Former astronaut Paul “P.J.” Weitz, 85, died Sunday, Oct. 22, at his home at Flagstaff. He was a veteran of two spaceflights and a former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Weitz was selected as part of the fifth class of astronauts, hired in April 1966. He served as pilot on Skylab-2, the first crewed mission to America’s first space station, and commander of space shuttle Challenger’s STS-6 mission, before moving into other leadership positions at NASA. In all, he spent 33 days in space, and 28 years in service at the agency.

“P.J.’s role on the first Skylab mission helped save NASA’s first space station, and he later commanded the maiden flight of Challenger, said Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Those important roles, combined with his leadership as Johnson’s Deputy Director during the return to flight era after Challenger, and later as Acting Director, form a lasting legacy.”

Weitz was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on July 25, 1932. He graduated from Harborcreek High School in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, before advancing to Pennsylvania State University for a bachelor’s degree and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, for a master’s degree, both in aeronautical engineering.

While at Pennsylvania State University, Weitz was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy ROTC. He served one year at sea aboard a destroyer, and in various naval squadrons, logging more than 7,700 hours of flight time.

Weitz’s first mission, Skylab-2 in 1973, was the first of three crewed Skylab flights. It lasted 28 days, setting a new world record at the time. Weitz and his two crewmates made a number of repairs to the laboratory, which had been damaged during launch, including the installation of collapsible parasol through a small scientific airlock to act as a shade in place of damaged insulation, and freeing a stuck solar array. The repairs allowed for a host of microgravity and medical experiments set the stage for two longer Skylab crew missions, and ultimately for today’s International Space Station. Weitz participated in one of the mission’s three spacewalks, spending 2 hours and 11 minutes outside of the spacecraft.

His second mission, STS-6 in 1983, was the first flight of space shuttle Challenger. In addition to carrying the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite into space, the mission also saw the first spacewalk performed from a space shuttle.

After returning from space the second time, Weitz remained at NASA for more than 10 years. He became Johnson’s deputy center director in 1987, and served as the acting center director from August 1993, until his retirement in April 1994.

Weitz was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Robert J. Collier Trophy for 1973, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy for 1975 and the NASA Space Flight Medal.

He is survived by his daughter, Cindy Difranco; his son, Matt Weitz; his sister, Evelyn Richards; and brother and sister in law John and Karen Berry.

For Weitz’s official NASA biography, visit:


Listen to an oral history interview with Weitz at: