NASA astronaut Dr. Edward Gibson–who spent a record 84 days living in space–discusses the repair and maintenance of America’s first space station, Skylab.
Gridium: Hello everyone, and welcome to this conversation with Dr. Edward Gibson, who in 1974, established the American record for living in space on this country’s first space station, Skylab. Ed and his two fellow crew members lived on Skylab for 84 days.
My name is Millen and I’m with Gridium. Buildings use our software to fine-tune operations.
Ed and I will be discussing his experiences as a NASA astronaut, including what it feels like to sit on a Saturn rocket and launch into space, and the role of repair and maintenance on Skylab and in manned space flight generally.
I won’t try to describe how excited I am to have you–thank you for being here!
Dr. Gibson: Thank you, Millen. It’s my pleasure to be here. You’ve got an interesting subject that I look forward to talking to you about it.
Gridium: So, let’s start with this question, rewinding the tape back into time: In 1965, NASA selected you and five other scientist-astronauts out of an application pool of 2,000. How did that happen?
Dr. Gibson: Well, it turned out… I’ve always wanted to fly high-performance airplanes, but I couldn’t pass the Air Force physical because I once had a bone disease called osteomyelitis.
So, I went off to CalTech and got a PhD in Engineering, mostly in Rocketry and Jet Propulsion because I figured if I couldn’t well, fly ‘em, I could go build ‘em. And one morning in the Los Angeles Times, my wife was reading an article about NASA looking for scientists who wanted to fly high-performance airplanes and fly in space.
So…I thought long and hard about it, and started to apply at 7:30 that morning.
Gridium: That must’ve been quite exciting at that point. Did you… as a child, did you always want to be an astronaut?
Dr. Gibson: Well, as a child, I never even knew the term “astronaut”.
It wasn’t until the Mercury Program came along and I was aware of the term, I was going through graduate school so, obviously most of my… 99% of my time was focused on studies. (Laughs)
Well, as a child, I did grow up… I remember, my earliest recollections of anything scientific was just laying there on the floor drawing pictures of the solar system. I was not a good student. I had more fun looking out the window, looking at clouds and looking at airplanes, rather than what was going on on the blackboard.
So, I liked to brag that I was president of my first-grade class two years in a row.
Dr. Gibson: But then, I finally got into college, even though I did… I was a year behind most people. And at that point, I finally decided that now was the time, if I was ever going to do it. And I made an amazing discovery that if you work harder, your performance improves.
Dr. Gibson: So, after… I had only one college that’d let me in, which is The University of Rochester. But then, four years later, I had every college willing to give me full scholarships to study, well, for a PhD. So, it made a difference if you work hard, and I did and I found out I really got my calling and enjoyed it.
Gridium: That’s great. And as I understand it, in 1969, you served as an Earth-based communicator on Apollo 12. What was that like?
Dr. Gibson: Oh, I did and… and that was really enjoyable.
It was not just the communication part–that was obviously the final role in the mission–but, I worked with Pete Conrad and Al Bean to develop all the lunar procedures that they did on the Moon.
I worked with all the scientists who had the experiments and then I had to put it in workable terms so that we could efficiently communicate while they were out there working on the Moon, out ahead. So, I got to know the experiments real well, the experimenters and Pete and Al.
And it’s because there were several of us in that little role. And it was, that was really fun. And finally, when we did fly, I found that just challenging. I loved it, although I was on pins and needles all the time because I knew how costly that time was and how little there was of it. So, we had to make the most of it.
Gridium: When you were on the crew of Apollo 12, did you think and were you confident that one day that you would be in space as well?
Dr. Gibson: No, not at all. I wasn’t confident that I was even going to be on a flight until I was actually selected. And I wasn’t confident I was going to be in space until we cleared the tower.
Gridium: I’m excited to ask you about what it felt like, when you mentioned you cleared the tower, to climb onto that Saturn rocket. But, before we get there, can you remind me what the country was feeling at the time, Ed, about space, space flight, and also the advanced technological systems needed to make it all happen?
