What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

Illustration for article titled What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

Astronauts work incredibly hard, putting in long hours in unnatural, difficult conditions. But sometimes they get pushed too hard, and reach a breaking point. This is the story of Skylab 4, the astronaut crew that kicked off the holidays with a mutiny.

Illustration for article titled What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

November 16, 1973: A time exposure photograph transforms a mundane pre-launch task into colourful illusion of motion-streaks from a rocket standing still in the lead-up to the final crewed mission to the Skylab space station. Image credit: NASA,

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The mission launched on November 16, 1973, captured in this retro-futuristic moment as the Mobile Service Structure left these streaks of light as it pulled away from the rocket. The crew of Skylab 4—Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson—were all space-rookies at the start of their 84 days in orbit. Like their predecessors on Skylab, the bulk of their time was devoted to scientific experiments including observations of comet Kohutek and the first recording of the birth of a solar flare. But unlike previous crews, they fell behind schedule and got into quarrels with Mission Control.

Illustration for article titled What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

December 23, 1973: Gerald P. Carr tests the Astronaut Maneuvering Equipment M509 Experiment in the forward compartment of the Orbital Workshop. Image credit: NASA.

The astronauts claimed NASA was demanding too much; ground control countered that the rookie crew should be working through meals and scheduled breaks to catch up. The astronauts requested time off; ground control was horrified and confused, citing the request for time off as signs of lethargy and depression.

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Illustration for article titled What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

Edward Gibson at the Apollo Telescope Mount console. Image credit: NASA.

Commander Carr attempted to reason with mission control, pointing out, “On the ground, I don’t think we would be expected to work a 16-hour day for 85 days, and so I really don’t see why we should even try to do it up here.” Meanwhile, Progue tried to explain that by over-scheduling, NASA was setting the astronauts up for failure:

You have to put away equipment, you have to debrief, and then you have to move from one position to another, and you have to look and see what’s coming up, and we’re just being driven to the wall!… There’s not enough consideration given for moving from one point in the spacecraft to another and allowing for transition from one experiment to another… When we oppressed bodily from one point in the spacecraft to another with no time for mental preparation, let alone getting the experiment ready, there’s no way we can do a professional job! Now, I don’t like being put in an incredible position where I’m taking somebody’s expensive equipment and thrashing about wildly with it and trying to act like a one-armed paper hanger trying to get started in insufficient time!

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Six weeks into the mission, the crew broke: They declared an unscheduled day off, turned off their radios, and took the day to shower, stare out the windows, and relax.

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February 3, 1974: Edward G. Gibson during the last of four extravehicular activities by the Skylab 4 crew totalling 22 hours, 13 minute of spacewalks. Image credit: NASA.

After the strike, Commander Carr renegotiated a work-schedule with ground control: “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.” The crew were to be left alone during meals, and no strenuous work would be scheduled after 8 pm. Routine chores would be placed on a list for the astronauts to pick off at their convenience instead of on a rigid schedule. The truce had consequences: with more rest and higher morale, the astronauts were more productive. But they also were no longer trusted, andonce the mission ended none of the trio ever flew again.

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Illustration for article titled What Drives an Astronaut to Strike?

February 1, 1974: Edward G. Gibson and Gerald P. Carr look up the airlock module passageway while taking out the trash. Image credit: NASA.

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The average workday for a modern astronaut in orbit reflects these hard-won limits on working time. It starts at 6:00 am with a morning inspection of the station, followed by breakfast and a planning conference with Mission Control. Scheduled work starts just after 8:00 am, going through 1:00 pm with a break for lunch. Then there is exercise and more work until 7:30 pm when the astronauts break for dinner and a debriefing. It’s bedtime at 9:30 pm, with the whole 10-hour workday beginning again in the morning—except for Saturdays, when half the day is allotted to unscheduled work-projects. The conflict between the ground control and crew of Skylab 4 also led NASA to reconsider conflict resolution strategies for long-duration spaceflight.

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February 8, 1974: A final fly-around of Skylab before the crew’s departure. Image credit: NASA.

This wasn’t the only space-mutiny: the crew of Apollo 7 went on strike after all three caught colds in orbit and refused to obey ground control. The last strike was when a Mir crew refused to complete a sixth spacewalk inside of two months to complete non-essential repairs. Considering how independent astronauts are, how rough the space environment is, and how much science bureaucrats want to squeeze out of every expensive mission, it’s a wonder mutinies have been so rare.

