The End Of The Beginning

With the conclusion of the Apollo 17 mission and the Apollo programme in December 1972, humankind had reached "the end of the beginning" of its movement away from home.

Owen Garriott never made it to the Moon, but he is pleased that his colleague Jack Schmitt did an exemplary job in representing NASA, the scientist-astronaut group, and the entire scientific community on Apollo 17.

These days, Garriott is very clear when it comes to his own memories of his days in the Astronaut Office. "I want to stress that there was relatively little friction between scientist-astronauts and senior management, such as Slayton or Shepard. Nearly none with the other pilot-astronauts. There may be a few who feel differently, but it could be largely because they felt overlooked for crew selection."

He did emphasise, however, that there was one crewing decision that impacted greatly on one of his colleagues. "The person who lost the most in the Astronaut Office was Joe Engle, my next-door neighbour for twenty years." Engle had lost his place on Apollo 17 in favour of Schmitt, but Garriott is adamant that it was the right decision. "Schmitt absolutely needed to go to the Moon and he did, albeit against Slayton's desires." Engle was disheartened by this decision, but Garriott recalled a man who swallowed his disappointment for the overall good of the programme. "I never once heard him complain about his misfortune.''

On the subject of crew selections, Garriott is also comfortably philosophical. "I've often thought about how I might have placed the scientist-astronauts on the crews if I were to do it objectively. In fact, it would be almost exactly as Slayton did it in 1972-75. Schmitt, as I've said, needed to go to the Moon. Kerwin, Gibson and myself were not geologists and many of the pilots were as good (or better) observers as we, and were highly motivated to do the research as well. The three of us did have the experience and motivation to do long duration orbital missions, perhaps better than most.

"There was a case for flying two scientist-astronauts on each Skylab mission, but this was not done. The biggest calamity of all was not to fly Skylab-B for even longer missions, and including some of the second group [of scientist-astronauts], but this was decided in Washington."

Today, Skylab is almost the forgotten element in the public's knowledge of America's space programme, but it forged an entirely different path in space exploration. As the excitement of the Apollo programme began to subside, the first US space station was poised to involve NASA's remaining scientist-astronauts in a whole new and abundantly worthwhile realm of space exploration and scientific discovery.

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