restricted access 3. Getting Ready to Fly
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3. Getting Ready to Fly Joe Kerwin recalled: “Here’s the story about my first brush with Skylab: One day in January }u““, Al Shepard said, ‘Kerwin and Michel, I want you to go out to the Douglas plant in California. Marshall’s working on an idea of using the inside of an :n#C fuel tank as an experimental space station.’ So we called out to Ellington for a =-™[ jet and flew to Huntington Beach. At the plant they made us put on bunny suits and slippers, then showed us to the end hatch of a freshly manufactured :n#C lying on its side. The hatch had been removed, leaving an opening about forty inches in diameter into the fuel tank. “We noted that the hatch was secured with seventy-two large bolts. ‘How will the astronauts remove it in flight?’ we asked. ‘We’ll give you a wrench,’ they replied. We climbed into the tank. It was big enough, all right—about thirty feet long and twenty feet in diameter. It was empty except for a long metal tube along one side—the ‘propellant utilization probe’—and a couple of basketball-sized helium tanks. There was a faint chemical smell coming from the fiberglass, which covered the interior. It felt like standing in the bare shell of what was going to be a home someday after the builders had finished with it. “‘What would we do in here,’ we asked. ‘You can fly around in your suits.’ Perhaps you’ll test a rocket backpack. (That was prophetic.) And Marshall was even considering a plan to pressurize the tank with oxygen, so we could remove our spacesuits. That was a start! “Curt had a conversation with the project rep about what experiments could and would be performed. After our return to Houston, he wrote Al a memo which likened the experiment selection process to ‘filtering sand through chicken wire.’ We were both inexperienced, glad to have something to do, and skeptical. I did not dream that seven years later I’d spend a month inside that tank, in space.” From a crew perspective, the development of the Skylab space station and the training of the astronauts who would live there are in many ways the same story. Usability is a primary concern in developing new space hardware . To ensure usability engineers would turn to the people who would be using that hardware. Throughout the development of Skylab, crewmembers would be brought in to give input on hardware as it was being designed and tested. So in many cases, they learned to use the equipment by helping its designers make it usable. Crew involvement began early in the development with the first Apollo Applications Program assignments being made in the astronaut office years before the first moon landing. “Of course, those were early days for Skylab, and we’d looked at a tiny sample of ‘bottom-up’ planning, while the ‘top-down’ planning was taking place elsewhere and would answer a lot of our questions,” Kerwin said. “‘Elsewhere’ was largely at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Not long after our trip to Huntington Beach, I was invited to observe a meeting between a visiting delegation from Marshall and ): managers. The Marshall people gave a briefing on their plans for the ‘Apollo Applications Program,’ as it was then called. They sketched several missions on an ambitious schedule and asked for operations and training participation. The ): managers [. Joe Kerwin tests the vestibular-function experiment during Skylab preparations. ==#*•8H•=3•'H• |• “ basically said, ‘That’s great, but we’re busy going to the moon.’ So the team from Marshall left, saying over their shoulders, ‘This is going to happen!’ And so it did. It was still seven years from launch, but activity got started, and astronauts began to participate. We all had various assignments then, supporting Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, and they changed fairly often, but Skylab began to take more and more of my time and attention.” Kerwin recalls standing around with a group of colleagues one evening in }u“ in the mockup building at ):. Someone had drawn with chalk a big circle on the floor, twenty feet in diameter, representing a cross section of the :n#C tank. In the circle the astronauts worked with Marshall engineers on deciding how best to arrange the sleeping, eating, bathroom, and experiment quarters. “Al Bean was our leader at that time, and Paul Weitz, Owen Garriott, Ed Gibson, and a few...