Jack Lousma, aeronautical engineer, astronaut, pilot, politician. That’s quite a career, joining the United States Marine Corps in 1959 before being selected as an astronaut in 1966. He also served as CAPCOM during Apollo 13 where he received the now famous message of “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
His first spaceflight was as crew on Skylab 3 along with Alan Bean and Owen Garriott, where he also completed 2 space walks. Jack Lousma’s last spaceflight was as Commander on STS-3, the third Space Shuttle mission, which is where he starts his talk with us today.
Again, thanks to the great team at Space Lectures I find myself on the short trip to Pontefract for an astronaut talk to see Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. This will be the second time I’ve seen Jack Lousma, the first time I met him he gave a great detailed answer about spacewalking and someone else asked him how to go to the toilet in space. But rest assured, it wasn’t crap….
I want to thank you for being here and it’s a privilege to join you and hopefully I can keep you awake and want to thank all of you space buffs for coming out today. What I’d like to do today is introduce you to the space shuttle mission I flew, the third test flight of the space shuttle Columbia back in 1982, for which the shuttle then flew 135 flights over a period of 30 years.
I do want to talk a little bit about the space shuttle because it was our transportation habitat for quite a long time, there are a lot of great stories about the space shuttle. The first four flights were test flights with only two people on board, the commander and the pilot. Didn’t want to risk too many people at that stage, if those four test flights were going to be successful then we would add more people, and that is what happened. We then flew 7-8 people on the space shuttle, only two pilots, the rest were engineers, scientists, whoever might have a reason to go in to space. We did not have that privilege during the Apollo program, all pilots had to become scientists and the scientists had to become pilots.
The first couple of flights for the space shuttle were only two days long just to see if we could both sides of that ticket, to go up and come back, that worked pretty well. Back in those days we were landing in lake beds in those days because we had lot longer runways, some lake beds had several runways and in the event that you did not come back where you wanted to come, you could select something else.
Gliding the Lead Sled
When you are coming back down, the space shuttle is a glider, if you can t find a runway, find a freeway because you are coming down. We called it the ‘Lead Sled.’ On the third test of the space shuttle we really had something to prove, the flight before failed and came back early. My co-pilot and I trained for that for 2.5-3 years and we were going up there for 7 days and test the space shuttle and also had 15 scientific experiments so we were going to be pretty busy fellows and then comeback and land on the lake bed in California at Edwards.
About a week before we left town, the director of our space centre, Chris Kraft, we were having breakfast in quarantine, the last three weeks before the flight to keep us from getting germs etc, I think it was to keep us off the streets. He said we couldn’t land in California because the lake bed was wet and it was muddy, where would you like to land? i still wanted to land on a lake bed and he said we had a brand new runway at Kennedy Space Centre, never been used before and you could be the first to use it. 15,000 feet long, alligators at both ends, I said we’d like to land at White Sands Missile Range, the south east of New Mexico. it has one runway but its a long one on a lake bed. I said if the weather is pretty good I’m sure we can get in here. So they moved 40 train loads of equipments there from the lake bed in California to New Mexico. So when it was time to come in 7 days, they said we were clear for landing so we got in our seats ready to come back, and then they said wait, don’t come back, there was a bad dust storm at White Sands so they wanted to keep us in space for one more day. if the weather is good you can land at white sands, if it was bad, you can be the first to land with the alligators.
So my wife and kids, Mary (his daughter who his with him today) included were down there at White Sands waiting for us. Now White Sand is made out of gypsum and when it’s dry, its very powdery and when there is a wind storm it just blows it away. When they waved us off we got out of our seats after a little while, we looked over White Sands and sure enough, New Mexico was blowing into Texas and so my and kids and everybody else were in a survival situation while we had the best seats in the house. Then of course NASA asked my wife where she wanted to watch the landing tomorrow. She asked where was it going to be, they said we don’t know but if we don’t land here (White Sands) tomorrow, then it will be at Kennedy Space Centre, and if so, you’ll have to get on the airplane which will take everybody there in 3 hours. So she didn’t know what to do, she’s a farmer’s daughter and knows that folk who work with plants, know something about the weather. So she’s walking back to where the kids are and fellow picking weeds out of shrubs, he’d lived there a long time and she said, sir, can you tell me what the weather is going to be here tomorrow? He said yes ma’am, I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve never seen it blow like this 2 days in a row. So she goes back and tells them that she’s going to stay here. NASA, with all of its satellites, scientists and weather forecasts, could not tell her what the gardener told her. There’s a lesson there!
