On Sept. 25, 1973, Tim Hogan and his colleagues from the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team leapt from a hovering helicopter into the churning Pacific Ocean to recover the Apollo Command Module and its crew following NASA’s Skylab 3 mission. Nearly 13 years later, Hogan and the command module were reunited when the capsule became an exhibit at NASA’s Lewis Research Center (today, NASA Glenn) in Cleveland. It is now on display at Great Lakes Science Center, home of the NASA Glenn Visitor Center.
NASA’s Skylab missions in the early 1970s relied on existing Apollo hardware to support the nation’s first long-duration stays in space. The Apollo Command Module was used to ferry the three-person crews to and from the Skylab space station. The third Skylab mission, launched by a Saturn IB rocket on July 28, 1973, included several space walks and a host of medical and biological experiments. The 59.5 days that astronauts Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott spent in space set a U.S. endurance record.
After 858 orbits, the Apollo Command Module undocked from Skylab at 4:16 a.m. PST on Sept. 25, 1973. Eleven hours later, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean southwest of San Diego. The recovery ship, the USS New Orleans, steamed toward the site while five Sikorsky helicopters raced ahead. The capsule bobbed upside down until its flotation bags inflated. Hogan and the other Navy frogmen jumped into the rough sea to secure the capsule. Hogan was responsible for gathering up one of the parachutes so it could be extracted from the water while the others secured a flotation ring around the capsule.
The command module was hoisted onto the deck of the recovery ship roughly 42 minutes after splashdown. Unlike the Apollo missions, the Skylab crews remained inside the capsule until it was on the deck. The hatch was opened several minutes later, and a flight surgeon examined the astronauts. The crew, which was feeling the effects of gravity on their bodies, exited the capsule. After a night of medical exams, the ship docked in San Diego, and the astronauts were transported to Houston.
The Apollo Command Module was unloaded from the ship the following day and sent to the North American Rockwell facility on Oct. 1, 1973. The capsule was declared a historical artifact and transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1977.
Meanwhile, NASA Lewis, which had tested the Skylab shroud in 1970, opened its new visitor center in July 1976. It was the center’s first facility open to the public. It included an exhibits wing, an auditorium, and a large lobby.
In 1986, NASA Lewis announced that the Smithsonian was lending the Apollo Command Module to its visitor center. The center had displayed Apollo 8 and Apollo 17 capsules on a temporary basis in the early 1970s, but the Skylab 3 capsule would remain indefinitely. The 13-foot diameter and 11-foot-tall capsule arrived in May 1986 and underwent several months of preparation in NASA’s hangar. On Aug. 20, 1986, it was moved to the visitors center where it was inserted through a truck entrance and placed on a base. The entrance was then replaced by a large viewing window.
On Sept. 21, 1986, NASA held a dedication ceremony for the new exhibit that featured Jack Lousma, one of the Skylab 3 astronauts. The event was held during an employee open house and drew 2,400 attendees, including Hogan, who had been working at the center since 1977. The Apollo Command Module became the visitor center’s premier exhibit. In July 1992, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Apollo Command Modules as International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks.
In January 2010, NASA announced that it would be relocating its visitor center to Great Lakes Science Center in downtown Cleveland. The new location would make the NASA exhibits much more accessible to the community. Although the science center had been open since 1996, the Apollo Command Module was the first significant historical item in its collection. The capsule was transferred to the new site in June 2010. Within days, thousands of visitors had viewed it.
The science center will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of NASA’s Skylab 3 Apollo Command Module on Sept. 23, 2023.
Robert S. Arrighi
NASA’s Glenn Research Center