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50 Years Ago: Skylab 4 Astronauts Push Past the One-Month Mark


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In December 1973, Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue passed the one-month mark of the third and final mission aboard the Skylab space station. Launching on Nov. 16, they began a planned 56-day flight that mission managers fully expected to extend to 84 days. They continued the science program begun by the previous two Skylab crews, including biomedical studies on the effects of long-duration space flight on the human body, Earth observations using the Earth Resources Experiment Package (EREP), and solar observations with instruments mounted on the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). To study newly discovered Comet Kohoutek, scientists added cometary observations to the crew’s already busy schedule, including adding a far ultraviolet camera to Skylab’s instrument suite.

Image of a massive solar flare taken by one of the Apollo Telescope Mount instruments Earth Resources Experiment Package infrared photograph of Florida’s central Atlantic coast including NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Gerald P. Carr monitors Edward G. Gibson during a lower body negative pressure test of his cardiovascular system
Left: Image of a massive solar flare taken by one of the Apollo Telescope Mount instruments. Middle: Earth Resources Experiment Package infrared photograph of Florida’s central Atlantic coast including NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Right: Gerald P. Carr monitors Edward G. Gibson during a lower body negative pressure test of his cardiovascular system.

On Dec. 13, the mission’s 28th day, program officials assessed the astronauts’ performance and the status of the station and fully expected that they could complete the nominal 56-day mission and most likely the full 84 days. Despite being overworked and often behind the timeline, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue had already accomplished 84 hours of ATM solar observations, 12 EREP passes, 80 photographic and visual Earth observations, all of the scheduled medical experiments, as well as numerous other activities such as student experiments, and science demonstrations. The astronaut’s major concern centered around the timelining process that had not given them time to adjust to their new environment and did not consider their on-orbit daily routine. Despite the crew sending taped verbal messages to the ground asking for help in fixing these issues, the problem persisted. Skylab 4 Lead Flight Director Neil B. Hutchinson later admitted that the ground team learned many lessons about timelining long duration missions during the first few weeks of Skylab 4.

Soyuz 13 cosmonauts Pyotr I. Klimuk, left, and Valentin V. Lebedev during their mission Model of Soyuz 13, showing the replacement of the forward docking system with the Orion-2 telescope inside its housing Preflight view of the Orion-2 instrument package
Left: Soyuz 13 cosmonauts Pyotr I. Klimuk, left, and Valentin V. Lebedev during their mission. Middle:  Model of Soyuz 13, showing the replacement of the forward docking system with the Orion-2 telescope inside its housing. Right: Preflight view of the Orion-2 instrument package. Image credits: courtesy of Roscosmos.

On Dec. 18, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue received visitors in low Earth orbit. On their 33rd day aboard the Skylab space station, the Soviet Union launched Soyuz 13, with Pyotr I. Klimuk and Valentin V. Lebedev aboard. Although the event marked the first time in history that American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts orbited the Earth at the same time, the two crews neither met nor communicated with each other, traveling in very different orbits with different missions. The Soyuz 13 cosmonauts operated a scientific package called Orion-2, comprised of three ultraviolet spectrographs for stellar observations and an X-ray telescope to image the Sun. Soviet engineers modified the orbital compartment of the Soyuz, removing its docking apparatus to accommodate the Orion-2 instruments. On Dec. 26, the cosmonauts landed in Kazakhstan in the middle of a snowstorm. The success of Soyuz 13 gave the Soviets and their American counterparts confidence that the spacecraft, modified after the Soyuz 11 accident, would be safe for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), a joint mission agreed to in May 1972 and planned for July 1975.

Gerald P. Carr flying the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit A far ultraviolet image of Comet Kohoutek William R. Pogue at the controls of the Apollo Telescope Mount
Left: Gerald P. Carr flying the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Middle: A far ultraviolet image of Comet Kohoutek. Right: William R. Pogue at the controls of the Apollo Telescope Mount.

Carr, Gibson, and Pogue increased their focus on observing Comet Kohoutek as it neared perihelion, or its closest approach to the Sun, on Dec. 28. At that point, Skylab’s solar telescopes could observe the comet better than any ground-based instruments. In addition to dedicated observations during two spacewalks, the astronauts continued to monitor the comet well into January as it headed rapidly away from the Sun, to return in maybe 75,000 years. The astronauts continued their medical studies and Earth observations as well as tests inside the large dome of the workshop of the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, a precursor of the Manned Maneuvering Unit used during the space shuttle program to retrieve satellites.

Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, left, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue build and decorate their makeshift Christmas tree Carr, left, Gibson, and Pogue’s Christmas stockings Gibson, left, Carr, and Pogue open Christmas presents
Left: Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, left, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue build and decorate their makeshift Christmas tree. Middle: Carr, left, Gibson, and Pogue’s Christmas stockings. Right: Gibson, left, Carr, and Pogue open Christmas presents.

For only the second time, American astronauts celebrated Christmas in space. On the first occasion five years earlier, Apollo 8 astronauts observed Christmas as the first crew to orbit the Moon. In the more spacious Skylab workshop, and with more time to prepare, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue built a makeshift Christmas tree by repurposing food cans, used colored decals as decorations, and topped it with a cardboard cutout in the shape of a comet. They hung stockings on the wall beneath the tree and sent holiday greetings to people on the ground.

Image of Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr from the mission’s second spacewalk, changing film cassettes in the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) Image of Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr from the mission’s second spacewalk, repairing one of the ATM instruments Image of Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr from the mission’s second spacewalk, observing Comet Kohoutek.
Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr in three scenes from the mission’s second spacewalk, with tasks including changing film cassettes in the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), repairing one of the ATM instruments, and observing Comet Kohoutek.

The main task on Christmas Day involved the mission’s second spacewalk. Carr and Pogue spent 7 hours and 1 minute outside the space station, then a record for Earth orbital spacewalks. In addition to replacing film cartridges in the ATM, they repaired a stuck filter wheel on an ATM instrument, and used an ultraviolet camera to photograph Comet Kohoutek. Once back inside the station, they enjoyed a Christmas dinner complete with fruitcake, talked to their families, and opened presents from the astronauts’ wives that the ground crew at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida had hidden in lockers in the Command Module.

In the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Professor Luboš Kohoutek talks with the Skylab 4 crew Astronauts Gerald P. Carr, left, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue during the videoconference with Professor Kohoutek Gibson during the third Skylab 4 spacewalk, exclusively dedicated to study Comet Kohoutek
Left: In the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Professor Luboš Kohoutek talks with the Skylab 4 crew. Middle: Astronauts Gerald P. Carr, left, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue during the videoconference with Professor Kohoutek. Right: Gibson during the third Skylab 4 spacewalk, exclusively dedicated to study Comet Kohoutek.

On Dec. 28, the day the astronauts reached the halfway point of their 84-day mission, they held an 11-minute video conference with the comet’s discoverer, Czech astronomer Luboš Kohoutek during his visit to the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. The next day, Carr and Gibson completed the mission’s third spacewalk lasting 3 hours 29 minutes and dedicated to observing and photographing the comet. Although the crew’s work schedule had improved over the previous few weeks, the astronauts still found it difficult to accomplish the timeline the planners laid out for them. To rectify the problem, Carr requested a dedicated space to ground voice conference so the issues could be aired and rectified. Following what Carr later called the first sensitivity session in space on Dec. 30, planners understood the astronauts’ constraints and the crew worked more effectively the second half of the mission. Capsule communicator Richard H. Truly mentioned that JSC Director Christopher C. Kraft and Flight Crew Operations Chief Donald K. “Deke” Slayton had listened to the conversation and agreed that the teams “made about a million bucks” during the 55-minute conversation. The lessons learned about scheduling activities for long-duration spaceflights proved useful to later programs such as Shuttle/Mir and the International Space Station.

Williams R. Pogue, left, and Gerald P. Carr place bags into the trash airlock Edward G. Gibson floats into the large volume of the orbital workshop from airlock module Carr and Pogue demonstrate weightlessness
Left: Williams R. Pogue, left, and Gerald P. Carr place bags into the trash airlock. Middle: Edward G. Gibson floats into the large volume of the orbital workshop from airlock module. Right: Carr and Pogue demonstrate weightlessness.

On Jan. 1, 1974, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue celebrated the coming of the new year, the first space crew to observe that holiday along with Thanksgiving and Christmas. An American astronaut would not repeat that for 23 years until John E. Blaha during his four-month stay aboard the Mir space station in 1996-7. On Jan. 10, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue enjoyed a day off, meaning planners only scheduled one third of their time, freeing them to pursue activities of their own choosing. On the ground, mission managers held the 56-day review of the mission and based on the crew’s health and the station’s condition declared the mission go for 84 days, although strictly speaking, managers and flight surgeons approved the mission’s extension one week at a time.

