Skylab mutiny

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Figure 3-2. Performance lapses for time in bed (TIB) over 14 days of sleep restriction.[1]

The Skylab mutiny was a day-long strike held by the crew of Skylab 4 on December 28, 1973, the last of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Skylab missions.[2][3] The three-man crew, Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue, turned off radio communications with NASA ground control for a full day, spending the day relaxing and looking at the Earth before resuming communication with NASA.[3] They refused communications from mission control during this period. Once communications resumed, there were discussions between the crew and NASA, and the mission continued for several more weeks before the crew returned to Earth in 1974. The 84-day mission was Skylab's last crew, and last time American astronauts set foot in a space station for two decades, until Shuttle–Mir in the 1990s.

The event, which is the only strike to have occurred in space,[4] has been extensively studied as case study in various fields of endeavor including space medicine, team management, and psychology. Man-hours in space was, and continued to be into the 21st century, a profoundly expensive undertaking; a single day on Skylab was worth about $22.4 million in 2017 dollars.[5] The mutiny also affected the planning of future space missions, especially long-term missions.[6]

Sources including David Hitt's Homesteading Space dispute that the crew purposefully ended contact with mission control.[7]

Background and causes[edit]

Behavioral problems during a spaceflight are of concern to mission planners, because they can trigger a mission failure.[8] NASA has studied things that affect crew social dynamics such as morale, stress management, and how they solve problems as a group with missions like HI-SEAS.[9] Each Skylab pushed farther into the unknown of space medicine, and it was difficult to make predictions about the reaction of the human body to prolonged weightlessness.[10] The first manned Skylab mission set a spaceflight record with its 28-day mission, and Skylab 3 roughly doubled that to 59 days; no one had spent this long in orbit.[10]

Possible contributing factors to the mutiny include:

  • Twelve-week length of stay (the longest stay yet attempted by astronauts up to that time)
  • Isolated environment
  • Design of the spacecraft
  • Microgravity environment
  • Workload expectations of Skylab team
  • Workload expectations of mission control
  • Crew inexperience (all first-time astronauts)
  • No transition period

Three three-man crews spent progressively longer amounts of time (28, 60, and then 84 days), launched to orbit by the Saturn IB and flying the Apollo CSM spacecraft to the station.[11] It was visited by three three-man crews, and the mutiny occurred on this last all-rookie mission, which was also the longest.[12]

Skylab 3 had finished all their work and asked for more work—this may have led NASA to have a higher expectation for the next crew.[13] However, the next crew were all "rookies" (they had not been in space before) and may not have had the same concept of workload as the previous crew.[13] Both previous crews had veteran members and both previous crews had one member that had been to the moon and back.[13] Another factor was that the rookie astronauts were in denial about their problems and hid the issues they were having with mission control, leading to even higher mental strain.[13] The crew increasingly became bothered by having every hour of their trip duration scheduled.[14]

"We need more time to rest. 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."

— Gerald Carr[15]


NASA had continued with a workload similar to that on the shorter Skylab 3,[16] and the crew gradually fell behind on their workload. After six weeks, the crew announced their mutiny and turned off all communication with ground control for December 28, 1973.[3][15]

The three men stopped work; Gibson spent the day on Skylab's solar console, and Carr and Pogue spent the time in the wardroom looking out of the window.[17]


At a time when nobody had spent six weeks in space, it was not known what had happened psychologically. NASA carefully worked with crew's requests, reducing their workload for the next six weeks.[15] The incident took NASA into an unknown realm of concern in the selection of astronauts, still a question as humanity considers human missions to Mars or returning to the Moon.[18]

After the events of the mutiny, there were many attempts to either determine the cause or downplay what happened.[13] Nevertheless, lessons learned focused on balancing workload with crew psychology and stress level.[13] One factor that affects disaster planning is the process of lessons learned from past incidents.[19] Two contrasting pressures are the desire to hide a problem to avoid issues such as reprimands versus the honest evaluation of the issue to prevent future occurrences.[19]

