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The following is an excerpt from my book “Growing up with Spaceflight- Skylab/ASTP.” This material is copyright 2014 Wes Oleszewski and my not be reproduced without the express permission of the author.
On the morning of Thursday, June 7, 1973, day 14 of the Skylab 2 mission, Conrad and Kerwin were in the airlock preparing to go EVA and make mankind’s first major repair of a space vehicle in orbit. The airlock hatch was actually a surplus Gemini spacecraft hatch that had been adapted for used on Skylab. After all, it was flight tested, man-rated so re-using it on Skylab would save a lot of time and money and that was a big part of the Skylab mentality; saving nickels and dimes in a multi-billion dollar program. Unfortunately, the process of engineering and adapting a hatch originally designed to conform to a conical hull so that it could later conform to a cylindrical hull ate up a degree of those dimes that had been saved. Still, the hatch was opened and armed with all of the implements needed to execute the “Rusty EVA plan,” Conrad and Kerwin emerged from the workshop into the vacuum of space.
|Conrad (left) and Schweikart (right)|
in the neutral buoyancy tank before
the SL-2 launch.
Back-up mission commander Rusty Schweickart, both before and after the launch of SL-2, had been working long hours in the Neutral Buoyancy Tank at Huntsville to develop a method by which the crew might be able to deploy the jammed SAS wing. With the aid of TV pictures sent down during the initial fly-around of the workshop as well as descriptions from the crew, Schweickart had lead the team on the ground and improvised, then later fine-tuned, a method that would eventually lead to the success of deploying the SAS wing and thus saving the entire Skylab project.
Originally, during the initial fly-by of the Skylab 2 CSM, the limb-loppers were supposed to be used by Skylab 2 pilot Paul Weitz to cut completely through the aluminum strap that was thought to be holding the SAS wing down. But his angle to the strap negated that method of using the loppers. Now Schweickart came up with another use for the limb-loppers; they would make a good anchor. The plan was for Kerwin to extend a long pole with the limb-loppers secured to the end out as far as the strap. Next he would use the jaws of the loppers to bite into the strap cutting it about half way through and thus anchor the far end of the pole. Conrad would then move hand-over-hand out along the pole and secure a line onto the far end of the SAS wing. Then he would return along the line and he and Kerwin would move under the line and, with their feet on the workshop, both astronauts would stand up and exert as much pressure as they could on the line. It was felt that such leverage would break the SAS wing loose and allow its solar panels to deploy.
Learning began quickly as Kerwin opened a bag containing some of the ropes that were to be threaded out and used in the operation. Instead of neatly spooling out, the entire bundle of rope simply spring out and burst open in zero-G like a huge tangled web.
Conrad: “I wish you hadn’t pulled that rope outta the bag. Holy Christmas.”
Kerwin: “I gave it one tug and it all came.”
Soon Kerwin got the pole extended without any problem, but getting the jaws of the limb-loppers onto the strap was proving to be impossible. Throughout an entire day pass around the Earth, Kerwin struggled with the 20-foot-long pole, but without any foot restraints every time he moved the pole his body simply torqued away in the opposite direction. Conrad tried to hold onto Kerwin’s ankles and stabilize him, but it was no use. Frustrated, the two men grunted and cussed as the Skylab went in and out of the range of ground stations.
For those of you who grew up in the Space Shuttle, TDRS era with continuous communications between the ground and the spacecraft, it was very different in the Skylab days. Ground stations did all of the receiving and transmitting of communications and telemetry. Thus, the astronauts at work would be in range for three or four minutes and then out of communications for hours. To make matters worse, they were in total darkness on half of every orbit. Their suits were not equipped with lights.
Back on Earth, I was allowed to again take the day off of school. So staying home to monitor this critical EVA was no problem for me. The problem was the actual “monitoring” of the EVA itself. None of the television networks carried anything concerning the event. Considering that just a brief downlink of TV would be sent from the workshop, why bother to interrupt the game shows and soap operas? Once again, the only outlet for those of us outside of NASA to keep track of this critical and dangerous EVA was the top and bottom of the hour news broadcasts on the AM radio. My local station, 1400 WSAM, had NBC’s veteran spaceflight reporter Jay Barbree making the twice-hourly reports. Mixed in with Watergate and other assorted news, Jay’s reports were about 20 seconds long and often included a sound bite with the voices of the astronauts. His name spoken by the news anchor Wilson Hall meant that space stuff was soon to be heard. As the Skylab made that day pass, Jay’s clip had Conrad and Kerwin in an obviously frustrating situation and not doing well. The exchange went like this:
Conrad: "Joe, you got to have it tethered, and it'll slide out let it slide out, it can slide out."
Kerwin: "It's not tethered to what?"
Conrad: "The pole. Let me get it in front of the pole…"
Kerwin: "What are you going to tether the pole to? Oh, yourself, huh?"
Conrad: "No. Now you…"
Kerwin: "Oh! The BET!"
Conrad (in frustration): "I just… No, damn it! I'll tell you what I wanna do. Back…"
Kerwin: "What is that tether you’ve got on there?"
Conrad (with a resigned sigh): "That's the pole tether. Now, if you just stay with me a minute. Come on back with pole, I'll tell you what we’re going to do, we’re going to get it in the right configuration."
Kerwin: "We were in the right configuration…"
Conrad: "No we weren't. We were too short. We couldn't slide your pole back. See? Now the tether will go as far up the pole if you want to. You follow me?"
In keeping with the media’s coverage of Skylab, that little, frustrated exchange between the two astronauts was repeatedly played through the entire day, even long after the crew had successfully completed their EVA. It was played the following day as well. The actual, jubilant, communications that came after they had succeeded was almost completely ignored.
|Joe Kerwin. Note: the tether attached to|
his chest, just below his helmet.
Kerwin’s biggest problem was getting his feet anchored. He had told Schweickart the problem was not a hand stability problem, but a foot stability problem. Then as the station was out of communication range, the two astronauts spotted a protruding “U” bolt on the surface of the workshop. They had some extra tethers and quickly cooked up a plan to solve the foot stability problem. They ran the tether through a loop on the front of Kerwin’s suit, pulled it tight and then when he stood up he had a three-point stance. In a matter of minutes he had the lopper anchored to the aluminum strap.
When next the crew came into range of a communications station, Conrad and Kerwin were still wrestling with the umbilicals but had the jaws of the limb lopper in place. That brief period of radio contact had them tangled in the umbilicals and being heavily coached by Rusty Schweickart in Mission Control. Paul Weitz was asking if they wanted him to come out and help. Conrad, however, quickly belayed that idea and things did not look good as the crew passed out of range of the Vanguard tracking ship.
It would be one hour and three minutes before the Skylab would again pass into communications range at Goldstone. The workshop was in its 347th orbit, and in Houston Schweickart and the engineers could only sit and wait. Conrad and Kerwin, however, were very busy.
After getting their umbilicals straightened out, Kerwin steadied the pole while Conrad crawled out along it as far as he could. He fastened the line to the SAS wing where it would do the most good and then came back. Kerwin then fastened the other end to the workshop. As Conrad headed back, the limb-lopper jaws decided to cut all the way through the strap and the huge SAS wing started to rise up with Conrad aboard! The wing, however, stopped at about 18 to 20 degrees up. A “snubber” on the hinge needed to be physically broken in order to fully deploy the wing. So Conrad returned to the area near Kerwin and prepared for the final maneuver. Now both astronauts ducked under the line, and with it over their shoulders they stood up and applied as much force as they could.
Kerwin later recalled that although there was no sound in the airless void of space, he felt a sense of release that would normally be associated with “a loud crack.” The SAS wing broke loose, the line let go and the two astronauts, who had been pushing with all of their strength against the workshop with their feet and the line with their shoulders, were shot into space, in Kerwin’s words, “ass over tea kettle.” Conrad said it was like being shot out of a bow and arrow. Of course both men had umbilical’s secured to the station, so they did not go far.
When each astronaut regained their senses and looked back at the workshop, they saw the SAS wing deployed and the solar panels coming out. This was indeed the most daring and dangerous EVA ever attempted and they had succeeded in a glorious manner.
As the workshop came into range of the Goldstone station, telemetry quickly showed the crew’s success. Power levels for SAS wing 1 were rapidly climbing. As soon as voice was enabled, the two crewmen were heard chattering about the open SAS wing.
"All right,” Conrad reported, “I'll tell you where we are. We've got the wing out and locked, the outboard panel and the middle panel are about out the same amount, and the third one is not quite. Now, Joe, I think before you come in, you better take a look up there and make sure that third one is clear of all the debris."
Communications were regained at one minute after the hour and in just minutes the ears of the space news media picked up the success. With my ears glued to the radio and with my tape recorder at the ready, I had been recording every news break and every shred of Skylab news all day. The word came first from Wilson Hall who was the NBC radio news anchor.
“There’s good news from space,” Hall simply said.
Then he tossed to Jay Barbree who came on and happily reported,
“In a daring difficult spacewalk man has proven that he can repair and save a billion dollar spaceship in earth orbit!”
I let out a “Wahoo!” that ended up on my tape. I knew what this meant to the program as well as to the future, yet I was among the few in the general American public who actually realized the weight of the situation and what had been involved in the repair. I don’t know how many other kids of my age had been following the EVA that day, but I do know that Jay Barbree and NBC radio had been the only source filling me in on that historic event.
Be sure and catch all of the real-time adventure of Skylab by reading my book, "Skylab/ASTP." There is MUCH more and it is indeed a fun ride- you'll feel like you are right there again, or for the first time.
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