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

To be continued …

With special thanks to Ed Hengeveld for his expert contributions on Skylab imagery.

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Last Updated
Dec 18, 2023

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      After the cancellation of the MOL program, NASA invited the younger (under 35) MOL pilots to join its astronaut corps. Bobko, Crippen, Fullerton, Hartsfield, Overmyer, Peterson, and Truly transferred to NASA on August 14, 1969, as the Group 7 astronaut class. In 1972, Crippen and Bobko participated in the 56-day ground-based Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test, a key activity that contributed to Skylab’s success. Although it took nearly 12 years for the first of the MOL transfers to make it to orbit, all of them went on to fly on the space shuttle in the 1980s, six of them as commanders. In an ironic twist, NASA assigned Crippen to command the first space shuttle polar orbiting mission (STS-62A) that would have launched from the SLC-6 pad at Vandenberg in 1986. But after the January 1986 Challenger accident, the Air Force reduced its reliance on the shuttle as a launch platform and cancelled the mission. Truly served as NASA administrator from 1989 to 1992 and Crippen as the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from 1992 to 1995. NASA hired Crews, not as an astronaut but as a pilot, and he stayed with the agency until 1994. Of the MOL astronauts that did not meet NASA’s age limit requirement, many went on to have stellar careers. Abrahamson joined NASA in 1981 as associate administrator for manned space flight, then went on to lead the Strategic Defense Initiative from 1984 to 1989. Herres served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1987 to 1990.

      Left: Space shuttle Enterprise during fit checks at the SLC-6 launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force (now Space Force) Base in 1985. Middle: Athena rocket awaits launch on SLC-6 in 1997. Right: Delta-IV Heavy lifts off from SLC-6 in 2011.
      Following cancellation of the MOL program, the Air Force mothballed the nearly completed SLC-6 at Vandenberg. In 1972, the Air Force and NASA began looking at SLC-6 as a pad to launch space shuttles with payloads requiring polar orbits, with the decision made in 1975. Workers began converting SLC-6 to launch the space shuttle in 1979. Although space shuttle Enterprise used SLC-6 for fit checks in 1985, the Challenger accident the following year caused the Air Force to cancel plans to use the space shuttle to launch polar orbiting satellites, and they once again mothballed the pad. Following modifications, small Athena rockets used the pad between 1995 and 1999, the first launches from the facility after 30 years of development and modifications. Another conversion begun in 1999 modified SLC-6 to launch Delta-IV and Delta-IV Heavy rockets starting in 2006, with the last flight in 2022. SpaceX leased SLC-6 in April 2023 to begin launches of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets in 2025.

      Left: Schematic of the optical system of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), including the 72-inch primary mirror at right. Image credit: courtesy: NRO. Right: The Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona, in its original six-mirror configuration using mirrors from the MOL Program. Image credit: Courtesy Multiple Mirror Telescope.
      The NRO transferred six surplus 72-inch mirrors from the cancelled KH-10 program to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory for the Multiple-Mirror Telescope (MMT) it built in association with the University of Arizona, located on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. By combining the light of the six mirrors, they achieved an effective light collecting area of a single 177-inch telescope mirror. The MMT operated in this six-mirror configuration for nearly 20 years before a single 215-inch mirror replaced them.
      Read Abrahamson’s, Bobko’s, Crew’s, Crippen’s, Fullerton’s, Hartsfield’s, Peterson’s, and Truly’s recollections of the MOL program in their oral history interviews with the JSC History Office. In 2019, the NRO held a panel discussion with MOL pilots Abrahamson, Bobko, Macleay, Crews, and Crippen, by then free to talk about their experiences during the now declassified program.
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      4 min read
      Hubble Finds Surprises Around a Star That Erupted 40 Years Ago
      This artist’s concept shows the nova system HM Sagittae (HM Sge), where a white dwarf star is pulling material from its red giant companion. This forms a blazing hot disk around the dwarf, which can unpredictably undergo a spontaneous thermonuclear explosion as the infall of hydrogen from the red giant grows denser and reaches a tipping point. These fireworks between companion stars are fascinating to astronomers by yielding insights into the physics and dynamics of stellar evolution in binary systems. NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)
      Download this image

      Astronomers have used new data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the retired SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) as well as archival data from other missions to revisit one of the strangest binary star systems in our galaxy – 40 years after it burst onto the scene as a bright and long-lived nova. A nova is a star that suddenly increases its brightness tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity, usually in a few months or years.
      Between April and September 1975, the binary system HM Sagittae (HM Sge) grew 250 times brighter. Even more unusual, it did not rapidly fade away as novae commonly do, but has maintained its luminosity for decades. Recently, observations show that the system has gotten hotter, but paradoxically faded a little.
      HM Sge is a particular kind of symbiotic star where a white dwarf and a bloated, dust-producing giant companion star are in an eccentric orbit around each other, and the white dwarf ingests gas flowing from the giant star. That gas forms a blazing hot disk around the white dwarf, which can unpredictably undergo a spontaneous thermonuclear explosion as the infall of hydrogen from the giant grows denser on the surface until it reaches a tipping point. These fireworks between companion stars fascinate astronomers by yielding insights into the physics and dynamics of stellar evolution in binary systems.
      When I first saw the new data, I went – ‘wow this is what Hubble UV spectroscopy can do!’ – I mean it’s spectacular, really spectacular.
      Ravi Sankrit
      Astronomer
      “In 1975 HM Sge went from being a nondescript star to something all astronomers in the field were looking at, and at some point that flurry of activity slowed down,” said Ravi Sankrit of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. In 2021, Steven Goldman of STScI, Sankrit and collaborators used instruments on Hubble and SOFIA to see what had changed with HM Sge in the last 30 years at wavelengths of light from the infrared to the ultraviolet (UV).
      The 2021 ultraviolet data from Hubble showed a strong emission line of highly ionized magnesium that was not present in earlier published spectra from 1990. Its presence shows that the estimated temperature of the white dwarf and accretion disk increased from less than 400,000 degrees Fahrenheit in 1989 to greater than 450,000 degrees Fahrenheit now. The highly ionized magnesium line is one of many seen in the UV spectrum, which analyzed together will reveal the energetics of the system, and how it has changed in the last three decades.
      “When I first saw the new data,” Sankrit said, “I went – ‘wow this is what Hubble UV spectroscopy can do!’ – I mean it’s spectacular, really spectacular.”
      A Hubble Space Telescope image of the symbiotic star Mira HM Sge. Located 3,400 light-years away in the constellation Sagitta, it consists of a red giant and a white dwarf companion. The stars are too close together to be resolved by Hubble. Material bleeds off the red giant and falls onto the dwarf, making it extremely bright. This system first flared up as a nova in 1975. The red nebulosity is evidence of the stellar wind. The nebula is about one-quarter light-year across. NASA, ESA, Ravi Sankrit (STScI), Steven Goldman (STScI); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
      Download this image

      With data from NASA’s flying telescope SOFIA, which retired in 2022, the team was able to detect the water, gas, and dust flowing in and around the system. Infrared spectral data shows that the giant star, which produces copious amounts of dust, returned to its normal behavior within only a couple years of the explosion, but also that it has dimmed in recent years, which is another puzzle to be explained.
      With SOFIA astronomers were able to see water moving at around 18 miles per second, which they suspect is the speed of the sizzling accretion disk around the white dwarf. The bridge of gas connecting the giant star to the white dwarf must presently span about 2 billion miles.
      The team has also been working with the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers), to collaborate with amateur astronomers from around the world who help keep telescopic eyes on HM Sge; their continued monitoring reveals changes that haven’t been seen since its outburst 40 years ago.
      “Symbiotic stars like HM Sge are rare in our galaxy, and witnessing a nova-like explosion is even rarer. This unique event is a treasure for astrophysicists spanning decades,” said Goldman.
      The initial results from the team’s research were published in the Astrophysical Journal, and Sankrit is presenting research focused on the UV spectroscopy at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.
      The Hubble Space Telescope has been operating for over three decades and continues to make ground-breaking discoveries that shape our fundamental understanding of the universe. Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope and mission operations. Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, Colorado, also supports mission operations at Goddard. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, conducts Hubble science operations for NASA.
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      Facebook logo @NASAHubble @NASAHubble Instagram logo @NASAHubble Media Contacts:
      Claire Andreoli
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
      claire.andreoli@nasa.gov
      Ray Villard
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
      Science Contacts:
      Ravi Sankrit
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
      Steven Goldman
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
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