Skylab Space Station
Skylab was launched after the Apollo landings on the moon, in 1973. It turned out we got to the moon a lot quicker than we thought we would, after only 5 flights, we landed on the moon. We go so successful so quickly that we cancelled the last 3 flights to the moon. Those of us who were training for it got reassigned to the next program and that was the Skylab programme.
The Skylab space station was designed to find out what we would need to know for a real space station, like the one that is up there now, because we had only been in weightlessness for 15 days maximum and that’s not enough to say to someone, go up and live up there weightlessness for a year and see what happens, so the space station was a prototype. We were going to learn from living in it for longer periods of time, how to build a bigger space station rather than living in a little capsule. In effect the Skylab space station was only a science laboratory, launched into space with some 60 science experiments. The first Skylab mission was only for about a month, the second one two months and the third one 3 months. Which is exactly what happened although nobody really knew what was going to happen to us because nobody had done it before.
We did medical experiments every 3 days and that information would be telemetered to the doctors on the ground and they would decide if we could stay another week. We started training for this flight in 1971 and training for 2.5/3 years. there were a lot of things to do, people to work with, to make sure we did our experiments right, a lot of information was necessary, if were going to do a spacewalk, we had to be sure we were able to do that well also.
I was assigned the second mission, the first mission went up and they had a problem, the outer shell had come off the spacecraft so we had to cover up it up with an umbrella, that wasn’t quite substantial so we had to cover it with something more more substantial and we stayed 2 months for a 3 month mission. We were in the hydrogen tank of the third stage rocket where us where we did most of our living and medical experiments. It was the biggest thing that had been launched in terms of putting people into space so we had a lot to learn and a lot of space to live in.
Skylab was launched into space on a Saturn V rocket and launched into orbit above the Earth at 270 miles so we used the moon rocket to do that as we had some leftover parts from the other astronauts. The solar panels were used to generate all the electricity for the spacecraft which was generated by the sunshine. The lower living area was mostly a medical experiment area, where w did our eating and food prep, where we had our medical supplies for emergency situations. We had sleeping compartments, we slept on the wall in a sleeping bag, not enough room full full beds, never slept better than I did in space. If you don’t like to float around, you have some elastic straps to make it feel like you’re on your back. In space when your neck goes limp, it doesn’t behave the same way as it does on your pillow, so you can have a strap that goes over your forehead to keep your head back. Our sleep compartments were about as big as two phone booths. of course its got no running water so you have to get used to that.
The Saturn V that launched our Skylab in May of 1973, it got to 270 miles, flying round the world at 17,500 miles an hour. So when you do that you go around the world every 1.5 hours, so for 60 minutes you’d be in the day light and for 30 minutes you would be in the darkness or the shadow of the Earth.
Skylab had problems when we got up there. The outer skin, the meteorite shield was tucked into the skin and was supposed to pop off so that if a meteorite hit, it would break up into little pieces before it hit the hull, so it was different to all the other rockets we had shot up. When it got up to 60 seconds into launch, the outer shell came off, took off the solar panel wing and the other one was jammed up to the side of the spacecraft. The first crew had to wait about a week to come up with some fixes, I’ve never seen a space outfit work so quickly to make something and in one week we had three fixes that we could use. The first one was to put an umbrella over it, which is what the first crew did and were able to stay up there for a whole month.
