The Bizarre Story Of The "Mutiny" On Board A Space Station

Skylab was in orbit from 1973 until 1979. Note, this illustration depicts boosters that were never used. NASA

It’s a tale worthy of Hollywood. In December 1973, three astronauts aboard the US space station Skylab stopped talking to Earth for an entire day, rebelling against their NASA overlords after complaining of being overworked.

They said NASA had been pushing them too hard, so they took some time off without permission, going so far as to switch their radio off so they couldn’t be contacted. They spent the day looking out the window at Earth, taking a shower, and generally having a good time. 

As a result of the “mutiny”, the three astronauts on the Skylab 4 mission – commander Gerald "Jerry" Carr, science pilot Edward Gibson, and pilot William "Bill" Pogue – never flew in space again, being reprimanded by NASA for disobeying orders. The incident also forced NASA to rethink how it handles human psychology in space.

The story has been repeated many, many times in places like the Smithsonian Magazine, LA TimesGizmodo, and more. Some have called it a mutiny, others a strike, but there’s general agreement that it took place.

“Isolated above the Earth, the crew of the third Skylab crew got increasingly annoyed with having every hour of their time scheduled,” the BBC noted, for example.

“They decided to take a day off. The incident, described in some accounts as a mutiny, taught Nasa managers that the stresses and strains of living in space for a prolonged period were very different to those experienced during a quick dash to the Moon and back.”

Sounds fascinating, right? Well, there’s just one problem. It never actually happened.

The Skylab 4 crew, from left to right: Carr, Gibson, and Pogue. NASA

“No. No, no, no,” former NASA astronaut Dr Story Musgrave told IFLScience over the phone last week when asked if the story was true. Dr Musgrave was the lead CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for this mission, based in mission control in Houston, and responsible for talking between the astronauts and the ground team.

Skylab 4 was the third (confusingly) and final crewed mission of the Skylab program, and the longest to date. The previous two had lasted 28 and 59 days, but this would last 84. It was the longest humans had ever spent in orbit on a single mission.

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