Dr. Gibson: Well, we… I’m afraid we began to take things for granted starting from a dead scratch in about 1961, being on the Moon in 1969–that took a lot of experts.
We had 400,000 people working around the clock sometimes and so, President Kennedy’s words kept on coming back. And that’s, “…not because it was easy, but because it was hard.”
He thought this was an actual way of life so, we figured that America was on a roll and we would keep on that roll.
We didn’t really see the downturns coming as we were working for Apollo 12, because that was just another advanced mission of taking up where Apollo 11 left off. But then this, as time went on and they cancelled the last of the Apollo missions, we began to get a hint that the Congress, the President and the people–American people–were not behind this space program to the degree that we thought they were. So, it was great while it lasted.
We got a lot done, but you see where we are today.
Gridium: What were you thinking when you learned that you had been selected? That you would be jumping on some of the finest, most advanced technology the world had ever known? That you would be flying it up to space, to a space station orbiting Earth?
Dr. Gibson: Well, one thing I learned when I was learning to fly high-performance airplanes was that the most dangerous thing in that airplane was the pilot. And I thought, “Well, it’s nice that I’m going to be inside that spacecraft, but I got a responsibility to do the best job I possibly can.”
So, I didn’t spend a lot of time partying; I spent a lot of time studying and workin’ hard to make sure that if something went wrong, it wasn’t our fault.
Gridium: It’s the fall of 1973–November 16th, to be exact. You and your two crewmates have climbed onto a Saturn rocket named SA208, if I’m not mistaken. And, according to my notes, the first stage burned a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene. The second stage a mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. This machine was capable of taking you and your equipment up off of this planet to near escape velocity, which is 33x the speed of sound–as you know–and, if I’m not mistaken, nearly 25,000 miles per hour.
Can you describe what that felt like?
Dr. Gibson: Well, actually… we didn’t quite get up to that speed. We got up to orbital velocity, which is 18,000 miles an hour. If we were lighter and had been properly fueled, we might’ve been able to get quite a bit higher than that–maybe close to 25,000 you mentioned which is escape velocity…
Dr. Gibson: …but, that… it escaped from the Earth even on a Saturn V rather than the Saturn 1B–which is what we were on.
Well, when that thing lights off, it feels like the bottom floor of your building explodes and you slowly start off. And then when you start going to max dynamic, aerodynamic pressure Max Q it’s called. You get a lot of vibration from the turbulence in the air as you go to MACH 1. And at that point, you begin to wonder, “Is this normal?” Since you’ve never been through it before, you wonder “Is something happening here that’s not happening on other spacecraft?”
Dr. Gibson: But, sure enough you get through it all and then, as you get through max Q–after about a minute and a half–things settle down and you get staging, which is kinda’ like a great train wreck. It feels like, when you get a large kick in the rear, like a car having an automobile accident where you get rammed from the rear. And then you get hit from the front and then you get another one from the rear while your next engine lights off. It’s like, it’s a pretty violent scare.
You’re not all happy about the second half, so you’re going to be jerked around. But after that, it’s just like one long smooth elevator ride. Just, all the way up.
Finally, you get to weighing around 5x your normal weight which is not bad, because you’ve got your heart at the same elevation as your head, in your brain. So, you don’t tend to grey-out or black-out.
But, you know, it’s hard to lift the hand and the cheeks and ears just slide to the back of your head. But it’s… then it all cuts off and there you are: zero gravity, and you’re there.
And that’s… that’s a great feeling because you know at least you know you made it, it’s over.
Gridium: That’s remarkable. Before your flight, there was a truly remarkable story of repair and maintenance and ingenuity with the first Skylab mission. What happened there?
Dr. Gibson: Well, it was unfortunate.
We had a problem with when we launched… on the Saturn V, when we launched the whole space station.
And there was a sneak, aerodynamic path that came in as we were going through max Q where high pressure air got underneath a micrometeoroid shield, pushed it into the airstream where it lifted off and caused a lot of destruction.