After the came back, my colleagues and I went up to the space station, Alan Bean and Owen Garriott. We got into the truck a couple of hours before lift off, helped the ground crew checkout the spacecraft and made sure everything was alright and then strap in. 30 seconds before lift you shake hands with your buddy and wish them good luck, because you know your luck is going to be the same as his. About 9 seconds after lift off the engines come up to speed and you start rattling and shaking around, it takes us about ten minutes to get into orbit, on the way up you’ll experience 4 Gs on the back, if you weigh 200 pounds then you’ll feel 800 pounds. But you don’t notice that because you have a lot things to think about and have a lot of things to do but are not afraid. I don’t know anybody who has been in space and been afraid. What you want to do is make sure you don’t make a mistake, what you’re thinking about is what you have to do is when things go right and when things go wrong.
It took about 7.5 hours after we got into orbit to rendezvous with the Skylab space station. We wanted to photograph the space station so we could send it to the engineers on the ground, they wanted to know the status and then tell us how to make it better. We were doing all of this, flying around the station before docking while we were over Brazil. What you can see with the naked eye s clear river systems.
We had three spacewalks on our mission. When we went out we usually stayed around 6-7 hours. We’re out there with a backpacks supplying us with oxygen and so forth, getting oxygen through the umbilical, electricity, water, 60 feet long and when you get out and do the spacewalk thats the ultimate of being in orbit, everybody want to do the spacewalk, it’s the thing you remember the most, every other day just phases into one another. You try to stay out there as long as you possibly can. In those days we did not have a radio connection with the ground all the way around with Houston, no computers, internet, cell phones, all the things we take for granted now. But you step out of the hatch and you know you are in a different place, instead of looking through the window of the spacecraft and seeing a little bit of the earth, now you can see the whole Earth, 1500 miles in every direction, no sound, no vibration, like riding along on a magic carpet. Every sunrise, every sunset, staying out there as long as you can and because you’re not in contact all the time, when you’re on a spacewalk that’s very good. Your trying to find something that hasn’t been done yet or find a new thing that has to be attended to, anything to keep you out there longer than the ground had intended.
One of the other things people ask me a lot about is what it like to be in space and it’s a complex question and a good one. With the naked eye you could see freeways, cities and airports form 270 miles high and we became very good geographers. There are a lot of real things and unreal things. the real things are the people you are with, the spacecraft etc. But you’re going around the word at great speed, 16 sunrises and sunsets every day. You’re also in this weightless condition that you haven’t experienced fully on the ground, no way to simulate it really well. Magically glide up there and change a light bulb without a ladder, flips and tumbles off the wall and around your centre of gravity but can’t go anywhere. The Skylab was 22 feet in diameter, you’d working along the wall and you can’t reach the other wall, you’d have to wait for some to come along and give you a boost.
The sky is always black in space, even in the daytime, you can see the sun burning a hole in the sky but you cant see the stars till you’re over the night side. When you get on the night side you look for the stars that you know, you have 50 navigation stars that you memorise all around the celestial sphere but cant see them in the sea of stars, there’s 5 times as many stars out there than you thought there were, as we see them from the Earth they get lost in the atmosphere, but up there you get lost in a sea of stars and have to work to find the constellations. It reminds of a verse in the bible that says the heavens are telling the glory of god,a marvelous display of his craftsmanship, silent in the sky is our message, reaches out to all the world. It took us about 3 orbits before we could find those navigation stars, very unlike being on the Earth.
When we were up there, we were probably there in the world’s most advanced technology. We realised that as we were looking at the Earth going around the world, people were still killing each other for the same old reasons, no places to live, don’t have enough to eat. we had this great technology, why can’t we use it to face those kind of problems. Turns out it’s not so much of a technology problem but more of a people problem. My hat is off to doctors and missionaries and so forth, doing a lot to help people live better and help them to more understand how to economically use what they have and help them get healthy and work together, that personal contact is necessary.
As you are looking at the ground you can see the blues of the ocean, the white on the clouds, snow on the mountains, the view of the deserts, their hues in the sunlight, the world looks like a map but what you can’t see is the borders that separate a county. No black lines when the world was created but placed by people with an inability to get along with their neighbours. Wouldn’t it be good if someone came along and figure out a way to live more peacefully on this world, not being very good at it, but we ought to give it a try.
