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 Times, Gizmodo, 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.
“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.
While the Soviets were busy launching their own space stations as part of their Salyut program, Skylab was the first for the US. It was launched into space on May 14, 1973, with the first two crews arriving in May and July of that year. As such, it was a bit of a learning curve for the Americans.
On those previous missions, and indeed other NASA missions, astronauts had an incredibly tough schedule. From waking up to going to sleep, they would work around the clock for 16 hours, in constant contact with mission control to structure their day and perform experiments, maintenance, and more.
The longevity of this mission represented a new challenge for NASA. With astronauts not having spent so much time in space before, it quickly became apparent that the workload was too much. The Skylab 4 crew, all on their first and only flight, were supposed to have a day off every tenth day, but when the first three rest days were skipped due to the amount of work that needed doing, things became strained.
“Mission control was wrong, and the crew communicated how it should be,” Dr Musgrave told IFLScience. “I’ve done those missions. You work for 16 hours, and they’ll give you a break for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but you usually work while you eat.”
On the preceding crewed missions, Skylab 2 and 3, NASA “got away with it”, according to Dr Musgrave. But the Skylab 4 crew could not keep up with the pace.
“The crew communicated they’re running too hard,” he said. “And we took a look at it and said goddamn they are right. And so we said we’re sorry. You bet your ass we’re running you too hard. Because Houston was used to running [shorter] missions. We were wrong.”
The origin of the myth appears to come from the late Henry Cooper’s 1976 book A House In Space and a study by the Harvard Business School in 1979. Depending on which account you believe, the mutiny occurred on either December 27 or 28 in 1973. The following day, the crew returned to work, after NASA agreed to reduce its workload.
“On Dec. 28, the crew staged its strike,” the LA Times said. “Carr turned off the radio link with the ground and crew members spent a full day relaxing, taking things at their own pace and pursuing projects of their own.”
However, just reading through the transcripts for the mission, you can easily find out that’s not true. On both December 27 and 28, the crew worked a full day, including observing Comet Kohoutek from the station, and were in constant communication with the ground.
One day that could have been misconstrued as the “strike” is Monday, December 10. This was the day when the crew finally got their first day off on the mission, although they stilled worked intermittently. This was not unscheduled – NASA had given them permission, and the crew made the most of it.
“So we took our day off and did what we wanted to do,” commander Jerry Carr said in a NASA interview years after the mission in 2000. “We all took a shower. Bill and I did some reading and some looking out the window, doing Earth observations, photographs and things… We had a good day.”
Another possibility is Wednesday, December 26, 1973. This was when the crew had another day off, enjoying some leisure time aboard the station. As well as having a shower, they played darts, listened to music, and took some time to catch up on sleep.
Carr does note, however, that during the course of one of their rest days (it's not clear which one he's talking about) they “got careless with our radios”. Skylab was not in constant communication with the ground but instead went through periods of acquisition of signal (AOS) and loss of signal (LOS) on each 93-minute orbit. During one AOS period on their day off, the team seemingly forgot to switch on their radio.
“So the press just thought that was wonderful,” said Carr. “They said, ‘Look at that. These testy old crabby astronauts up there won't even answer the radio now. They've turned off their radio and they won't listen to the people on the ground.’ So we have lived under that stigma all these years.”
There was undoubtedly some tension between the crew and the ground during the mission. This was evident right from the start, when an ill-informed decision by the crew led to some problems.
After the launch on November 19, 1973, one of the astronauts – Bill Pogue – became sick and vomited into a bag. The crew did not want to alert ground control for fear it would cause a fuss, so they had a discussion and decided to throw the bag away. Unfortunately, they’d left their radio on by mistake. NASA had heard the whole attempt at a cover-up.
“They were reprimanded by [Apollo 14 astronaut] Alan Shepard on the air,” author Dwight Steven-Boniecki, director of an upcoming film called Searching for Skylab, told IFLScience. “This created bad blood from the outset.”
Frequent back and forths between the astronauts and NASA, perhaps more so than there had been on other missions, were a testament to the continued tensions. The astronauts were constantly bringing up the issue of their workload and asking for more free time.
For example, on December 27, when discussing upcoming time off, the astronauts were keen to have an extra two hours on the morning of January 2 so they could sleep in. NASA, however, wanted them to take the time off on the previous day.
“I think our first choice would be to slip the day off one day to January 2,” commander Carr radioed down, according to the transcript. “The reasoning here is… that one of the nicer aspects of the day off is to sleep in an extra two hours.”
NASA did not agree. “There is a strong feeling here that we would like to keep January the 1st as the day off,” Carl Henize, the capsule communicator at the time, responded. “That’s partly due to not wanting to rejuggle schedules too much… We will chew it over and let you know.”
There were a lot of conversations like this. But at no point does it seem to have boiled over into a full-on mutiny or a space strike. It was, simply, the astronauts saying they were being worked too hard.
“Yes, there were issues with the workload,” author David Hitt, whose book Homesteading Space contains a lot of details arguing against the space mutiny story, told IFLScience. “Certainly, tensions resulted. Skylab 4 was a real learning opportunity for all involved, and helped calibrate future expectations.”
There’s one other key part of the space mutiny myth: the astronauts were grounded after the mission as a result of their insubordination. Like everything else, however, it looks like that’s also probably false.
It is true that the three astronauts on the mission did not fly again. But that’s mostly because, after returning to Earth in February 1974, there weren’t really many more opportunities to fly until the 1980s. There was only one more crewed US launch in the 1970s, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975. After that, it wasn’t until 1981 that the Space Shuttle started flying.
“That was a long goddamn wait, man,” said Dr Musgrave. “You’re talking almost 10 years from Skylab to Shuttle. And so people left, they fell by the wayside. No, they [the Skylab 4 crew] were not branded. Absolutely not. And there were no ill feelings.”
It is interesting that this story keeps coming up. Dr Musgrave noted that it was a “big deal” at the time, but not for the reasons reported. It instead revealed that astronauts on longer missions could not be expected to work these intense 16-hour days, something that’s apparent on the International Space Station (ISS) today. Astronauts now work a relatively normal working day complete with regular breaks for eating, recreation, and exercise.
“It’s the sort of story that people really want to be true,” said Hitt. “It’s become an inspiration to labor, a humanizing of heroes, a bit of relatability in a literally out-of-this-world history. Almost half a century later, it remains one of the most-talked-about aspects of the Skylab program.”
For some, the idea of three astronauts sticking it to NASA and taking a day off is no doubt the perfect tonic for a tough working day. Sadly, despite the romanticized nature of it, it's a space mutiny that never was.