We not only lost the shield, but in the process, we lost one of the two solar panels; and the other one was also only partially deployed when we got into orbit. So, there had to be a lot of work done to salvage the space station.
The first crew went up and did an awful lot of that, and we worked in one of the water tanks over at Huntsville, Alabama to get a lot of the work that was eventually applied by the second crew up there to put another solar shield up.
But one of the problems was that the micrometeoroid shield also provided thermal protection, so that when the first crew arrived there, like we… the temperature inside was about 140°. We told them not to worry, it’s pretty much dry heat like Arizona…
Dr. Gibson: …they didn’t quite get the humor there.
But nonetheless, they got it… they got something pushed out the airlock–which was essentially an umbrella-like, there–and it worked. It brought the temperature down. I think it functioned pretty well.
Then the second crew went up and put out this second sunshade, which is a much more elaborate one that we developed down there at Huntsville. And that brought the temperatures down and that worked really well.
Gridium: During those 10 days, between the time the space station was launched and that solar shade had been developed, do you recall if NASA and the team of engineers were confident that a repair solution could be designed and tested and deployed, all in time to save the mission?
Dr. Gibson: Well, I don’t think people sort of took time out to ask whether they were confident.
They just spent the whole time trying to get something together and make it work, because what we did in that short period of time, of 10 days, was what would normally take NASA a few months or even a year to accomplish, going through all the program funding and the specifications and all the bureaucratic work that you’ve got to go through in order to get a program developed.
This is where I remember standing next to Wernher Von Braun looking over a guy who’s working on a lathe. That was the way it was… there wasn’t a lot of class structure in that whole thing; it was all one team working together.
Gridium: That’s awesome. Fast-forwarding to your mission, which was the third manned Skylab mission, what were the objectives of your mission, Ed?
Dr. Gibson: Well, we had three objectives like Skylab did.
One was to get up there and understand ourselves–our bodies, trying to understand what happens to them, bodies in zero gravity and also with the radiation from space. First crews get back, and we were up there longer and we learned from what they did, what they experienced and how to do that better.
We looked back at the Earth, we had a number of sites down here on Earth where we had ground truth in process, as people were flying over in airplanes and other measurements were taken at the time we were coming over. We had something, on the order of 20 or 30 different sites around the world, where we had trained to do this, that were active at the time. And we learned a fair amount from that.
The last one was the understanding the sun: we had a whole host of solar telescopes that were put on there. They were supposed to be on an unmanned spacecraft, but when Skylab came along, they decided to take it over to our space station and, thank god they did because, not only did they get the best use of their equipment from their telescopes, but also we got to put some human judgment in the taking of the data.
The sun looks looks like one big yellow ball of gas, but in reality there is a lot of detail on the surface and some of it’s changing rapidly through high-energy processes… So, there’s a lot to learn across the wide spectrum of wavelengths and time and spatially, so there’s judgment to be utilized–and that was my background, so I really had a field day up there. I just loved it!
So, those were the major things. And then we had a whole host of high school experiments, and other things…
Gridium: Skylab was fairly large. The documentaries from NASA showed that you and the crew were doing some acrobatics and a whole program of calisthenics and other exercises, with also room to run around and jump around and so forth.
That must’ve been fun?
Dr. Gibson: Well, it was. The first crew that went up there, they were trying to imitate 2001 and went around the dome blockers like they were running on a round track. But, the radius is so small, it’s tough to run like that because as you run forward, you’re falling right into the floor… it comes up to meet you. So, you gotta’ fall backwards as you run all the time.
But it also was tough on what are called control moment gyros, which is a big stabilization device that we had on the Skylab to keep us pointing in the right direction.
And so, we were putting a lot of inputs into these gyros. One of them had failed on a previous mission, so they didn’t want us to put the other two in danger. Thus, we didn’t do that, but we did get to do a lot of aerobatics. I claim that I think I have the world’s record for a 10 ½ gainer. But I’ve not had the record books come after me on that one.
