Crazy Space Christmases: Moon Readings, Food Cans And Emergency Repairs

If you think the upside-down Christmas tree above is bizarre — that’s one of the latest activities of Expedition 42 astronauts in space right now — think back to the history of other holidays in orbit.

We’ve seen a vital telescope undergo repairs, an emergency replacement of part of a space station’s cooling system, and even a tree made of food cans. Learn more about these fun holiday times below.

Reading from above the moon (Apollo 8, 1969)

In this famous reading from the Bible, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders shared their experience looking at the Moon on Dec. 24, 1968. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to venture to lunar orbit, just seven months before the Apollo 11 crew made it all the way to the surface.

Food can “Christmas tree” (Skylab 4, 1973)

A "Christmas tree" created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA
A “Christmas tree” created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA

Living on the Skylab station taught astronauts the value of improvisation, such as when the first crew (under NASA’s instructions) repaired a sunshield to stop electronics and people from roasting inside. Skylab 4 took the creativity to Christmas when they created a tree out of food cans.

Hubble Space Telescope repair (STS-103, 1999)

The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA

When the Hubble Space Telescope was in hibernation due to a failed gyroscope, the STS-103 crew made repairs in December 1999 that culminated with the final spacewalk on Christmas Day. The telescope remains in great shape to this day, following another repair mission in 2009.

First Christmas on the International Space Station (Expedition 1, 2000)

The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

The Expedition 1 crew was the first on the International Space Station to spend Christmas in orbit. “On this night, we would like to share with all-our good fortune on this space adventure; our wonder and excitement as we gaze on the Earth’s splendor; and our strong sense — that the human spirit to do, to explore, to discover — has no limit,” the crew said in a statement on Christmas Eve, in part.

Ammonia tank replacement (Expedition 38, 2013)

Just last year, an ammonia tank failure crippled a bunch of systems on the International Space Station and forced spacewalkers outside to fix the problem, in the middle of a leaky suit investigation. The astronauts made the final repairs ahead of schedule, on Christmas Eve.

Astronaut Bill Pogue, Dead At 84, Took Part In Longest Manned Mission Of His Time

As the International Space Station prepares to host its first one-year visit next year, it’s worth remembering that NASA didn’t just decide to send one of its astronauts into space that long suddenly. The decision to do that was built on years, nay, decades of experience of long-duration spaceflights and studies on how the human body changes, both in the American and Russian programs.

One of those more memorable excursions was NASA’s Skylab 4 in 1973-4, which Bill Pogue (reported dead yesterday at 84) took part in. In the mission’s 84 days — the longest manned excursion at the time — a lot happened. There was a dispute between ground control in the astronauts that some call a mutiny, but others disagree with. Also, the astronauts were tasked with observing a comet from orbit that was billed as the biggest one of the century, but showed up as a disappointing wash.

Although Skylab is not as well-known among the public today, it was NASA’s first space station and taught the agency a lot about working for the long run in space. In the moments after the station launched, a micrometeoroid shield intended to protect the station’s workshop tore away, exposing the station to harsh solar radiation. The first crew to arrive at Skylab in 1973 (called Skylab 2) had to do emergency fixes on the overheated station before they were able to use it.

Both Skylab 2 and 3 included veteran astronauts on its crews, but Skylab 4 was different. The three men launching to the station Nov. 16, 1973 were all space rookies (Jerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue), although it should be noted they were sent after plenty of training on the ground and years of experience supporting other crews.  Their mission, however, got off to a bad start.

Skylab 4 NASA astronaut Bill Pogue (upside-down) with Jerry Carr. The mission ran from Nov. 16, 1973, to Feb. 8, 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab 4 NASA astronaut Bill Pogue (upside-down) with Jerry Carr. The mission ran from Nov. 16, 1973, to Feb. 8, 1974. Credit: NASA

“The crew …  had problems during activation of the workshop that earlier crews had not faced,” reads a chapter of the NASA publication Skylab, Our First Space Station.

“One of its first tasks was to unload and stow within the spacecraft thousands of items needed for their lengthy manned period. The schedule for the activation sequence dictated lengthy work periods with a large variety of tasks to be performed. The crew soon found themselves tired and behind schedule. As the activation period progressed, the astronauts complained of being pushed too hard. Ground crews disagreed; they felt that the flight crew was not working long enough or hard enough.”

