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1974: Americans end outer space marathon

Three US astronauts have returned safely to Earth after a record-breaking stay in space.

The men - Dr Edward Gibson, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Carr and Lieutenant Colonel William Pogue - proved mankind can live in space for prolonged periods.

They spent 85 days in the American space station, Skylab, which orbits the Earth at a height of 270 miles.

It was Nasa's last manned space flight for this decade and the third and final mission to Skylab.

Skylab will now be abandoned as space junk and is expected to break up in the atmosphere in about 11 years.

After a five hour journey through space the astronauts splashed down, as planned, in the Pacific Ocean in spite of a leak in one of the two jets on their landing craft.

Dr Gibson emerged from the scorched Apollo capsule saying "I feel great".

Recovery period

The three men overcame many of the problems associated with living in space, such as weightlessness.

The astronauts experimented with new diets and exercise routines to counter the changes in muscle, blood and bone commonly experienced by space crews.

It will still take them several weeks to fully recover from their three month trip, but they were already re-gaining their sense of gravity on board the assault ship - New Orleans - that picked them up off San Diego.

The 20,000 photographs and 19 miles of sound recordings the astronauts brought back with them will take scientists and astronomers several years to analyse.

A joint US-Soviet mission early next year - the Apollo-Soyuz project - will mark the last use of the rocket technology that landed Apollo on the Moon and launched Skylab.

Nasa's first phase of extra-terrestrial adventure began 15 years ago and has so far cost millions of dollars.

The second chapter of space discovery will begin in the 1980s with a reusable shuttle.

In Context
As well as demonstrating the feasibility of living in space, Skylab crews proved the value of human reasoning and judgement in collecting scientific data in space.

Ground controllers carried out various engineering tests on Skylab after the astronauts had left to determine causes of previous systems failures.

The space station was then put into a stable environment with its systems closed down.

It fell to Earth - between Western Australia and the south-eastern Indian Ocean - on 11 July 1979, much sooner than expected because of increased solar activity.

The current record for the longest manned space-flight stands at more than 437 days, set by Russian Valeriy Poliyakov and his trip to Mir in 1995.

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