It is 50 years this week since Skylab’s final crew departed the station after a record-setting 84 days of flight.
The crew of Jerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue launched on November 16, 1973, and returned to Earth on February 8, 1974. Although their spaceflight record was soon broken by a Russian crew aboard Salyut 6 in 1978, their Apollo spacecraft held the record for the longest single spaceflight for an American crewed vehicle until 2021, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience broke it.
Sadly, only Gibson remained to offer his congratulations.
Skylab 4 marked the end of long-duration US spaceflight until the Shuttle-Mir program of the 1990s, which laid the groundwork for the International Space Station (ISS.)
The mission was notable for more reasons than just its duration. It was the largest all-rookie crew launched by NASA and, as well as four EVAs – up from the three of previous missions to the laboratory – it also became infamous for the increasingly tetchy relationship between the crew and ground control.
An unplanned communications break occurred during the mission after the astronauts accidentally misconfigured the radios. In the book Around The World in 84 Days by David Shayler, Carr explained: “We went over one of our ground stations with our radios off. The press picked up on that immediately and called that mutiny, saying that we were a really crabby group: we were getting real testy, we had mutinied and said we weren’t going to work on that day, and we had turned off our radios. That got into the press, and we have never lived that one down. But that’s not what really happened that day.”
That said, the relationship between crew and ground was strained, and lessons learned from the communications incident and the interplay between mission managers and crew continue to echo throughout NASA to the present day.
When the astronauts departed Skylab, a proposed 21-day Skylab 5 mission had already been canceled thanks to the decision to extend Skylab 4 from 59 to 84 days. There was still hope that Skylab could be revisited by the Space Shuttle at some point in the future, but according to Carr’s book, “a review of onboard systems revealed that it was impractical to support another crew for any longer than a few hours docked to the station.”
Skylab’s last crewed day consisted of the astronauts shutting down the systems, conducting a microbiology survey and clipping pieces of metal from various parts of the workshop in order to have commemorative medallions made.
The final close-out of Skylab was apparently an emotional time for the crew; as Carr noted, “We realized it would be the last time we would do various tasks.” The crew entered the Command Module (CM), and Carr joked with ground controllers that the crew had left a key under the door mat “so that the next crew could get into the workshop.”
The CM splashed down approximately 176 statute miles from San Diego, and the crew returned to shore aboard the USS New Orleans. The end of the mission was not covered live by any of the major US television networks, something that rankled the Carr family. Carr’s son, Jeff, described himself as “very disenchanted, very disappointed” by the fact that the media simply did not regard the return of the last Skylab crew as sufficiently newsworthy.
None of the Skylab 4 crew would fly in space again. This writer met Pogue many years ago at the Kennedy Space Center. After patiently answering my questions about the pressurized volume of the ISS compared to Skylab, Pogue took a question from my (then very young) daughter: “But what was it like? What was it like to live up there?”
Pogue smiled and said: “It was the best thing ever.” ®