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Strike in space? How astronauts ‘rebelled’ against NASA

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Kamal Saini
Kamal S. has been Journalist and Writer for Business, Hardware and Gadgets at Revyuh.com since 2018. He deals with B2b, Funding, Blockchain, Law, IT security, privacy, surveillance, digital self-defense and network policy. As part of his studies of political science, sociology and law, he researched the impact of technology on human coexistence. Email: kamal (at) revyuh (dot) com

On December 28, 1973, three astronauts aboard the Skylab spacecraft stopped responding to NASA’s control center. Then the mission participants, tired from the excessive workload, negotiated a more relaxed daily routine. These events have been described by some media as the “first space strike”.

The third manned mission to the Skylab space laboratory known as Skylab 4 was launched and reached Earth orbit on November 16, 1973. The crew consisted of three astronauts: Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue. The objective of the mission was to carry out several experiments under microgravity conditions.

The Skylab space lab was designed precisely for teams of three. During its period in orbit, between 1973 and 1979, Skylab hosted three manned missions. Each new mission to Skylab outlasted the previous one: the first, Skylab 2, lasted 28 days, while the second, Skylab 3, lasted twice as long as the previous one, 60 days.

The longest-lasting was Skylab 4, which lasted 84 days and was marked by a curious incident linked to the enormous workload that fell on these American astronauts.

Right after the mission reached the orbiting laboratory, they received instructions to begin work. The ground control didn’t even give the astronauts time to get used to the conditions in space.

Previous missions had been given time to get used to microgravity. Compared to the members of the Skylab 3 mission, the Skylab 4 crew were in a sense rookies, so depriving them of a little sleep was not a logical step on the agency’s part.

Soon, William Pogue began to feel bad. The control reaction on the ground was more than inappropriate: it rebuked the Skylab 4 team for this fact, although the crew could in no way have predicted such an outcome. The agency began sending out huge lists of new instructions and new questions for astronauts.

Astronomical expenses

The three-astronaut team had to work 16-hour shifts and skip normal rest days during the first month of the mission to meet NASA’s demands.

Soon the crew members began to feel fatigued and could not do their job according to the schedule imposed by the agency. This did not improve the mood at NASA, as the mission was very expensive.

On December 28, 1973, during the sixth week of the mission, the Skylab crew did not attend the daily briefing, causing the loss of communication between the orbital laboratory and control on Earth for the period of a turn around orbit.

According to the official version, the team contacted Earth again for the time of the start of a new spin. The astronauts were only able to make contact with the controller only in specific parts of the orbit.

When information about the incident became known, the media began to spread the story claiming that the team had deliberately stopped responding to ground control by shutting down communication systems.

Until today, this is one of the most popular versions of that event, although it is not officially confirmed. Simply put, the version assumes that the astronauts were so unhappy with the workload that they decided to rebel against NASA.

It is true that on December 30, 1973, ground control discussed the incident with the Skylab crew. As a result, the parties reached a consensus and NASA changed the team’s schedule so that its members would have time to rest. As a result, the rest of the mission was more productive than Skylab 3. The astronauts were able to achieve these results thanks to a new approach that gave them time to regain strength.

The incident aboard Skylab was studied from the point of view of psychology and team management. NASA’s policy toward astronauts’ stay in space changed as a result of that event.

Every hour an astronaut spends in space costs an astronomical amount of money. For this reason, the US space agency from the beginning of its existence has tried to optimize costs. The incident caused the agency to reconsider its policy to some extent.

The first space strike?

NASA’s exaggerated expectations of Skylab 4 in all likelihood had to do with the success of the Skylab 3 mission. Members of that team completed their work in a timely manner and requested that more tasks be assigned to them. Possibly this motivated the leaders of the US space agency to increase the workload on the next team.

However, the Skylab 4 mission crew apparently had their own perception of acceptable workload, which led to increased psychological pressure. Gerald Carr once said openly that the team needed more time to rest. The astronaut highlighted that the crew needed a less intensive schedule.

“We would never work 16 hours a day for 84 consecutive days on Earth and we shouldn’t expect us to do it here in space,” Carr said before the alleged strike.

According to the official version, there was no type of strike onboard Skylab on December 28, 1973. Even so, several sources point out that in reality that day the astronauts, tired of the daily routine, stopped working. According to this version, Gibson spent his day at the solar panel control interface, while Carr and Pogue rested near the window staring at the surface of the Earth.

By that time, only the Skylab 3 and Skylab 4 teams had spent six weeks in space, so the psychological consequences of such a long stay in orbit were new to NASA. The incident with the Skylab 4 team showed that the intensive work had damaging effects on the astronauts’ health.

The history of the supposed strike of the Skylab 4 mission has been published in many famous publications and they presented certain evidence that it did take place in space on December 28, 1973. But NASA itself, the astronauts involved and some historians they refute the term strike and insist that it did not occur on any occasion.

But it is a well-known – and recognized – fact that astronauts came under increased pressure from NASA and were unavailable in communications for a long period of time. It is not known for certain what happened that day in orbit, but, judging by the available information, the use of the term strike, in this case, is a mere question of interpretation of what happened.

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