What happened next was what some termed a mutiny, and others a reasonable break in work task, as the astronauts took a day off. Another NASA publication, Lifting Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight, says the agency learned a valuable lesson about overprogramming astronauts on longer missions, but notes there were reports of the crew being hostile towards the ground nonetheless.

Skylab 4 commander Gerry Carr flies an astronaut maneuvering experiment in the Skylab space station in December 1973. Credit: NASA
Skylab 4 commander Gerry Carr flies an astronaut maneuvering experiment in the Skylab space station in December 1973. Credit: NASA

Once the crew members and ground control had a discussion about the situation, however, relations reportedly improved. And the crew did much before its Feb. 8, 1974 landing, exceeding its scheduled expectations. For example, they made observations of Comet Kohoutek, which was hyped by some publications such as Time as the “comet of the century” (a phrase that likely sounds familiar to bitter Comet ISON watchers of 2013.) The comet was not as bright as some observers hoped, but still bright enough from orbit for the crew to do visible and ultraviolet light observations.

The crew also reported back on the value of exercise in orbit. International Space Station astronauts typically do two hours a day; the Skylab astronauts did several types for 1.5 hours. Equipment they used included a bicycle ergometer and a treadmill. They did long-term observations of the Earth and the Sun (at a time when there were few space-based observations of our closest star.) Pogue also performed two spacewalks, accumulating 13 hours and 31 minutes of experience “outside.”

Pogue, a veteran of the Korean war and past USAF Thunderbird member, had extensive experience in both American, British and Czech aircraft before being selected as one of a group of 19 astronauts in April 1966, just before the Apollo moon program started. He was a member of the astronaut support crews for Apollos 7, 11 and 14 and was supposed to head to the moon himself on Apollo 19 before that flight was cancelled. Pogue left NASA in 1977, four years before the shuttle program began, and worked as an aerospace consultant.

Skylab: NASA Commemorates 40th Anniversary of America’s First Space Station – Photo Gallery/Broadcast

View of NASA’s Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed during departure of its last astronaut crew on Slylab 4 mission for the return home in Apollo capsule.
Credit: NASA
See photo gallery below
Watch the recorded NASA Skylab 40th Anniversary discussion on YouTube – below[/caption]

Skylab was America’s first space station. The massive orbital workshop was launched unmanned to Earth orbit 40 years ago on May 14, 1973 atop the last of NASA’s Saturn V rockets that successfully lofted American’s astronauts on the historic lunar landings of the Apollo-era.

Three manned Apollo crews comprising three astronauts each ultimately lived and worked and conducted groundbreaking science experiments aboard Skylab for a total of 171 days from May 1973 to February 1974. Skylab paved the way for long duration human spaceflight and the ISS (International Space Station)

On May 13, NASA commemorated the 40th anniversary of Skylab’s liftoff with a special roundtable discussion broadcast live on NASA TV. The event started at 2:30 PM EDT and originated from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Participants included Skylab and current ISS astronauts and NASA human spaceflight managers.

Watch the recorded NASA Skylab 40th Anniversary briefing on YouTube – below.

The Skylab project was hugely successful in accomplishing some 300 science experiments despite suffering a near death crisis in its first moments.

Shortly after blastoff of the Saturn V from Launch Complex 39A the station was severely crippled when launch vibrations completely ripped off one of the stations two side mounted power generating solar panels.

The micrometeoroid shield that protected the orbiting lab from intense solar heating was also torn away and lost. This caused the workshop’s internal temperatures to skyrocket to an uninhabitable temperature of 52 degrees Celsius (126 degrees F).

Furthermore, a piece of the shield had wrapped around the other solar panel which prevented its deployment, starving the station of desperately required electrical power.

View of crippled Skylab complex during ‘fly around’ by the first crew shows missing  micrometeoroid shield and stuck solar panel which luckily was not ripped off during launch. Credit: NASA
View of crippled Skylab complex during ‘fly around’ by the first crew shows missing micrometeoroid shield and stuck solar panel which luckily was not ripped off during launch. Credit: NASA

All nine astronauts that worked on Skylab were launched on the smaller Saturn 1B rocket from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The launch of the first crew was delayed by 10 days while teams of engineers at NASA devised a rescue plan to save the station. Engineers also ‘rolled’ Skylab to an attitude that minimized the unrelenting solar baking.

Owen Garriott Performs a Spacewalk During Skylab 3 Astronaut Owen Garriott performs a spacewalk at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit, photographed with a hand-held 70mm Hasselblad camera. Garriott had just deployed the Skylab Particle Collection S149 Experiment. The experiment was mounted on one of the ATM solar panels. The purpose of the S149 experiment was to collect material from interplanetary dust particles on prepared surfaces suitable for studying their impact phenomena. Earlier during the spacewalk, Garriott assisted astronaut Jack Lousma, Skylab 3 pilot, in deploying the twin pole solar shield.  Credit: NASA
Owen Garriott Performs a Spacewalk During Skylab 3. Garriott performs a spacewalk at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit, photographed with a hand-held 70mm Hasselblad camera. Garriott had just deployed the Skylab Particle Collection S149 Experiment. The experiment was mounted on one of the ATM solar panels. The purpose of the S149 experiment was to collect material from interplanetary dust particles on prepared surfaces suitable for studying their impact phenomena. Earlier during the spacewalk, Garriott assisted astronaut Jack Lousma, Skylab 3 pilot, in deploying the twin pole solar shield. Credit: NASA

The first crew aboard Skylab 2 launched on May 25, 1973 and successfully carried out three emergency spacewalks that salvaged the station and proved the value of humans in space. They freed the one remaining stuck solar panel and deployed a large fold out parasol sun shade through a science airlock that cooled the lab to a livable temperature of 23.8 degrees C (75 degrees F).

The Skylab 2 crew of Apollo 12 moon walker Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph P. Kerwin spent 28 days and 50 minutes aboard the complex.

The outpost became fully operational on June 4, 1973 allowing all three crews to fully carry out hundreds of wide ranging science experiments involving Earth observations and resources studies, solar astronomy and biomedical studies on human adaption to zero gravity.

The second crew launched on the Skylab 3 mission on July 28, 1973. They comprised Apollo 12 moon walker Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma and Owen K. Garriott and spent 59 days and 11 hours aboard the orbiting outpost. They conducted three EVAs totaling 13 hours, 43 minutes and deployed a larger and more stable sun shade.

The 3rd and last crew launched on Skylab 4 on Nov. 16, 1973. Astronauts Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, Edward G. Gibson spent 84 days in space. Their science observations included Comet Kohoutek. They conducted four EVAs totaling 22 hours, 13 minutes.

Skylab was the size of a 3 bedroom house and far more spacious then the tiny Apollo capsules. The complex was 86.3 ft (26.3 m) long and 24.3 ft (7.4 m) in diameter. It weighed 169,950 pounds.

“Skylab took the first step of Americans living in space and doing useful science above the atmosphere at wavelengths not possible on the ground and for long duration periods,” said astronaut Owen Garriot, science pilot, Skylab 3.

Skylab was also the first time student experiments flew into space – for example the spiders ‘Anita and Arabella’ – and later led to a many educational initiatives and programs and innovative ideas.

The Skylab project taught NASA many lessons in designing and operating the ISS, said NASA astronaut Kevin Ford who was the Commander of the recently completed Expedition 34.

NASA had hoped to revisit Skylab with Space Shuttle crews in the late 1970’s. But the massive lab’s orbit degraded faster than expected and Skylab prematurely plummeted back to Earth and disintegrated on July 11, 1979.

See a photo gallery of views from the Skylab missions herein.

Be sure to follow today’s (May 13) undocking of the ISS Expedition 35 crew (Commander ‘extraordinaire’ Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko) and return to Earth tonight aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The ISS is a fantastic measure of just have far we have come in space since Skylab – with the US and Russia peacefully cooperating to accomplish far more than each can do alone.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA missions, Mars, Antares and Curiosity at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “Antares Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Skylab 3 crew photographs Skylab space station with dramatic Earth backdrop during rendezvous and docking maneuvers in 1973.  Credit: NASA
Skylab 3 crew photographs Skylab space station with dramatic Earth backdrop during rendezvous and docking maneuvers in 1973. Credit: NASA
Undergoing a Dental Exam in Space Skylab 2 commander Pete Conrad undergoes a dental examination by medical officer Joseph Kerwin in the Skylab Medical Facility. In the absence of an examination chair, Conrad simply rotated his body to an upside down position to facilitate the procedure. Credit: NASA
Undergoing a Dental Exam in Space Skylab 2 commander Pete Conrad undergoes a dental examination by medical officer Joseph Kerwin in the Skylab Medical Facility. In the absence of an examination chair, Conrad simply rotated his body to an upside down position to facilitate the procedure. Credit: NASA
Skylab program patch
Skylab program patch