After 84 days living in space, remembering to fly in space was entirely another matter for the Skylab 3 crew.
Gerald Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue were the next-to-last crew to ever fly in an Apollo spacecraft and the only all-rookie crew to fly in Apollo (no, technically, Apollo 14 doesn’t count).
This crew felt a bit harried from the start on boarding the station. With a flurry of experiments and observations scheduled for them that would require them to stay perhaps as twice as long on the station to actually complete, Skylab 3’s story begat the myth of the “Skylab mutiny.”
It didn’t help matters that Bill Pogue suffered from space adaptation syndrome for a few days after arrival. It wasn’t until the Shuttle era that “space sickness” was taken seriously and actively researched to lessen its effects on new astronauts.
After some complaints, NASA and the crew connected in a few group conferences to resolve the matter. After a few adjustments, the crew settled into the workload with less stress than the start. In fact, by the end of their mission, the crew was lauded for completing massive amounts of work assigned to them by scientists that knew that this crew would be the last foreseeable opportunity to use the station’s facilities.
Skylab crews received the most advanced meals ever served in American spaceflight. However, the crew found their food a bit dull.
Skylab 3’s legacy lives on in the International Space Station’s routine. NASA gives regular days and periods off to Expedition crews to let them unwind and enjoy why they’re working hundreds of days in orbit. As for the food, it wasn’t due overall to Skylab’s food quality but because of fluid redistribution in your body while weightless.
That same phenomenon that will make your face puffy and may cause you to throw up as your burp also makes your sinuses stuffy, which throws off your sense of taste. Astronauts and cosmonauts tend to make up for the problem with enjoying spicy or strong foods, something that Skylab’s menu couldn’t do at the time. Storage time of food may also cause changes.
The crew made four spacewalks of over a total of 22 hours outside. Skylab’s cameras and instruments studied the earth as well as lots of solar activity, capturing an incredible shot of a solar flare in progress, in addition to photographing rare rocky visitors such as Comet Kohoutek.
It can be safely argued that no orbiting American crew would be as busy as Skylab 3 until the ISS began full operations, 30 years later. We could count the hundreds of man-hours in the building of that station.
Not even the Shuttle crews could compare since an Orbiter’s maximum mission flight time was 17 days (the original design noted missions times up to 28 days, but hey, reality).
This grizzled and tired crew packed up, closed the hatch on the space station for the last time, and entered their Apollo Command/Service module to undock for the trip home on February 8, 1974.
But perhaps the crew were a bit too tired. It had been 84 days since they flew the CSM.
As they prepared for re-entry, the CSM was oriented in its usual orbit mode, with the Command Module’s apex flying forward. Commander Carr opened some circuit breakers to activate SCS, the Stabilization and Control System. SCS is the semi-manual flight mode to pilot the CSM, usually for docking or when there are problems with the Primary Guidance, Navigation and Control system. PGNCS was a bit overkill for earth-orbit operations.
When Carr moved his control actuator to pitch the CSM to reorient the Command Module, nothing happened. That wasn’t a good sign. After all, while the Command Module had two “stable trim attitudes” for re-entry, only the blunt-end forward one would be a good idea. Entering apex-end forward was bad. The bulk of the heat shielding was on the blunt-end.
It was an minor crew blunder. They were supposed to disable the Service Module propulsion system pitch and yaw system circuit breakers, but disabled the SCS breakers instead, leaving it unpowered. It didn’t help that the two sets of breakers were in close proximity, making the error more likely.
After going to DIRECT mode, which simply lets the RCS jets work by full manual control, the crew reoriented their ship face the right direction for the retro burn, and Skylab 3 was able to go home that day in one piece.
Skylab 3 (yes, some people note it as “Skylab 4”) was the next to last Apollo spacecraft to fly. The last Apollo in orbit would signal the end of the first age of spaceflight and the Space Race. That mission would end with a bit of jeopardy to the crew.
As for Skylab itself, there was talk and plans to boost her to a higher orbit for a second life, perhaps with Salyut modules in a Soviet joint venture or as a nexus for another, longer American space presence. Calculations supported the likelihood that the station would stay high enough above atmospheric drag for the upcoming Space Shuttle to assist a boost.
It was not to be. Skylab was deorbited in a generally controlled manner, only dropping a few bits near Perth, Australia, on July 11, 1979.