The Astronauts Strike Back

In May of 1973, the United States sent Skylab, its first space station, into orbit. Over the next seven months or so, a trio of three-man crews went aboard the station and performed dozens of experiments in microgravity. By and large, Skylab is seen as a success, generating data and information which helped advance not only the exploration of space, but also science and medicine generally.

And in a weird way, it also may have had an impact on employer-employee relations.

The third manned trip to Skylab, called the Skylab 4 mission (the unmanned launch was considered Skylab 1) lasted longer than the rest, at 84 days. That seemed like plenty of time to get done whatever had to be done, but the three astronauts, Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue, were given a ton of work. From the time they came aboard in November of that year, it seemed they were already behind schedule. The Los Angeles Times, in a retrospective, gave a glimpse of the problem:

They knew before going up that the pace would be punishing — 84 days of 16 hours each without a break, filled with minute-by-minute scheduling for observations of the sun and Comet Kohoutek, medical tests, photographing of the Earth below, and four spacewalks.

Other astronauts on the ground team, including the commanders of the previous two Skylab missions, advised NASA that the plans were unreasonable. None of the three astronauts on the Skylab 4 mission had been in space before, but NASA hadn’t factored in any time for them to become acclimated to conditions aloft. They were plainly overscheduled. In fact, Pogue almost immediately came down with debilitating nausea. 

To some degree, the grueling pace was a matter of necessity — this was going to be the last mission on Skylab and therefore, the last chance to collect data. And on some level, Skylab 4 was a victim of Skylab 3’s successes; the predecessor mission ran out of work during their 59 days in orbit. But either way, this crew couldn’t quite keep up with the pace. 

As the crew fell further behind their work and as their health declined, the complaints to Mission Control increased. On a near-daily basis, they expressed their collective dissatisfaction with the workload and always-on schedule. But back on Earth, the powers-that-be at NASA didn’t seem to care. The schedule was the schedule and the Skylab team was expected to stick with it.

So on December 28, 1973, the astronauts aboard the space station tried something new: they went on strike. Specifically, as the New York Times reported, Carr (the commander) “told ground controllers that he and his crew were taking a day off, which they then proceeded to do with the radio switched off” for about 90 minutes. Carr told the Times that the crew “looked out the window, took showers, and did that sort of thing” — all while his counterparts on Earth probably fumed and maybe even panicked.

When the crew came back online, they found a team back home which was more receptive to their needs — per the LA Times, “Houston agreed to afford the crew full rest and meal breaks, and replace its minute-by-minute schedules with a list of tasks to be completed, leaving it to the crew to manage its own time.” And since then, manned missions to space have had some rest and relaxation time built into the astronauts’ schedules. 

Bonus fact: The Skylab mission numbering scheme seems odd; as noted above, there was no manned Skylab 1 mission. But if that confuses you, don’t feel bad — it confused NASA, too. When the Administration issued mission patches for Skylab 2 and Skylab 3, they added Roman numerals enumerating which mission was which, and they screwed it up. Skylab 2’s patch, seen here, reads “Skylab I,” while Skylab 3’s patch, here, reads “Skylab II.” And while NASA moved away from Roman numerals for Skylab 4, they managed to misnumber that patch, too.

From the Archives: When Astronauts Smuggled Mail into Space: Another story of astronaut rebellion.