canisters in the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) and observed the newly discovered Comet Kohoutek during its close pass to the sun. The crew also conducted a busy research program, including biomedical investigations on the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body, Earth observations using the Earth Resources Experiment Package and solar observations with instruments mounted on the ATM. During their third and final month in space, they wrapped up experiment work, and Carr and Gibson completed the fourth and final spacewalk of the mission on Feb. 3 with an excursion a little more than five hours long to retrieve the last ATM film canisters. It was the last American spacewalk for nine years. 


Left: Gibson during the fourth spacewalk of the mission. Right: The Skylab space station as photographed during the crew’s farewell inspection fly-around. Image Credits: NASA

And then it came time for the crew to mothball the station. Mission control teleprinted instructions to the crew, which required 15 feet of paper to print. As they finished experiments, they also began stowing gear and samples in the Command Module (CM) for return to Earth. After undocking, they performed a fly-around inspection of the Skylab space station that had been their home for the past three months. They held the distinction of being the first crew to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year in space. Re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean went smoothly, and the crew, still inside the CM, were lifted aboard the prime recovery ship USS New Orleans. Because of the additional exercise and better nutrition, the crewmates returned in better physical condition than the other two crews who had spent less time in space.


Left: The Skylab 4 Command Module at the moment of splashdown. Right: Skylab 4 astronauts (left to right) Gibson, Pogue and Carr on the prime recovery ship USS New Orleans shortly after their return from 84 days in space. Image Credits: NASA

The end of the Skylab 4 mission marked the end of the crewed portion of the Skylab Program. Carr, Gibson and Pogue configured the station for unpiloted operations, with mission control maintaining control of the vehicle. Just before undocking, they fired the Service Module’s Reaction Control System thrusters to raise Skylab’s orbit, and it was predicted that the station would stay in orbit until the early 1980s.

There were discussions of possibly revisiting Skylab once the space shuttle was flying regularly, or at least having shuttle crew members remotely attach a rocket engine to the station to either boost it into a higher orbit or command it to a controlled re-entry. Unfortunately, greater than predicted solar activity increased atmospheric drag, causing Skylab to lose altitude more rapidly than expected. Delays in the Space Shuttle Program finally made any rescue of America’s first space station impossible. On July 11, 1979, Skylab re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The forces of re-entry caused the station to break up into hundreds of pieces, several large enough to survive to the ground. What was left of the space station scattered from the eastern Indian Ocean into Australia—fortunately over sparsely populated areas. Several pieces of Skylab were recovered and now reside in museums.


Left: The Skylab 4 Command Module on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Middle: The back-up Skylab workshop on display at the NASM. Images courtesy NASM. Right: Illustration of a proposed Skylab rescue during a space shuttle mission. Image Credit: NASA

Skylab was home to three astronaut crews for a total of 171 days. As a platform for conducting scientific research, it proved its value. The biomedical investigations conducted by the nine Skylab crew members provided our first glimpse into the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body and how to prevent some of the more deleterious effects.

The ATM solar telescopes took more than 170,000 images for astronomers, while Earth scientists received 46,000 photographs. In nearly every science discipline, the astronauts exceeded the planned number of investigations. Of significant importance was having humans available for unplanned situations, from the repair of the space station after its damage at launch to being able to respond to unexpected events to increase the science return from the mission, including observing new solar flares and a comet making a rare passage through the inner solar system. Managers, flight planners and engineers used the Skylab experience to learn more about how to live aboard and operate a long-duration crewed platform in space, passing on lessons learned to later programs like Shuttle-Mir and the International Space Station.

The Skylab 4 CM is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where the back-up Skylab space station is also on display.

For more insight into the Skylab 4 mission, read the oral histories of Carr, Gibson and Pogue with the JSC History Office.

 

John Uri

NASA Johnson Space Center

NASA astronauts Gerald Carr (left) and William Pogue demonstrate zero-g aboard Skylab. Image Credit: NASA
NASA astronauts Gerald Carr (left) and William Pogue demonstrate zero-g aboard Skylab. Image Credit: NASA
Photograph of the central Florida coast as viewed from the early space station. Visible at upper left is NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Launch Complex 39. Image Credit: NASA
Photograph of the central Florida coast as viewed from the early space station. Visible at upper left is NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Launch Complex 39. Image Credit: NASA
Solar flares imaged by one of the Apollo Telescope Mount instruments. Image Credit: NASA
Solar flares imaged by one of the Apollo Telescope Mount instruments. Image Credit: NASA