We had a way of supplying our solar telescopes with cameras with an extendable boom. Every 30 days we had to exchange those takes the old ones out and bring new ones in and bring them back to Earth for analysis. We had 3 major scientific objectives on Skylab, one was to study the sun, we can’t get all the information that comes from the sun with telescopes on the ground, lots of it is absorbed in the atmosphere, which is a good thing, because its deadly radiation. We use the electromagnetic spectrum where all light is contained from x-ray to infrared and the small portion in between of visible light we can see with the naked eye. Scientists found different frequencies outside of those we can see and make instruments that look at those particular frequencies. We can see sunspots, flares ready to erupt and take particles out into the universe. Some of these particles come to the Earth and cause the northern and southern lights, can expand our atmosphere a little bit so that the satellites at lower altitudes come down more quickly for a few days and interferes with radio communications. So we ended writing solar physics books on the things we did on those 3 missions.
Some of you have been to great lengths to be in an eclipse, we had one every day where we could blot out the centre of the sun so we could see the corona, the atmosphere of the sun. The sun is 93 million miles away, takes e8 minutes for light to get here at the speed of light, its huge compared to the Earth.
We also wanted to study the Earth and its resources to see if we could find new resources and uses the ones we had more effectively measuring what’s on the ground, we had 6 scientific sensors to do that with. Imagine going around the world every 90 minutes, you can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Our orbit was inclined to the equator so we’d go over different ground track every time we went around. If we could sense what was on the ground rather than having to go there and measure it we could get a lot of information very quickly so while this program started with satellites we were seeing if we could improve that with the changes we could make with our instruments.
When NASA talks about resources, its talking about forestry, fresh water, weather, oceans, land use etc, we can tell from space what kind of trees, whether they are deciduous, if there is a disease in there, how dense they are, what the crop is, state of growth, potential yield etc, a very effective capability.
We did medical experiments, another major objective. There is a stationary bicycle to get exercise, we would have to exercise for 90 minutes each day just to feel right. When you step on the pedals you’re going to float up so you have to hold yourself down. You get on there for an 90 minutes and then find you’ve peddled around the world. Every third day we would use this for medical experiments, wired up with electrodes to monitor the experiment with three different workloads and that information was telemetered to the ground. this metabolic analysis measure how efficiently your body uses oxygen and creates carbon dioxide.
My buddy Owen Garriott has his legs in this tank (lower body negative pressure device) sealed around the waist and we are wanting to understand what happens to the heart and arteries, the cardiovascular system while you are in space. It turns out you cant do that unless you change the location of the fluids in your body. When you go into space, the fluid in your legs gravitate to your abdominal area and up in your head so you’re not restricted the same way as on Earth so we put a vacuum on the lower body so we can make a valid measurement. All these experiments that we did, we did for about a year on the Earth so we had the baseline data to understand what was different.
We also had vestibular experiments, effects on a very delicate balance mechanism on the inner ear, technology experiments with backpacks. You may have noticed there have been some flights where astronauts have flew away from the space shuttle without a tether (Bruce McCandless), we thought it was a good idea to check this out inside before they did that.
We also did not want to come home if someone had a stomach ache or a tooth ache. We had a lot of training before we left, emergency medicine especially, so they sent us toi City hospital ona Saturday night to work with emergency crews and take care of accidents, gunshot wounds, stabbings etc. We went to doctors for ears, nose and throat, we learned how to sutre, how to set bones, shocks to the heart but also extract teeth on one of the Air Force bases so for any recruits that came in, we did that work for a day, everybody survived as far as I know. We also had to diagnose what an illness might be when a person feels sick, take a swab of the throat like a doctor does and put it in a petri dish, incubate overnight and in the morning look at the result and determine what the disease is, do bloods, urine etc. We would not prescribe the treatment, we would send the information to the ground for the doctors to look over and ask more questions. Turns out nobody had a problem, I think it was simply motivation because everybody knew that the other guy didn’t know anything more than you did.
Our food systems was associated with our extensive medical experiments so the boy metabolises food in zero gravity. We had 60 different food items, we came up with a menu that took about a year for each one of us and our menu was broken down into a 6 day version, repeating the menu every 6 days, every guy had a different menu but we had to eat everything we said we were going to, they knew exactly how many milligrams of calcium, potassium, how many calories from those 60 items so we had to report every night. you don’t know how the metabolism system is working until you take a reading from the output – that’s a messy thing.
Most of our food was freeze dried, we add water to it and each guy mixed up his own food, one frozen pre cooked meat item per day we would put that in one of the heated elements and half an hour later you would have hot roast etc. You can’t pour water out of a glass up there because there’s no gravity, it wouldn’t go into your mouth, so we have these squeezable containers instead. if you were thinking ahead you’d save your freeze dried strawberries off your cereal in the morning and have an ice cream sundae at night while you’re looking at the world go by.
We had a lot of fun up there, Skylab was 22 feet in diameter, it was natural for us to float, lived up there for two months. When we got back we had some medical problems that were overcome for subsequent flights, came back with 20 percent less blood, 10% fewer red blood cells, we weren’t making any new red cells either which means we could die, they should renew themselves through bone marrow every 130 days. On the third flight we thought we might have to have a rotating space station but when they came back they started to make red blood cells again.
When you’re in space you never lose your sense of humour, there is always something going wrong, you just have to roll with it and do the best you can. That’s one of the challenges of going up there, we stayed there an extra four days, that gave us some extra days to do some stunts, Alan bean appointed me to be the jokester and said to welcome the next crew coming up. So I found their clothes and put this guy on the bicycle and the other guy in the tank that was sealed around the waist, and the other guy I was supposed to remember where I put him, you could imagine that they dont want me to tell you where it went – strapped to the commode. So when they got there, they had visitors.
We finally had to undock from the Skylab and now we want to come home, fly backwards through the atmosphere because we had the heat shield back there, it was going to get up to 5000 degrees and we don’t want to have it burn a hole in the side. the top of the atmosphere is at 70 miles and we are at 270 miles so we have to figure out a way to get down there, fly through space for 200,000 feet to get to that 70 mile layer. We fire our engines half way around the world and make a slow descent tot he atmosphere because we want to hit the atmosphere at exactly the right angle at about 4 degrees, if you are too shallow you skip off like a rock off a pond, if too steep you’ll break up and dies which will spoil your whole day too.
We are going to experience high heating on the way down, once we hit the upper atmosphere we hiit the air molecules fast and it gives off a colour. Initially a very pale pink through to pale orange, brilliant orange and then white hot. Then we’re at maximum G forces too, 4G on our back, there is alo a lot of noise because these thrusters are keeping us on track and they are right by your head. On the way down, to get tot hat point with parachutes, we have to get rid of a lot of heat, we have to get rid of the same amount of energy that we put into this thing and the way we do that is o dissipate the heat. the heat is generated on the heat shield on the back, burning away at the ablative heat shield which is why you end up seeing flames. We’re flying through sheet of fire blending into a fireball.
We were only supposed to use the amount of stuff that was up there for 56 days, they had Skylab up there with nobody in it and all the gear packed in at its launch. The first crew could not get into our stuff and we could not get into the stuff of the third crew, you could only use your stuff. Some of the things that were rationed were clothes. We were getting ready to come back at 56 days and then we were told to stop as we were not going to be over the landing area, the recovery fleet was going to be in a different place so had to wait until the orbit goes over that before we came back and it was going to be about 4 days. That was a good deal, an extra 4 days in our favourite vacation spot, would like to have stayed longer.
But there was a problem, although we would change our outer wear every 15 days, our skivvies (military term for underwear), we got to change those every other day. We got to day 56 and ran out of 28 days supply. We didn’t even think about it but that’s what the ground is paid to do, they came back withe a statement that said not worry as they had fixed the problem – we’ve got good news and bad news, the good news is you’e going to get to change your skivvies today but the bad news is, Al (Bean) you are changing with Jack.
