Skylab Numbering Fiasco
When the Skylab crews were announced in 1971, the prime crews set about designing their mission insignia or ”patch” as it was usually called. The missions were officially designated as:
Skylab 1: for the unmanned launch of the Skylab space station on a giant Saturn V, and
Skylab 2, 3 and 4 for the manned visits, which were lofted to space by Saturn 1B rockets.
That seemed simple enough but mischief was not long in coming. We began receiving flight procedures documents (check lists and other training materials) labeled SLM-1, SLM-2 and SLM-3 (Skylab Manned Mission 1, 2 and 3). Other documents were labeled SL-2, SL-3 and SL-4 (conforming to the official mission designations). It became a confusing mess because we began receiving mail and other documents clearly meant for one of the other crews and the people in the Astronaut Office mailroom became as bewildered, confused and uncertain as the rest of us.
In the meantime we had designed our mission patches incorporating the official numeric designations (Skylab 2, 3, and 4). During a visit by the NASA Headquarters Director of the Skylab Program, Pete Conrad asked him, “Are we 1, 2 and 3 or are we 2, 3 and 4”? He said, “you are 1, 2 and 3”. All of us went back to work and designed new patches to incorporate the numerals 1, 2 and 3. Skylab 1 and 2 used Roman numerals and Jerry, Ed and I used the Arabic numeral 3. The designs were rendered by artists and sent to NASA Headquarters for approval. The whole process took several months, and the artwork didn’t arrive at NASA Headquarters until about six months before the scheduled launch of the Skylab.
The Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight took one look at the artwork and disapproved the design because he said the official flight designations, “2, 3 and 4” were to be used. Thus informed, we dug out our original designs (for 2, 3 and 4) and were in the process of getting the artwork done when informed by Headquarters “not to bother”. We could use the designs for 1, 2 and 3. Then we found out why.
The people who had manufactured the Skylab flight clothing (to be worn onboard) had already completed their work several weeks earlier in order to get the clothes packaged and shipped to the Cape to meet their deadline (for stowage onboard Skylab which was already in pre-launch processing).
Furthermore, they had already used the designs submitted earlier for the mission patches. They didn’t have time to wait for official approval. The designs using the numeric designation 1, 2 and 3 became approved by default because items with these patches were already stowed in the Skylab lockers at the Cape. Removing them for patch change-out was considered to be much too expensive and disruptive of launch preparations.
So, although officially designated as Skylab 2, 3 and 4, the mission insignias bear the numeric designations as follows: Skylab 2 (Roman numeral I), Skylab 3 (Roman numeral II) and Skylab 4 (Arabic numeral 3). When traveling in Afghanistan in 1975, I presented some Afghan VIPs with our Skylab 4 mission patch. One lady looked thoroughly confused and asked about the numeral 3 on the Skylab 4 patch. I gave her this long-winded explanation and, by the time I finished, the Afghans were roaring with laughter.
This has to be the most exasperating bit of space trivia ever, and it’s especially confusing to autograph collectors who still scratch their heads trying to sort out their trophies. On the bright side, the Skylab missions set successive space endurance records of 28, 59 and 84 days.