Former NASA astronaut Gerald “Jerry” Carr, who in 1973 led the record-setting, final mission on the first U.S. space station, Skylab, has died at the age of 88.
Carr’s death was confirmed by his family on Wednesday (Aug. 26) in a statement shared by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
“Throughout his life and career, Jerry Carr was the epitome of an officer and a gentleman. He loved his family, he loved his country and he loved to fly. We are all enormously proud of his legacy as a true space pioneer and of the lasting impact of his historic mission aboard America’s first space station. We will remember him most as a devoted husband, father, brother, grandfather and great grandfather. We will miss him greatly,” the family’s statement read.
An aeronautical engineer and naval aviator, Carr was selected by NASA for its fifth group of astronauts in 1966, alongside future moonwalkers and other Skylab crew members.
Related: Skylab: The First U.S. Space Station (Photos)
Carr’s first and only spaceflight was as the commander of Skylab 4 (also referred to as SL-4 or “Skylab 3” as appeared on the crew’s mission patch). The third of three crewed stays of increasing duration aboard the orbital workshop, Carr and his Skylab 4 crewmates, Ed Gibson and William “Bill” Pogue, set what was then a record spending 84 days in space.
“We proved, I think, just absolutely, positively that the human being can live in weightless environment for an extended period of time,” Carr said during a NASA oral history interview in October 2000. “But medically, we gathered the data that I think gave the Russians and other people the understanding and the courage to say, ‘Okay, we can stay up for longer periods of time.'”
The Skylab 4 crew launched on Nov. 16, 1973, on board an Apollo command module atop a Saturn IB rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Carr, Gibson and Pogue were NASA’s first all-rookie crew since Neil Armstrong and David Scott lifted off on the Gemini 8 mission seven years earlier.
“I was delighted to get a seat, and I was absolutely floored that they would select me to be a commander,” Carr said. “So, I was really flabbergasted to be selected and very happy to do it.”
Carr and his crewmates divided responsibilities aboard the Skylab space station. Gibson led performing the mission’s planned science experiments, including solar physics studies. Pogue was charged with overseeing the fluid systems.
“My main task was the Skylab navigational guidance,” said Carr. “We structured ourselves so that all of us could operate anything, but if anything went wrong there was one expert.”
Related: Skylab: How NASA’s First Space Station Worked (Infographic)
In addition to collecting physiological data related to their extended time in space, Carr and his crew continued the Earth and solar observations that began during the first two expeditions to the station.
“One of the things that Ed and Bill and I decided early, probably halfway through our training program, was that we really wanted to have extra film, we wanted to get briefings from people around the world who were experts in different kinds of Earth phenomena, because, as we said in those days, we did not want to be in the position at a debriefing of having someone ask us about something and being able to say nothing more than, ‘Yeah, we saw it. Sure was pretty.'” Carr said.
NASA organized 40 hours of training with 20 leading experts to instruct the crew on what to look out for when observing the planet below.
“That turned out to be probably the most exciting and the most rewarding of all of the experiments that we did, [because of] the opportunity to ad lib – and to ad lib intelligently,” Carr recalled.
The astronauts also had the chance to observe a recently-discovered comet as it neared the sun. The crew was provided a far-ultraviolet camera to image Comet Kohoutek and it was used during two spacewalks, including one on Dec. 25, 1973.
“[The comet] looked like it was going to do perihelion [the point closest to the sun] about Christmas Day of ’73,” explained Carr. “The period of the comet was 2,000 years, so there was a lot of talk…