Among the complicating factors was the interplay between management and subordinates (see also Apollo 1 fire and Challenger disaster). On Skylab 4, one problem was that the crew was pushed even harder as they fell behind on their workload, creating an increasing level of stress.[20] Even though none of the astronauts returned to space, there was only one more NASA spaceflight in the decade and Skylab was the first and last all-American space station.[12] NASA was planning larger space stations but its budget shrank considerably after the moon landings, and the Skylab orbital workshop was the only major execution of Apollo application projects.[12]

Though the final Skylab mission became known for the mutiny, it was also known for the large amount of work that was accomplished in the long mission.[6] Skylab orbited for six more years before decaying in 1979 due to higher-than-anticipated solar activity.[13] The next U.S. spaceflight was the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project conducted in July 1975, and after a human spaceflight gap, the first Space Shuttle orbital flight STS-1.

The mutiny is considered a significant example of "us" versus "them" syndrome in space medicine.[16] Crew psychology has been a point of study for Mars analog missions such as Mars-500, with a particular focus on crew behavior triggering a mission failure or other issues.[16] One of the impacts of the Skylab mutiny is that at least one member of the International Space Station crew must be a space veteran (not be on a first flight).[21]

The 84-day stay of the Skylab 4 mission was a human spaceflight record that was not exceeded for over two decades by a NASA astronaut;[22] the 96-day Soviet Salyut 6 EO-1 mission broke Skylab 4's record in 1978.[23]


Sources including Homesteading Space dispute that the crew purposefully ended contact with mission control. The book was written by spaceflight history author David Hitt along with former astronauts Owen K. Garriott and Joseph P. Kerwin.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Van Dongen, HP; Maislin, G; Mullington, JM; Dinges, DF (2003). "The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness: Dose-response effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology from chronic sleep restriction and total sleep deprivation". Sleep. 26 (2): 117–26. PMID 12683469. 
  2. ^ Broad, William J. (July 16, 1997). "On Edge in Outer Space? It Has Happened Before". The New York Times. Retrieved January 29, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c Hiltzik, Michael. "The day when three NASA astronauts staged a strike in space". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  4. ^ Vitello, Paul (March 10, 2014). "William Pogue, Astronaut Who Staged a Strike in Space, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2017. 
  5. ^ Lafleur, Claude (March 8, 2010). "Costs of US Piloted Programs". The Space Review. Retrieved February 18, 2012.  See author's correction in comments section.
  6. ^ a b "All the King's Horses: The Final Mission to Skylab (Part 3)". Space Safety Magazine. 2013-12-05. Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  7. ^ a b Hitt, David (2008). Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story. University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved January 29, 2017. 
  8. ^ "Behavioral Problems in Early Human Spaceflight". 2015-08-29. Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  9. ^ Howell, Elizabeth (2015-03-03). "Mars on Earth: Mock Space Mission Examines Trials of Daily Life". Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  10. ^ a b "Second crew on Skylab: Breaking all records". Retrieved 2017-01-05. 
  11. ^ "Skylab 4 Rang in the New Year with Mutiny in Orbit". Motherboard. Archived from the original on 2017-01-04. Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  12. ^ a b c "Skylab: Everything You Need to Know". Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g "Skylab: First U.S. Space Station". Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  14. ^ Hollingham, Richard (December 21, 2015). "How the Most Expensive Structure in the World was Built". BBC. Retrieved January 30, 2017. 
  15. ^ a b c "The Skylab 4 mutiny, 1973". Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  16. ^ a b c Clément, Gilles (2011-07-15). Fundamentals of Space Medicine. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781441999054. 
  17. ^ Cooper, Henry S. F. (August 30, 1976). "Life in a Space Station". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 30, 2017. 
  18. ^ DNews (2012-04-16). "Why 'Space Madness' Fears Haunted NASA's Past". Seeker – Science. World. Exploration. Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  19. ^ a b "James Oberg's Pioneering Space". Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  20. ^ Staff, Wired Science. "Skylab: America's First Home in Space Launched 40 Years Ago Today". WIRED. Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  21. ^ Fundamentals of Space Medicine by Gilles Clément. p. 255
  22. ^ Elert, Glenn. "Duration of the Longest Space Flight". Retrieved 2017-01-05. 
  23. ^ Pike, John. "Soyuz 26 and Soyuz 27". Retrieved 2017-01-05. 

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