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Retired astronaut William Pogue, spaceflight pioneer, dead at 84

Retired Air Force Col. William Pogue, an astronaut

Retired Air Force Col. William Pogue, an astronaut and Skylab pilot who flew around the Earth for 84 days in 1973 and 1974, died March 3, 2014. He was 84. Newsday's obituary for William Pogue
Photo Credit: NASA

Retired Air Force Col. William Pogue, who died March 3 at 84, was an astronaut and Skylab pilot who flew around the Earth for 84 days in 1973 and 1974. At the time, it was the longest spaceflight ever.

When he splashed down on Feb. 8, 1974, he had traveled more than 34.5 million miles, made 1,214 revolutions of the Earth, walked in space for a total of 13 hours on Thanksgiving and Christmas days, and saw the sun rise and set over the Earth more than 1,300 times.

It was an astonishing feat of technology. It took 19 miles of magnetic tape to store the scientific data collected on the voyage. Col. Pogue considered it the adventure of a lifetime. But it was barely half over when he and his two crew mates grew restless and discontent.

They had a view of the cosmos from their spacecraft that few other humans had ever seen, but they were spending all their waking hours in the nitty-gritty of gathering information and making repairs, such as fixing a leak in a coolant line or readjusting a malfunctioning radar antenna. Every third day, one of them was, in effect, a guinea pig for psychological or medical studies.

What they wanted and had scant time for was to contemplate the universe, to think about the deeper meaning of their spaceflight, and about themselves. "We were just hustling the whole day," Pogue told NASA in 2000.

Pogue and his crew mates became so fed up with their work schedule that on the 45th day of the voyage they staged a work stoppage, refusing to perform certain pre-assigned tasks. The mini-strike was settled when mission control officers made concessions and modified the work schedule.

The rest of the trip was more fulfilling. "I try to put myself into the human situation, instead of trying to operate like a machine," Pogue later told Science News magazine.

Since then, a period of "down time" has been scheduled in spaceflights to mitigate work pressure on astronauts, a NASA officer said. But he also noted that time in space is short and precious and that the agency wants to make the best possible use of it.

William Reid Pogue was born Jan. 23, 1930, in Okemah, Okla. He graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1951 and joined the Air Force the same year. He flew 43 combat missions during the Korean War.

For two years, he was a pilot with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force precision acrobatic team. He also received a master's degree in mathematics at Oklahoma State University.

In 1966, he became a NASA astronaut and was subsequently selected as the pilot for the Skylab III mission. He retired from the Air Force in 1975, the year after the flight.

His death, at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., was announced by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

His wives Helen Dittmar and Jean Ann Baird are dead. Survivors include his third wife, Tina Pogue of Cocoa Beach; three children from his first marriage; and four stepchildren. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

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