Astronaut Paul Weitz working the control and display console of the Apollo Telescope Mount solar observatory in June 1973 shortly after returning from his 28-day Skylab stint.
Astronaut Paul Weitz working the control and display console of the Apollo Telescope Mount solar observatory in June 1973 shortly after returning from his 28-day Skylab stint.
Photo courtesy of NASA

Astronaut Paul Weitz, Who Helped Save Skylab, Dies at 85

Astronaut Paul Weitz, whose swearing lit up the Johnson Space Center Mission Control in Houston back in 1973 before he and two other astronauts managed to repair Skylab, has died at the age of 85.

Weitz, born in Erie, Pennsylvania, developed a fascination with flight early on, which led him to serve in the U.S. Navy (he retired as a captain in 1976) and to apply to be an astronaut. He was one of 19 men selected by NASA in 1966.

Weitz was a part of the team of astronauts that completed a 28-day mission aboard Skylab, which was the first crewed mission to the first U.S. space station. Launched aboard a modified Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973, Skylab marked a new phase for American's human spaceflight program, with the goal of staying in space for longer periods and conducting complex scientific experiments in the unique environment. The Skylab 2 mission lasted from May 25 to June 22, 1973.

He logged 672 hours and 49 minutes in space aboard Skylab, including two hours and 11 minutes of spacewalk time.

He briefly retired from NASA after his stint as Skylab savior, but when the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched on its maiden voyage in April 1983, Weitz, who had come out of retirement at 51 — practically unheard of at NASA — was in command.

Weitz went on to become the deputy chief of NASA's astronaut corps. He trained the seven astronauts who were aboard Challenger when it exploded 73 seconds after rocketing off the launchpad on January 28, 1986. Afterward, Weitz was a part of the soul searching that NASA officials did in the wake of the tragedy, testifying before a presidential commission on the cause of the disaster.

He went on to serve as deputy director of the JSC, and he stayed with the federal space agency until he retired again in 1994. This time retirement stuck.

But Weitz is best known for being a part of the crew that saved Skylab, the first U.S. space station, just as government enthusiasm for NASA was waning. When Weitz and the other two astronauts arrived at Skylab, they knew the spacecraft had been damaged when it was launched, with heat shields torn off and the solar-powered panels that were supposed to provide electricity to the station not working.

They first tried to fix the damage by hanging Weitz out the hatch of the Apollo capsule by his ankles while he worked to make the needed repairs. Astronauts are supposed to keep their cool under pressure, but nobody seemed to bat an eye when a stream of expletives erupted out of Weitz and over NASA's airwaves during the mission.

Then, when they tried to connect the Apollo capsule to Skylab, they discovered the docking device was broken. They spent two days making repairs to all the damaged parts during spacewalks, and improvised a sort of parasol contraption to patch up the spot where the heat shields had been peeled off.

Everything went wrong, but Weitz and the other two astronauts aboard dealt with it. When they came back to Earth 28 days later, they were celebrated as heroes. And Weitz was the guy who got the job done.

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