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50 Years Ago: Skylab 4 Astronauts Begin Record-Breaking Third Month in Space


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In space since their launch on Nov. 16, 1973, Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue began the new year of 1974 roughly halfway through their planned 84-day mission. By the end of January, the three rookies held the records for the longest single space flight and the most cumulative time spent in space. Mission managers monitored the station’s and the astronauts’ health and weekly concurred with extending the mission to its full duration as the astronauts accomplished a record number of science observations of the Sun, the Earth, Comet Kohoutek, and themselves. Carr and Gibson completed the final Skylab spacewalk to bring inside external science experiments and the last film cassettes for return to Earth. They began preparations for their own return to Earth.

Image of the Sun’s corona taken by the Apollo Telescope Mount spectroheliometer instrument Skylab 4 astronaut Edward G. Gibson’s sketch of Comet Kohoutek, based on his observations Photo of Gerald P. Carr adjusts the Multispectral Photographic Camera System, part of the Earth Resources Experiment Package
Left: Image of the Sun’s corona taken by the Apollo Telescope Mount spectroheliometer instrument. Middle: Skylab 4 astronaut Edward G. Gibson’s sketch of Comet Kohoutek, based on his observations. Right: Gerald P. Carr adjusts the Multispectral Photographic Camera System, part of the Earth Resources Experiment Package.

Following the Dec. 30 exchange of information and ideas during the space-to-ground conference regarding the crew’s scheduling, the astronauts felt that the second six weeks of their mission transpired much more smoothly than the first six. They accomplished all their tasks and even more, and no longer felt rushed or like they made mistakes. Taking some time out on their off-duty days, they enjoyed weightlessness in their spacious home. On Jan. 1, 1974, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue celebrated the coming of the new year, the first crew to observe that holiday in space along with Thanksgiving and Christmas. No American astronaut would repeat that for 23 years, until John E. Blaha‘s four-month stay aboard the Mir space station in 1996-7. On Jan. 10, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue enjoyed a day off from their regular science and maintenance tasks, with planners scheduling only one third of their time, freeing them to pursue their own activities. On the ground, mission managers held the 56-day review of the mission and based on the crew’s health, the station’s condition, and the amount of consumables, declared the mission go for 84 days, although strictly speaking, managers and flight surgeons approved the mission’s extension one week at a time.

Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr conducts an “Upper Body Negative Pressure” test on one of his fellow crew members Edward G. Gibson performs an in-depth inspection of his spacesuit Carr demonstrates his strength in weightlessness by “supporting” William R. Pogue on one finger
A little levity in weightlessness. Left: Skylab 4 astronaut Gerald P. Carr conducts an “Upper Body Negative Pressure” test on one of his fellow crew members. Middle: Edward G. Gibson performs an in-depth inspection of his spacesuit. Right: Carr demonstrates his strength in weightlessness by “supporting” William R. Pogue on one finger.

During January, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue surpassed all previous human spaceflight endurance records. On Jan. 4, they surpassed Charles “Pete” Conrad’s 49-day mark for cumulative time in space – what took Conrad four missions to accumulate, the Skylab 4 trio accomplished in just one. Chief astronaut Donald K. Slayton congratulated them, saying “As far as we’re concerned down here, you’re doing an outstanding job all the way. Just keep up the good work.” On Jan. 14, they surpassed the Skylab 3 crew’s 59-day mark for the longest single spaceflight, and 11 days later passed Alan L. Bean’s record of 69 days for cumulative time that he had accrued over his two missions. NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher and Deputy Administrator George M. Low sent congratulatory messages to the astronauts for breaking the old records and “especially for the outstanding work you have done and are continuing to do in the field of space science, space applications, and in learning about man’s reaction to space.” After receiving the congratulations, Carr told capsule communicator (capcom) Richard H. Truly that records are made to be broken and sooner or later someone would break theirs. Indeed, four years later Soviet cosmonauts Yuri V. Romanenko and Georgi M. Grechko did so, completing a 96-day mission aboard Salyut-6.

Gerald P. Carr exercises on the Thornton treadmill Edward G. Gibson performs a session on the rotating chair to test his vestibular system’s response to weightlessness Gibson, left, performs an oral exam on William R. Pogue
Left: Gerald P. Carr exercises on the Thornton treadmill. Middle: Edward G. Gibson performs a session on the rotating chair to test his vestibular system’s response to weightlessness. Right: Gibson, left, performs an oral exam on William R. Pogue.

Gerald P. Carr, left, monitors Edward G. Gibson during a Lower Body Negative Pressure test of his cardiovascular system Gibson, right, prepares to draw a blood sample from Carr for a medical experiment William R. Pogue works with the Small Mass Measurement Device
Left: Gerald P. Carr, left, monitors Edward G. Gibson during a Lower Body Negative Pressure test of his cardiovascular system. Middle: Gibson, right, prepares to draw a blood sample from Carr for a medical experiment. Right: William R. Pogue works with the Small Mass Measurement Device.

As they entered the record-breaking third and final month of their mission, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue continued to adhere to the strict regimen of 1.5 hours of daily exercise using a bicycle ergometer and the Thornton treadmill. They continued the comprehensive biomedical investigations to evaluate the effects of long-duration space flight on the human body. Using the eight instruments mounted in the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), Carr, Gibson, and Pogue continued their observations of the Sun. On Jan. 21, thanks to his dedicated vigilance at the ATM instrument panel, for the first time ever Gibson observed a solar flare from its inception until its expiration. His observations added greatly to astrophysicists’ understanding of solar flares. In a break with the tradition of having only the capcom speak to the astronauts in orbit, the Skylab 4 crew held several space-to-ground conferences with some of the scientists associated with various experiments. Beginning with the televised conference on Dec. 28 with astronomer Luboš Kohoutek, discoverer of the comet that bears his name, they held conferences with several of the ATM investigators, usually on the crew’s off duty days.

Gerald P. Carr changes samples in the Materials Processing Facility Edward G. Gibson, left, William R. Pogue, and Carr enjoy a meal together Gibson prepares to take his weekly shower
Left: Gerald P. Carr changes samples in the Materials Processing Facility. Middle: Edward G. Gibson, left, William R. Pogue, and Carr enjoy a meal together. Right: Gibson prepares to take his weekly shower.

The astronauts continued to observe Comet Kohoutek through January. Because the ATM instruments could no longer see the comet as it moved away from the Sun, they used binoculars for observations, and Gibson drew detailed sketches of the comet as its tail changed shape. Carr and Pogue completed the tests of the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, a precursor of the Manned Maneuvering Unit used during the space shuttle program to retrieve satellites, “flying” it inside the large dome of the workshop. On Jan. 23, Pogue celebrated his 44th birthday, only the third person to celebrate a birthday in space. That same day, the three major television networks announced they would not be broadcasting live television of the Skylab 4 splashdown, the first time since live TV coverage began with the Gemini VI splashdown in December 1965. They felt the event not newsworthy enough to cover. On Jan. 31, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue held their second and final televised press conference. Capcom Truly read the questions submitted in advance by reporters and the astronauts gave their responses. Although time ran out to ask questions submitted by sixth grade students as part of a class project, the astronauts took time later to answer them.

Skylab 4 astronaut photography of Lakes Erie, left, and Ontario Skylab 4 astronaut photography of the Rio de Plata separates Argentina, left, and Uruguay Skylab 4 astronaut photography of the Japanese island of Kyushu Skylab 4 astronaut photography of New Zealand
A selection of Skylab 4 astronaut photography of the Earth. Left: Lakes Erie, left, and Ontario. Middle left: The Rio de Plata separates Argentina, left, and Uruguay. Middle right: The Japanese island of Kyushu. Right: New Zealand.

Skylab’s high 50-degree orbital inclination allowed its crews to observe and photograph parts of the Earth not previously seen by astronauts in orbit. They observed pre-selected sites using a suite of six instruments in the Earth Resources Experiment Package and photographed pre-selected sites and targets of opportunity using handheld cameras.

Edward G. Gibson near the station’s airlock Gerald P. Carr at the Apollo Telescope Mount to retrieve the last film cassettes The second sunshield deployed by the Skylab 3 crew showing evidence of discoloration The Apollo Command and Service Module
A selection of photographs from the final Skylab spacewalk. Left: Edward G. Gibson near the station’s airlock. Middle left: Gerald P. Carr at the Apollo Telescope Mount to retrieve the last film cassettes. Middle right: The second sunshield deployed by the Skylab 3 crew showing evidence of discoloration. Right: The Apollo Command and Service Module.

On Feb. 3, Carr and Gibson stepped outside their space station for the fourth and final spacewalk of their mission. The primary tasks for the 5-hour, 19-minute excursion involved the retrieval of the final film cassettes from the ATM as well as scientific instruments and samples from the lab’s exterior. During the three Skylab missions, the crews exposed and returned to Earth nearly 30 film cassettes, providing scientists with more than 150,000 photographs. The next American spacewalk would not occur for another nine years, during the STS-6 mission in April 1983. During their stay aboard Skylab, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue accumulated 22 hours 22 minutes of spacewalking time, an Earth orbital single mission record that stood until 1991. After finishing the spacewalk, they turned their attention to preparing for their return to Earth five days later.

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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      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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