CAPE KENNEDY -- While the Skylab 1 astronauts watched from the ground, their space station rocketed into space today to push back the frontier of manned orbital endurance and cash in on the promise of spaceflight.
Moonwalk veteran Charles "Pete" Conrad, Dr. Joseph P. Kerwin, America's first space physician, and aeronautical engineer Paul J. Weitz will take off 23 1/2 hours later and spend a record 28 days in orbit aboard the Skylab.
Their space lab, an eight-room assembly as spacious as a three-bedroom house, began its eight-month voyage around earth on a 33-story Saturn 5 rocket left over from the moon program.
It was the start of the nation's fourth manned space flight project in 12 years.
The 6.2 million pound space machine took off on time at 1:30 p.m. EDT on the 7.6 million pound push of a long, orange spear of hot gases. It was the last of the big Saturn 5s scheduled to fly.
Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz watched from a secluded viewing site about 3 1/2 miles away as the black and white rocket accelerated over the Atlantic.
Police said the crowd watching the first half of the space doubleheader was only about one-tenth as large as those that had watched the big Apollo moon shots. Cloudy skies obscured the view one minute after launch for thousands of spectators.
Skylab, weighing a record 84 tons when it left earth, had its sensitive sun watching instruments and solar panels folded under a white nose cone as it climbed through the earth's atmosphere.
It was loaded with more than a ton of food and other provisions to support men for 140 days. After the Skylab 1 pilots return to earth, the next two crews each will stay up or eight weeks.
The current space endurance record, set by the Russians in their pioneering Salyut 1 space lab, is nearly 24 days.
Weather was the only potential problem today. At sunrise, NASA was closely watching a band of thunderstorms in the Tampa Bay area on Florida's west coast. By mid-morning, however, the storms had weakened considerably and were drifting northeast -- away from the Cape.
The 334-foot Skylab Saturn 5 rocket was fully fueled with 917,000 gallons of kerosene, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen at 10:30 a.m.
The final hours of the countdown began at 7 a.m. EDT when the 700-man launch team started pumping thousands of gallons of super cold liquid oxygen into the second stage of Skylab's 33-story Saturn 5 rocket.
The astronauts' smaller Saturn 1B stood 8,700 feet away.