Created By The Mercury 7 Astronauts
Paul J. Weitz spent 28 days in orbit as a member of the first Skylab space station crew in 1973 and commanded the sixth Space Shuttle flight, the first for the orbiter Challenger, in 1983.
He was born July 25, 1932, in Erie, Pennsylvania. He received a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1954 and a Masters in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1964. Weitz received his commission as a Navy ensign through the NROTC program at Penn State. He served one year at sea aboard a destroyer before going to flight training and earning his wings in 1956. He served in various naval squadrons until he was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1966.
He was named Command Module pilot for Skylab 2, the first manned mission to the Skylab 1 space station, along with Commander Charles Conrad Jr. and Science Pilot Joseph Kerwin, M.D. Their adventure began May 14, 1973, when a Saturn 5 rocket hurled into orbit the unmanned Skylab 1, as large as a three-bedroom house. On the climb into orbit, a combination meteoroid and heat shield ripped away from the station, exposing it to the searing rays of the sun. The shield in flying off tore away one of the workshop’s electricity-producing solar panels and jammed the other against the side of the vehicle. The launching of Conrad, Weitz and Kerwin was delayed 10 days while experts sought ways to save the $2.6 million project. First priority went to cooling down the laboratory, where temperatures inside soared to 125 degrees. They devised a sunshade of aluminized Mylar and nylon to erect over the exposed surface. For freeing the solar panel, cutting and prying tools were made.
The rescue mission began May 25 with the liftoff of Skylab 2 in an Apollo capsule atop a Saturn 1B rocket. Six hours later, the astronauts moved to within a few feet of the station and confirmed the damage. Weitz, wearing a bulky space suit, leaned out the open Apollo hatch and tried unsuccessfully to jerk the stuck panel loose with a tool resembling a boat hook. The astronauts docked with the station and slept overnight in the Apollo. The next day they entered the sweltering lab and erected the folded-up sun shield by shoving it through a small scientific airlock module with a telescopic pole, then opened it like an umbrella into a 22-by-24-foot sheet that covered the exposed area. Temperatures began dropping immediately. The astronauts then set up shop, unpacking supplies and setting up scientific instruments to study the sun and Earth. Kerwin, the first physician in space, organized a medical lab. The power shortage limited their activity, so on the 13th day, Conrad and Kerwin, attached to 60-foot lifelines, took a space walk and used a cutting tool and their own muscle to free the stuck solar panel, doubling their power. The three settled into a daily routine and on the 28th day, they boarded their Apollo and returned home after a record stay in space.
Weitz was back in space on April 4, 1983, as commander of the sixth Space Shuttle mission, the first for the orbiter Challenger. He was accompanied on the five-day flight by pilot Karol Bobko and mission specialists Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson. The crew deployed a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, conducted experiments, and Musgrave and Peterson made two space walks.
Weitz later became deputy director of the NASA’s Johnson Space Center before retiring from the Navy as a captain. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Paul Weitz was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on October 4, 1997.