Gridium: (Laughs) Well, that sounds like a lot of fun. I wonder though, was it fun or was it tense? And I imagine it was tense, those moments leading up to the initial docking of your spacecraft with the Skylab space station, just because I’d love to imagine that.
What was that like?
Dr. Gibson: Well, tense but it’s just one part of the mission, so you’re just pressing on.
But it was a relief though, all of the sudden going through our maneuvers even though we had done it in a simulator many times. To go through our maneuvers and to finally look out the window and low and behold, there’s the Skylab looking at us.
And we… then we came up, we docked on it. We made one run at it and it bounced off. And I made some remarks to my commander, who was sitting at my left and remarking something about Marines being… made some comment about Marines not being able to hack it. And well, he jarred our teeth with the next one and we docked pretty well.
Gridium: (Laughs) And spacewalks. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you what that was like. I think you spent a total of 15 hours in a space suit outside. What were the reasons for those spacewalks?
Dr. Gibson: Well, the spacewalk was on Skylab originally, just to replace the film in the solar telescopes.
I know it might seem antiquated, but we didn’t have the real high digital formats that we have on all our instruments now. We did have one instrument that had that, but even then, it didn’t have the resolution that you could get now with film.
And that’s what those experiments were originally designed. We had to go outside and replace the films about two or three times per mission. On ours, it was three times. And so that was what the EVAs were originally designed for.
That was interesting, but we got so efficient, that we did it usually in the first 20 minutes of a spacewalk, but the rest was all devoted to repair and maintenance or other experiments that were added on. So, we were out there much longer… I think my longest one was close to 7 hours.
Gridium: How difficult is it to get serious work done in those spacesuits, harnessed and tethered as you were, to the Skylab space station?
Dr. Gibson: Well, it depends. If it’s something that you had designed in, that is, if you’ve got foot restraints, the proper support equipment and the piece you’re working on is made for that, then it works out real well, like the replacement of the film canisters in the solar telescopes. So, that was just a piece of cake because people had well thought it out ahead of time.
But then when you try to do repair work which is not planned and you’re wearing this big bulky suit with thick mittens on your gloves… well, it gets much harder. For example, one time Bill Pogue and I had to go out and repair an Earth Observation antenna, where the electronics had gone bad so it would not gimble back and forth.
So, they figured out what that problem was on the ground and then gave us new electronics to replace some of what was inside the electronics box.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t made to be repaired.
So, we went out there and we didn’t have foot restraints or anything. For example, I remember being out there with Bill Pogue–who himself had his feet and legs wrapped around a pole, holding my feet while I was dangling around trying to use a tiny screwdriver to undo a screw, which we couldn’t get to from the top.
We had to undo it up on the side. I don’t know if you ever tried to undo anything, a screw from the side… you use a screwdriver. Well, that’s difficult enough… but try it in snow mittens with a tiny screw and while you’re not stabilized. You can see the problem!
That took probably about an hour and a half to finally get that repair done. And those gloves were the one thing I wish we had much better control over. I wish we had spray on gloves, but they just didn’t have such things.
When I came back in, my fingernails were purple from just squeezing that small screwdriver to get that job done. So, at least we did get it done! It’d be great if it was designed for that, but it wasn’t and I can’t fault anybody for that. Because we didn’t know what would fail, you can’t design everything for human repairs.
Gridium: Speaking of which, in a NASA documentary you state “…the advantages which man’s space flight offers are in the area of repair and maintenance, which we’ve demonstrated time and time again on Skylab.” I’m quoting there. What did you mean?
Dr. Gibson: Well, I meant first thing…we wouldn’t have a Skylab mission if the first crew was not able to go up there, repair the station well enough to first bring the temperature down. And certainly, they repaired a solar panel so we’ve got sufficient electric power to conduct the mission.
Then, things like I just mentioned, we had a number of other repairs similar to that which were not anticipated, but yet when we got there or before we went, we knew about and we had to go up and fix it or we would have lost a component. Even inside the station, there was a charger battery regulator module that failed and we had to do some repair work on that. There’s just a lot of pieces that in something that complex that we’re throwing together in the manner than it was, will fail. And if you can’t repair it, you’re just out of luck.
One of my concerns is… well, let’s just backup and look at what happened much more recently with the Hubble Space Telescope repair. We didn’t anticipate we were going to have that problem, but we did.
And so, people were able to devise another optics lens from the ground and it was replaced and the Hubble Space Telescope was off and running. Now, we also had gone up and maintained it in many other ways with the shuttle… that’s before the demise of the shuttle. They repaired it in many other ways in terms of electronic boxes and replaced some components that were getting closer to the end of their life.
Now, my concern and my big worry is we have the James Webb Telescope coming up, and that necessarily is out very far from Earth and can’t be repaired, can’t be reached. So, I just hope that the engineers have been able to do their work well enough that we won’t have those kind of breakdowns like we had on Hubble and we don’t lose the telescope.
Dr. Gibson: Of course, we’ve had many different telescopes working before, so really that’s… maybe I’m worried for no good reason. But I’ve just seen too many things in the past where we had had to have a human be able to reach out and make some repair work.
Gridium: Professor Matthew Hersch in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University writes that “…NASA expected systems management and malfunction procedures would account for much of [your] time on Skylab.” And that “…a great deal of time and training was spent in preparation for that type of work.”
Was that surprising as an astronaut during the training?
Dr. Gibson: Well, I was a little surprised in the training. We did have a fair amount of that. We had a lot of repair and maintenance training, especially in the four or five months before we flew in the simulator.
And they tried to kill us multiple times per day.
But that was great training because it teaches you to always be aware of what’s going on around you, and if something starts to go wrong you get on it quickly. Worry is not a situation that you encounter out there. It’s only the need to fix something and the urgency to get it done.
So, in a sense, I have nothing but good things to say about the training that we had. In terms of what he mentions, which was systems management/malfunction procedures. Yeah, we had a lot of malfunction systems management, but that was all experience to be expected.
But I don’t think it was as large as what this question implies. We all had to do some of it, but I think it was Bill Pogue who was in charge of most of it, probably spent only maybe 30% of his time with any of it. And I ended up with maybe 10%, as did Jerry Carr.
Gridium: Professor Hersch also shares a story about a power module repair diagram that was sent up to Skylab from the ground, and as the instructions for this diagram pointed to a particular Allen head screw holding on the module’s cover. And it pointed to this Allen head screw because it needed to be pounded on with a hammer. That sort of thing reminded me of my time in the garage, but I wonder, Ed… was that common in space?
Dr. Gibson: Well, I won’t say it was common, but I’m sure the people had tried this on the ground and realized they had a little bit of a problem and they had to fix it. And that was one easy fix, was to loosen the thing up with a little impact. It didn’t happen often, but you know, sometimes hardware is hardware, whether it’s up there in space or down here on the ground; you have to approach it the same way.
Gridium: What do you think the role of human ingenuity is when it, as an astronaut trying to fix a power module or a solar array, a workstation heat shield or any other piece of mission-critical technology on a spacecraft or a station like Skylab?
Dr. Gibson: Well, unless engineers are smart enough to be able to predict all failures in the future, know exactly what needs to be done, define the right procedures, and make the crewman become just a glorified robot, then the human is really required for the ability to observe, analyze and rapidly adjust in these situations. In that sense, I think the human is really required.
But you know, I think we’re getting smarter and many times in the future, it will be a totally robotic-type operation.
Gridium: When we think about robots in space, my mind goes to the Curiosity Mars Rover, which is sending us images from the surface of Mars right now as we speak. Elon Musk’s SpaceX stated goal is to enable people to live on other planets.
So, I have to ask, Ed, what do you think are some of the reasons to explore space?
Dr. Gibson: That’s a big one.
Well, there’s initially just the human drive to explore. You go out of your house, you want to walk around and see what’s in your neighborhood, or you want to see what’s over the next hill or around the next corner. Or, as people have it, they finally got into airplanes when we could look out and see more.
And finally, we went into spacecraft where we look back at Earth and look out for other life… We put telescopes on Earth and in space, so we can see what’s around us. The space around us is effectively infinite and so it’s natural to want to explore.
However, it’s not just that. When you’ve finally learned what’s going on in the world around you, you see the opportunities for utilization to improve our life here on Earth. And so, exploration and the utilization unit go hand-in-hand and one precedes the other, but utilization is always a big part of moving into a new territory. And all this we’ve learned many times over from previous explorations.
So… those two points together brought a lot of prosperity for people on Earth. But, at the very front end of it, wanting to explore… it’s a tough sell because you can’t predict what you’re going to learn. But you know you will learn, and you will learn something vital.
But you’ve gotta’ take that in faith and some people can do that unfortunately. That’s one of the reasons our space program is in the situation it is, because people can’t quite understand what has come out of the past that can also come out of it again in the future, but that’s life.
Gridium: You lived through it and I did not, so I don’t know. You lived through the heyday of space exploration, a truly golden era for space. That said, how does today compare to that?
There does feel like an increase as a growing interest in space again, with SpaceX and Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, there’s TV shows now on National Geographic. How does it compare, if at all?
Dr. Gibson: There really are two different ways to approach things.
And one is from the public sector, meaning NASA, and the other is the private sector like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and so forth. We didn’t have much independent work being done by the private sector back when we got into Apollo. It was all government funding and–which at the peak was about four and a half percent of our federal budget. Now it’s down to less than one half of a percent.
We have committed ourselves in our federal budget in so many areas, including our 20 trillion-dollar debt, so there’s not much money around for NASA to institute major new programs. We’ve got a lot of good people in NASA that can help with initiating good programs and doing a lot of research to support.
But I’m afraid that the major emphasis is shifting over–I shouldn’t say I’m afraid, I’m happy–that the major emphasis is shifting over into the private sector. I hope we’re able to make additional funds available to the private sector so they can continue on with some of their work and also expand.
I just know when people talk about maybe that’s not a good thing… I ask them how many people would like to take your next flight on a government airplane rather than the commercial airplane. And then usually they get the message that, in the airline industry we have shifted over from where the government did most of the research, development, and building of aircraft to where we are now have most routine operations done commercially.
I expect in space we will find most routine operations done commercially. NASA’s always going to have a hand in it, just like the FAA has a hand and other research organizations have a hand in aviation. I’m glad to see it, personally. I’m just… it’s… the transition is going to be a little cumbersome here. I’m hoping there’s enough other people like SpaceX who will come along and fund it.
Gridium: You spent 84 days living on Skylab in a space station orbiting Earth. Can you imagine living on Mars?
Dr. Gibson: Yeah, I can. I can imagine it, but I can’t imagine the details because they’re not developed yet.
If I were not married and had confidence in the systems that were developed, I’d be very happy to go up and live there for several years.
But we’re not there yet. Elon Musk has said that he would like to live on Mars, even die there… just not on impact.
Gridium: (Laughs) Yeah.
Well gosh, Ed. I want to say thank you for joining us today. My grandmother, Beryl M. Paschich, was a Woman Air Service Pilot in World War II and so flight and spaceflight and airplanes and spacecraft have always been a fascination to me. So, this has been really exciting.
Dr. Gibson: I appreciate this.
Gridium: And let me say thank you for speaking with us about maintenance on Skylab and space exploration.
Dr. Gibson: Well, it’s been my pleasure. And if you want to learn more about my time in space and space exploration, you can go to my website which is…
Dr. Gibson: Correct.
Gridium: Yes, and I was going to note for our audience that if you want to find out some more about Ed’s books there are links on spaceleaders.com, including the science fiction techno-thriller titled “Reach.” So, with that, thanks again Ed.
Dr. Gibson: Hey, well thank you very much. I really enjoyed it and I hope your readers, I mean, your listeners can get some enjoyment and utility out of it as well.