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Science: The Longest Walk

3 minute read

“We had a rather successful day outside,” announced Mission Control laconically. That was something of an understatement. For 6 hr. 34 min. 35 sec. last week, two of the three Skylab 3 astronauts, Air Force Lieut. Colonel William Pogue and Physicist Edward Gibson, worked outside their giant orbital station, set up cosmic-ray detectors, made repairs and prepared to take their first good look at Comet Kohoutek. The Thanksgiving Day walk in space, longer by 3 min. 2 sec. than the record jaunt of the Skylab 2 astronauts, marked an auspicious beginning for a historic journey: the last and, NASA hopes, longest (84 days) of the three Skylab missions.

Preparing for their space walk, the astronauts discovered that the long-johns-type “liquid cooling garments,” worn under space suits to keep the astronauts comfortable in the blaze of the sun, had become damp and mildewed since they were last used by the Skylab 2 astronauts. The crew doused the garments with disinfectant and spread them around the workshop like soggy laundry. By morning they had dried.

Pogue and Gibson breezed through their initial chores, but then faced a more difficult task. Inching their way to the underside of Skylab’s multiple docking adaptor section, which connects the ferry ship and the main workshop, they made their way to a balky, bowl-shaped radar antenna used to measure irregularities in ground temperatures and the shape of the earth. To fix the antenna, the astronauts performed like an acrobatic team—Gibson anchoring himself to a portable foot restraint and holding tightly onto Pogue so that Pogue could get leverage to work. As a mission controller explained: “If you turn a screw in space, it won’t turn but you will.” After three hours of effort, the antenna was free enough to do 75% of its programmed earth-scanning job.

Earlier, soon after the astronauts had docked their command module with Skylab, Pogue (who had shown the least susceptibility to motion sickness during tests on earth) became queasy and coughed up a mouthful of vomit. As a safety measure Mission rules require that all such incidents be reported immediately to the ground. But the crew decided to keep quiet: “It’s just between you, me and the couch,” said Pogue. There was only one hitch: the astronauts forgot that all conversations in the command module were being taped and later piped to the ground. After discovering the coverup, Chief Astronaut Alan Shepard, who had modestly stretched NASA rules by smuggling some golf balls along on his Apollo 14 moon trip, took to the microphone in Mission Control and issued a mild reprimand. Replied the Skylab commander, Marine Lieut. Colonel Gerald Carr: “O.K., Al, I agree with you. It was a dumb decision.”

When the astronauts sat down to their first meal, Mission Control asked, “Were you able to find enough food for six people?” What prompted the odd question was that the previous Skylab team had left their suits stuffed with clothing and propped up as dummies inside the wardroom. Retorted Carr: “The other three don’t need much.”

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