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February 8, 1974: The crew of Skylab 4 relax on their recovery ship USS New Orleans after splashdown. Image credit: NASA.

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Top image: Edward G. Gibson demonstrates zero-gravity by sailing through an airlock module hatch. Credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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DISCUSSION

newburnercantbebothered
newburnercantbebothered

The strike didn’t happen. There’s a book Homesteading Space, written with the astronauts, that talks about how annoyed they are that a Harvard Business School course completely misrepresented what happened as a bad management anecdote. This has spread to multiple websites and has become accepted fact.

They were working through scheduled days off. Coming up to Christmas, the crew decided not to work through yet another day off, as they were entitled to.

Homesteading Space - page 357

“In an effort to increase our efficiency,” said Gibson, “we occasionally would have only one of us listening to the voice traffic from the ground and responding to it while the other two of us turned off our radios and worked without interruption. We each signed up for an orbit as the radio-response guy. Well one day we made a mistake and for a whole orbit we all had our radios off!”

“When we came up to over one of the sites,” said Carr, “the ground called us, and we didn’t answer them for a whole orbit. Regrettably that caused a lot of concern down on the ground. And of course the press just thought that was wonderful. They said, ‘Look at that. These testy, crabby old astronauts up there won’t even answer the radio now. They’ve turned it off and won’t listen to the ground anymore.’ We’ve had to live under that stigma they falsely created ever since.”

“Problems that surfaced early in our mission were created by competent, well-intentioned people,” said Gibson. “The exceptions were the dramatic stories fabricated by the media and later repeated and exaggerated in a book on Skylab and a Harvard Business School study. There was no ‘strike in space’ by any stretch of the imagination. What could we threaten to do, go live on the moon? If any of these writers had gotten their information from just one of us, the crew or other people directly involved, responsible reporting and validity would have prevailed over expediency and sensationalism.”

While finally taking a day off gave the crew a much-needed break and helped relieve some of the stress they were under, it didn’t really change the situation. “Right after our real day off,” Jerry Carr said, “we got right back onto the treadmill, and things weren’t getting any better. Finally after several weeks into the mission, it all came to a head. After dinner we always had a medical conference with the flight surgeon where we would tell him how we were doing physically, and we give him the readings for the food that we’d eaten and the water we’d drunk and all other data that they needed for their metabolic analysis. I said, ‘You know, I think we need to have a séance here.’ I told him about our situation, that we weren’t too terribly happy and that we were quite sure the ground wasn’t happy either. ‘It’s time for us to have a discussion, a frank discussion. We can do it on this channel if they want.’

“That request went down to the doctors, they passed the word, and, when the press got a hold of it, they raised Cain. So Mission Control came back and said, ‘We’re going to have to do it on the open circuit.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’

“So one evening we started talking with ground as we came up over Goldstone [California]. We had the whole U.S. pass, essentially, for me to tell them all the things that were bothering us. ‘We need more time to rest. We need a schedule that’s not quite so packed. We don’t want to exercise after a meal. We need to get the pace of things under control.’ Then we said, ‘Okay, now, next pass over the U.S., you guys please tell us what your problems are.’

“So during the next U.S. pass, they bent our ear with all of the things that we were doing, including our rigidity that made it difficult for them to have the flexibility to schedule us how they needed to. We came back with, ‘Let’s think about it overnight and try to come up with a solution by the morning.’

“The next morning they sent a teletype message in which they recom- mended quite a few things. The most important one was to take all of the menial, routine housekeeping chores out of the schedule and put them on what we called a shopping list. They were things that needed to be done that day but not at any particular time. Of course, they still had to hard schedule those activities that were required at a specific time or location in orbit. By opening up the schedule that way, they really took the pressure off. We were no longer racing the clock to get things done. It solved the problem.

“They also said, ‘We’re not going to hassle you anymore during meals or give you any major assignments after dinner. After dinner is relaxation time for you. Do a few things like some student experiments, but we’re not going to have any major experiments after dinner.’

“We said ‘That sounds great. Let’s go with it!’ And it worked beautifully. It’s a testimony to the human condition. Henry Ford probably learned it on his assembly line. The line can only go so fast before you start making mistakes.