The International Space Station has been in orbit around our planet since 1998, providing the human race with a (semi) permanent habitable space at the front door of the great beyond. That timeline offers an interesting bit of perspective — as you come to realize that America’s latest generation of enlisted warfighters, joining the service within the past two years, belong to the first generation of human beings in history to live their entire lives with a human presence in orbit.
Members of previous generations, however, likely remember a time before the International Space Station — and if they were paying attention to the headlines in the early 1970s, they might also remember its predecessor: Skylab. In many ways, Skylab served as a test bed for systems that would come to be deployed on the International Space Station, and in a number of others, it was completely unique when compared to the array of other space stations that have been launched since.
Small in comparison to the ISS as a whole, Skylab was huge for what it was. Unlike space stations like Mir or the ISS, Skylab was all one section that was launched into space on a single rocket. That rocket happened to be the most powerful platform mankind has ever produced, the Saturn V, which also ferried astronauts to and from the moon on the Apollo missions — and it’s a good thing too, because all told, the Skylab itself accounted for a 170,000 pound payload.
While the early space station offered NASA a chance to see how many of their systems held up to prolonged space flight, perhaps the most important development to come out of the six-year Skylab mission was the way it forced America’s space agency to approach working with astronauts out in the cold expanses of space. All it took to do that… was a mutiny. Well, maybe more like a space-strike.
Skylab 4 was the last mission to take place aboard the Skylab before it was slated to reenter the earth’s atmosphere and burn up, so with budget in mind, NASA placed an emphasis on wringing every last bit of scientific data that they could out of the space station during its last 84 days of operation. As a result, Skylab 4’s rookie astronaut crew of Commander Gerald P. Carr, Science Pilot Edward G. Gibson, and pilot William R. Pogue arrived at the space station aware that they had a daunting schedule ahead of them.
How daunting? The entire 84 day rotation was scheduled to the minute for each of the three crew members: 16 hours of itemized tasks micromanaged by Mission Control each day, followed by exactly 8 hours of recuperation before starting the process over again. The schedule was put together well in advance, and allowed no time for deviation – arguably a foolish decision considering the three men aboard the station had never been in space before.
While the previous Skylab crews had all been experienced astronauts, Skylab 4’s team had to quickly learn how to function in a microgravity environment, but that wasn’t the only snag they hit right away. The human inner ear works much like the accelerometer in a smartphone. It helps the human body understand how it’s oriented and maintain balance. In a zero or microgravity environment, that function becomes compromised, and many astronauts experience serious motion sickness and nausea for a day or so upon arriving in orbit.
Pogue suffered from this nausea the worst, but the crew agreed that they had anticipated such an issue and that he would manage — opting not to inform Mission Control. Unbeknownst to them, Mission Control was secretly monitoring their conversation, immediately offering up admonishment for keeping secrets from the command and setting the precedent for strained relations between the crew and Mission Control that would go on for weeks to come.
Worse, however, was how Pogue’s short lived illness set the crew back on their regimented task list. With nearly every moment of the 84 day mission scheduled, Skylab 4’s team found themselves falling behind right from the start, and as the delays began to cascade, their relations with Mission Control strained even further.
After more than a month of having Mission Control monitor all conversations, manage the crew’s tasks on a line by line basis, and pushing the astronauts to work faster in order to compensate for how far behind they were, the astronauts were beginning to lose their patience. Gibson was recorded as saying their first month in orbit had been “a 33-day fire drill,” but the mission commander, Gerald Carr, was more to the point about his feelings.
“We would never work 16 hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground,” he told Mission Control, “and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”
His concerns didn’t just go unheeded, according to a number of reports, they were scoffed at. Previous crews had managed the grueling schedule, and Carr’s crew was quickly gaining a reputation as complainers – constantly falling further behind and then lamenting NASA’s efforts to get them back on track. Tensions between the ground staff and crew continued to rise, but Carr wasn’t done fighting for a little off time. A few days after Christmas, he transmitted a text message to NASA.
“We need more time to rest. We need a schedule that is not so packed. We don’t want to exercise after a meal. We need to get things under control.”
NASA, once again, saw Carr’s request as a complaint they could disregard. Mission Control replied with a concise demand: the crew needed to meet their schedule as outlined in the mission. What happened after that is a little known bit of space history: the crew went on strike.
In many accounts, this event is called a “mutiny,” though that may be too harsh a word to put on it. There was no violence, nor was there even any discussion with the command. Carr and his crew simply… turned the radio off.
After six weeks of Mission Control micromanaging every individual task, chastising the crew for falling behind, and mandating when each man was allowed to eat, drink, rest or use the restroom, Skylab grew eerily quiet. For one full day, it was just three men in a space station, with no communication whatsoever with the world below.
Aboard Skylab, Carr, Gibson and Pogue enjoyed a nice, long break – finally giving themselves an opportunity to take in the incredible sights of orbit, catch up on some rest, and work on a few of the experiments they had the most interest in. Down on earth, it was a different story.
Mission Control fumed at the strike, but as the hours wore on, they were forced to face some hard truths: the three astronauts in orbit were the last crew to fly aboard Skylab, and each day they weren’t working represented millions of dollars worth of lost research. Frustrated as they may have been, NASA had to accept that Carr and his crew had the leverage in this situation, so when Carr turned communications back on after their “day off,” the voice on the other end of the line was quite a bit more understanding than had previously been the case.
From that point forward, Mission Control provided a list of daily tasks to be completed as the astronauts saw fit, rather than working them through a minute by minute schedule. They also agreed to provide the crew with full meal and rest breaks, rather than expecting them to work as they ate. The rest of the Skylab 4 mission went on without incident, and the lessons NASA learned about how to manage orbital crews continue to be employed to this day.
“Highly trained military types and scientists fully convinced of the value of their work are likely to push back when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment,” Samir Chopra of Brooklyn College explained in his analysis of the strike. “The lessons here are not just for manned space flight, but for any workplace environment that approximates its conditions, whether in space or on Earth.”
However, important as the lessons learned from Skylab 4’s “mutiny” may have been for future crews, it doesn’t always pay to be the crew that takes a stand. None of Skylab 4’s astronauts ever returned to space, likely because NASA still had a bad taste in their mouth over the whole incident. Carr, Gibson, and Pogue, however, maintained a good relationship with one another. When asked what it was like working with Gibson and Carr in 2011, Pogue didn’t mince words.
“We got along together just fine,” he said, “we were bound by a common enemy: Mission Control.”
Feature image courtesy of NASA