At precisely 8:42:47 p.m. EST tonight (Sunday, 7 February), a new record will be set in the annals of U.S. human spaceflight, when Dragon Resilience—the vehicle which delivered Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi to the International Space Station (ISS), last November—passes 84 days, one hour, 15 minutes and 30 seconds in flight.
In doing so, the hardy little SpaceX ship will eclipse Skylab 4’s almost-five-decade-old achievement for the longest single mission by an American crewed orbital spacecraft. Current plans call for Dragon Resilience and her four-member crew to return to Earth in late April or early May, targeting a record-setting duration for a U.S. piloted vehicle of around 165 days in space.
When the Skylab 4 mission launched atop a Saturn IB rocket from historic Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 10:01:23 a.m. EST on 16 November 1973, its three-man crew knew they were aiming for one of the longest orbital voyages ever attempted at that time. Two previous flights to America’s Skylab space station had recorded 28 and 59 days aloft, respectively, whilst the Soviet Union had achieved 23 days with its ill-fated Soyuz 11 crew.
The three “rookies” of Skylab 4 were led by Jerry Carr, who carved out a niche in history as the first U.S. Marine Corps officer to lead a crew of astronauts into space. Carr, who might—but for a quirk of fate and unfortunate historical timing—have walked on the Moon during Project Apollo, died last summer, aged 88. His crewmates were civilian physicist Dr. Ed Gibson and ex-Thunderbirds pilot Bill Pogue.
Eight hours after launch, Carr, Gibson and Pogue docked at Skylab, with an expectation that they would remain there for at least 60 days, open-ended to 84 days, either of which would produce a new world spaceflight endurance record.
Despite an initial bout of space sickness (suffered by Pogue), followed by several weeks of intensive, minute-by-minute scheduled tasks—which Gibson later described as “nothing but a 33-day fire drill”—and unfair allegations of a “space mutiny”, the final six weeks of the Skylab 4 mission passed relatively quietly.
Indeed, so calm were those last weeks of the flight that the crew’s irritations adopted a slightly comical tone. On one occasion, Gibson described for his wife and children the beauty of watching campfires along the coastline of Africa, hopeful that they would be hanging onto his every word…until his youngest daughter piped up by asking her mother if she could go outside to play.
And in another instance, Pogue was disturbed by a message from his wife, announcing that his life insurance policy was about to expire. He had even requested making a three-month pre-payment into the policy before launch, but was assured that the policy remained effective throughout his mission.
By the end of December 1973, Skylab 4 was tentatively scheduled to return to Earth in early January 1974, slightly pipping Al Bean’s Skylab 3 crew with about 60 days in orbit, but the assumption was that flight extensions would be considered on a weekly basis, dependent upon the availability of consumables and the health of the astronauts.
Those flight extensions came thick and fast throughout the month of January, with Skylab Program Manager Bill Schneider praising the crew’s “good spirits”, their “excellent physical condition” and the exceptional “good shape” of Skylab itself.
The mission was extended to 63 days, then 70 days, with splashdown correspondingly rescheduled for 24 January, then month’s end, and eventually settling on 8 February to produce a total of 84 days spent in space. “The last six weeks of the flight were very pleasant for me for two reasons,” Pogue later told the NASA oral historian. “One, we’d achieved the skill level sufficient to do the job quickly and accurately, and second, I no longer suffered from the head congestion that had plagued me for about the first six weeks.”
As they approached the 12-week limit of the mission, there were hints that NASA Administrator James Fletcher might authorize another ten days—perhaps yielding a 94-day flight—but, mentally, Carr’s crew was ready to come home and, besides, the consumables aboard Skylab were approaching the point of exhaustion.
On the morning of 8 February, the astronauts stowed materials science specimens, samples of frozen urine, equipment and film cassettes from Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) inside their Command Module, preparatory for departure. After undocking and a customary flyaround of the station, they headed home, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, about 186 miles (300 km) southeast of San Diego.
Not too far away—less than 3 miles (5 km), in fact—was the recovery ship U.S.S. New Orleans, which quickly picked up the command module and America’s record-setting heroes. Dawn had just broken over the Pacific and Carr, Gibson and Pogue had spent longer in space than any other human beings. Not until March 1978 would Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko, aboard the Salyut 6 space station, eclipse this record, eventually returning to Earth after 96 days in orbit.
And for America, the accomplishment of Carr, Gibson and Pogue would endure even longer. In fact, it would be 6 June 1995—three months into Norm Thagard’s four-month stay aboard Russia’s Mir orbital complex—before a U.S. astronaut would spend longer than 84 days in space.
Inclusive of Thagard’s achievement, 70 Americans have flown long-duration missions to Mir and the International Space Station (ISS), of whom 11 have logged two extended flights and hardcore veterans Jeff Williams and Peggy Whitson have made three. But until last year, all of those missions saw their astronauts launch or land via the now-retired Space Shuttle fleet or Russia’s venerable Soyuz.
Last summer, Demo-2 crewmen Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent 64 days in space aboard Dragon Endeavour, eclipsing the 59-day achievement of the second-to-last Skylab crew. The spectacular success of Hurley and Behnken’s eight-week test flight cleared another hurdle in getting the United States firmly back into the realm of long-duration spaceflight with its own vehicles and set the astronauts of Dragon Resilience in pole position to fly a full-duration ISS increment of almost six months…and a place in the record-books.