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Review: Around the World in 84 Days

Around the World in 84 Days: The Authorized Biography of Skylab Astronaut Jerry Carr
By David Shayler
Apogee Books, 2008
Softcover, 272 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-894959-40-7

“As far as I am concerned, writing a book ranks just below going to the dentist on my list of things I would like to do.” So writes Gerald “Jerry” Carr in the introduction of his biography, Around the World in 84 Days. Like many other former astronauts from the early years of the Space Age, people had pestered him to write a book about his adventures as an astronaut, a task he found particularly undesirable, as his statement above indicates. While many other fellow astronauts eventually did write their memoirs—in some cases with the help of ghostwriters—Carr instead elected to work with a biographer, British space historian David Shayler, to tell his life story. The result is a book that goes into great detail about the life of Carr and his historic space mission.

Carr was born in Denver but spent most of his childhood in Southern California, where he was exposed to the aviation boom there driven by World War 2. This led to going to USC on a Navy ROTC scholarship, a commission as a Marine Corps officer, and a career as a fighter pilot during the era between the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In late 1965 he submitted an application for the latest round of astronaut selections, “to just try and see how I measured up”, but in fact was chosen by NASA as part of the fifth astronaut class, the “Original 19”, in 1966.

The infamous “mutiny” gets little discussion in the book. The crew had simply decided to take a scheduled off-day, Carr explained, rather than work through it as they had done with previous days off; an accidentally misconfigured communications system made it appear that they had turned off their radios.

After several years of support roles, Carr got his one flight to space in late 1973 as commander of Skylab 4, the third and final crew to visit NASA’s first space station. Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue set an endurance record of 84 days in space, performing a wide range of experiments, including observations of the comet Kokoutek. That mission also generated a bit of controversy when the crew, feeling overworked by unrealistic schedules imposed on them by Mission Control, reportedly “mutinied” and took an unscheduled day off. Despite those problems, though, the mission was a success. The long interregnum between Apollo and the Space Shuttle meant an extended wait to fly again, so Carr, after doing some initial work on the Shuttle program, left NASA in 1977 for a career in the private sector, work that included consulting for NASA and its contractors during the shuttle and station programs.

The heart of Around the World in 84 Days, as you might expect, is the section devoted to Skylab 4. These chapters include not just Shayler’s account of the events, including passages by Carr and his crewmates recounting those events, but also excerpts from a diary Carr kept during the mission. The crew ran into problems almost from the very beginning with Mission Control, chastised for not immediately informing them of a bout of spacesickness Pogue suffered from, as well as falling behind on an overambitious schedule of work and experiments. This created a tension with the ground clearly evident in Carr’s diary extracts and recollections that lasted for much of the mission, until astronauts gained more experience working on Skylab and controllers adjusted workloads. Surprisingly, though, the infamous “mutiny” gets little discussion in the book: a one-paragraph diary excerpt and a brief discussion of the events by Carr, where he explained that the events were played up by the media at the time. The crew had simply decided to take a scheduled off-day, rather than work through it as they had done with previous days off; an accidentally misconfigured communications system made it appear that they had turned off their radios.

Like many other books from Apogee, Around the World in 84 Days includes a DVD with some vintage video: a couple of NASA-produced half-hour Skylab documentaries from the mid-70s as well as some archival footage of training and other activities narrated by Carr. The book does have a few minor flaws, such as going into too much detail, bordering on trivia, at times, like the number of the drivers license he obtained as a California teenager. The book’s small font can make it difficult to read, and the reproduction of photographs is inconsistent: many come out well, but some are either dark or washed out. Despite these issues, though, Around the World in 84 Days offers a detailed, interesting look at a man who participated in a major, if often overlooked, space mission, someone who had no qualms about accepting the risks of spaceflight but who was far more reticent about writing about them.