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December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

Posted December 28, 2018 12:49 PM by Hannes

Forty-five years ago on December 28, 1973, the three-man crew of the Skylab 4 space station made history by effectively taking an unscheduled day off. Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson and William Pogue switched off radio communications with NASA, refused communications from mission control and spent time relaxing and admiring Earth.

The Skylab controversy was triggered by a number of factors. Skylab 4’s 84-day mission was the longest yet undertaken by American astronauts, and the three crewmembers had never spent any time in space. Skylab 3’s crew had finished their assigned work on their 60-day spaceflight and asked NASA for more work, possibly leading the organization to have elevated expectations for the Skylab 4 crew. Skylab 4’s crew had gradually fallen behind on work for the first six weeks of the mission, and had become stressed trying to catch up.

Skylab 4 crew inside the space station. Source: NASA

Pogue’s New York Times obituary quoted him as writing: “We had been overscheduled. We were just hustling the whole day. The work could be tiresome and tedious, though the view was spectacular.”

Skylab 4’s mission continued without incident following the “strike,” and NASA worked carefully with the astronauts to reduce their workloads and control stress. Despite only lasting one day, the outage was an expensive one: estimates value a single day’s work on any Skylab mission at around $6 million per crewmember in 2017 dollars.

Skylab 4’s long duration and rookie crew were uncharted territory for NASA, and the organization learned important lessons about the psychological effects of long-term spaceflights. An astronaut lacks the freedom to act as he or she wants, and spur-of-the-moment thinking generally vanishes while in space. Astronauts often become frustrated by communication delays with mission control. Sunrises and sunsets every 45 minutes can interfere with sleep-wake cycles, quickly causing fatigue. Yet among astronaut testimonials, most relate that the biggest stressors are social and cultural deprivation as well as boredom during downtime.

Skylab’s teaching moments resonated throughout the subsequent history of American space programs. NASA implemented longer training protocols and more careful astronaut selection in subsequent space station programs. Psychological compatibility of crewmembers also became a greater concern.

Astronaut psychology is still a prime concern as NASA eyes spaceflights to Mars. For the past five years, the organization has studied crewmembers stress management, morale and problem-solving at Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), an analog habitat meant to replicate the Martian surface. Most HI-SEAS missions last around 8 months, significantly shorter than a two- to three-year expeditionary mission to Mars, which could be possible as early as 2021.

The Skylab 4 “mutiny” and the subsequent Shuttle-Mir missions of the 1990s provoked necessary organizational changes at NASA, focused less on individual crewmembers and more on crew dynamics and their isolation from family and friends for long periods.

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#1

Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

12/28/2018 1:18 PM

The stress of days upon days of overscheduling is bad enough on earth but trapped in a small space with the same people? Ugh.

I'm reading Rocket Men, about the Apollo 8 mission. The author talks about the myriad scheduled tasks each astronaut had to finish and how Frank Borman, the commander, chided William Anders for taking time away from his photographic schedule to admire the earth rising over the moon's curve. Fortunately Anders declined to stand down; when Borman saw Earthrise he agreed that Anders made the right choice.

Rocket Man is an excellent book, by the way.

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

12/28/2018 8:02 PM

Houston: Open the pod bay doors, Skylab.
Carr, Gibson and Pogue: I’m sorry, Houston. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

I can sympathize with those guys. That contraption they were riding in could have decompressed at any time.

I don't think the we Earthbound people could ever imagine the stress they were under.

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

12/29/2018 1:29 AM

Wooder been interesting if 'Hooston' had done the same - starting from when 4 signed back on!

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/04/2019 9:06 AM

Lyn, Talk about Time Warp. You're really going back. 68'

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

12/28/2018 10:25 PM

Hmmmpphhh. They think they were stressed. They should've been in my shop trying to get everything done in time for the Skylab launch. All the experimental "torque-less" power tools were built in my machine shop at Langley and I got to work on various parts of the exercise cycle.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of overtime, whether you wanted it or not.

Hooker

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/02/2019 8:02 AM

I think you left a few "lots" out of your statement. Having worked on 2 space programs, I feel no career is complete unless you've experienced/survived at least one space program. Those who haven't will never understand the extremes done in ALL facets of engineering, (electrical, mechanical, testing, QA, purchasing, ......, you name it.)

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/02/2019 10:19 AM

You're absolutely right. There were many other "lots" opportunities. Two others I was involved in included Viking and the Shuttle. One I missed because I was on vacation in sunny Southeast Asia was the Apollo 13 debacle. My buddies back home worked round the clock trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, if possible.

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/02/2019 5:04 PM

My neighbor was one of the Grumman engineers of the Apollo 13 lunar modules. A few days after the Apollo 13 safely returned, he came over to the house one night to chat with my parents in an attempt to clear his mind and get some sleep. After the third or fourth time of him mentioning that he needed something else to concentrate upon to distract his mind, I asked him if he knew how to play chess. We played until 1:00 AM that Friday night. He slept well. A few years later he repaid me at a favored watering hole, now that I was of legal age. Good times.

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/02/2019 7:06 PM

Thanks for posting that. It's one of probably hundreds of stories of people who go above and beyond. I wish we could hear them all.

I have mixed feelings about not having been there during a tough time but I was a bit busy myself.

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Re: December 28, 1973 - The Skylab 4 "Mutiny"

01/10/2019 7:21 AM

The sad part is, Tom Hanks and Gary Sinese made more money than all of you combined, even in "recounted" inflation dollars.

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