So we get down to about 50,000 feet above the water, blow the nose cone off, it goes with a big bang like a Howitzer where it goes tumbling away, then we get down to 25,000 feet and get the first set of parachutes. These chutes are called drogue chutes that help to stabilse till you get the main parachutes out at 10,000 feet but before that you have to cut these loose. The main parachutes come out and blossom out and you’re getting ready to hit the water. If you get a smooth sea its not going to be too bad or if you get on the down side of a wave, that better than the upside. We landed upside down and ended looking down at the deep sea. The rescue divers first job when he gets in the water is to see if we are OK. He comes up to the window and gives me a thumbs up, but I’m upside down and he’s upside down.
There are 3 balloons at the top of the Command Module and they change the buoyancy on the capsule to right side up, the divers then put the flotation ring around the capsule so it wouldn’t sink. They came and picked us up out of the water and put us on the deck. They got to us very quickly, they didn’t want us being too active, they measured our blood pressure and stuff, stayed on the ship for about 2 days, looking a lot better than we feel and got us doing the same kind of exercises that we had been doing in space.
Questions from the audience
You got to fly the Saturn 1B and the Space Shuttle, which one did you like the best?
Great question, we got to the moon with the Saturn rocket and we also flew the Space Shuttle. There are a lot of differences, if I could do it again I’d go with the Saturn every time.
If you had your time over again, what, if anything would you change?
I would have liked to have gone to the moon but on the two missions that I flew, I’d have stayed longer. I really enjoyed looking at the Earth, that was the most amazing part, the thing we wanted to do the most but the least amount of time to do. I’ve travelled internationally, I’ve been within 200 miles of this place about 800 times.
You received the call that can probably be described as one of the biggest understatements in history, did you have any other experiences similar to that?
Swigert: I believe we’ve had a problem here.
Lousma: This is Houston. Say again, please.
Lovell: Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.
Lousma: Roger. Main B Undervolt.
Lousma: Okay, stand by, 13. We’re looking at it.
Before we get to fly in space ourselves, we helped the people who were going, that was the way to learn so the new guys like myself were part of support crews, I was on three of them and one of them was Apollo 13. Most of my job was to get the Lunar Modules ready to go up but also had jobs communicating at Mission Control Centre and I happened to be on duty when 13 called down and jack Swigert said Huston, we’ve had a problem, I was talking to the Flight Director and said say again please when Jim Lovell came on said Houston we’ve had a problem. So we took that call, got busy and solved it, not an easy thing to do but NASA made it look easy. People don’t realise how close these 3 guys were to dying. Later on they thought this was going to kill the programme so preferred not to talk about it oo much. Later on Jim Lovell wrote his book, Apollo 13 The Flight That Failed and made a movie of it. The movie was so popular, even though everybody knew what the outcome was!
On STS-3 you had that extra day in space while waiting for the landing site to become clear, did you get much chance to just look out the window and gaze at the earth or did Mission Control come up with a long programme of stuff for you to do?
We have a flight plan so every day is scheduled, who is going to do what and we got to day 8 and there was no day 8 and finally had a chance to enjoy on the worlds favourite vacation spot. They came up with a few things but finally had a chance to look out the window a little so that was a real privilege of travelling. Coming round on that second day we could see that New Mexico was blowing into Texas while we were concerned if we were going to come in at White Sands – that gardener was right.
Was life on Skylab as smelly as I thought it possibly was? Do things smell differently in space? Having three men together in a closed system, does it get stinky?
I didn’t think of the smell, there were some smells that were not stinky but smelled like overheated electronics so we would investigate what caused that. On that 3 man mission we had areas to live in where you could work without seeing the other person. We did have one guy that liked peanuts and got all the peanuts he could eat, he went around with a cloud around him. There’s no breeze up there so every once in a while you could tell he was on the peanuts again. So yeah, I did smell that.
My other astronaut visits:
Meeting Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka
Meeting astronaut Rick Mastracchio
Meeting Bruce McCandless from the first untethered spacewalk
Meeting the Moonwalker Charlie Duke from Apollo 16
Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman
The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly
Gemini and Apollo 10 Astronaut Tom Stafford
Apollo 8, Apollo 13 and Gemini Astronaut Jim Lovell
Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham
Space Shuttle Astronaut Eileen Collins
Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13
Meeting Astronaut Ken Mattingly of Apollo 13 and Apollo 16
Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean from Apollo 12
Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon