Skylab: the myth of mutiny in space


It has been nearly half a century since the three astronauts aboard the Skylab 4 space mission came into confrontation with the mission control center. Shortly thereafter, reports began to arrive that they had gone on strike. But Ed Gibson, the only one left on the team, says the idea that they quit is a myth.

Bill Poge felt sick soon after the three astronauts arrived at the space station.

This came as a surprise because after training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Bill was nicknamed the “Iron Belly.” He could endlessly endure sitting in a fast-spinning chair, moving his head forward, backward, and side to side without a hint of motion sickness.

However, this is the first time three people have been in space, and it is obvious that the resistance to motion sickness on Earth did not play a big role.

Commander Jerry Carr suggested that Bill eat a can of tomatoes to calm his stomach.


Ed Gibson (left), Gerald Carr and William Pogue

Ed Gibson sat between his partners and recalls how the can floated from left to right in front of his eyes.

“I remember that then there were bad sounds coming from Bill, and a garbage bag floating from right to left,” he says.

“We were disappointed because we knew we had a lot of work to do – that’s when we made our first mistake.”

Ed is now 84 years old. The Skylab 4 mission began in November 1973, but time did not darken his most vivid memories – the view of the Earth from space, the flaming corona of the Sun and the silence of the spacewalk. He is the last astronaut to share this story, because Jerry Carr and Bill Pogue have already left us – Carr last summer and Pogue in 2014.

The Skylab space station was an in-orbit research platform where astronauts helped scientists study the human body’s response to space flight, conducted experiments, and observed the Sun and Earth. Skylab 4 was the last mission, and its crew had a long list of tasks to complete.

The 84-day mission (the longest at the time) was being prepared on a tight schedule. NASA was very worried that if someone did not feel well, precious time would be lost.


Jerry Carr pretends to hold weightless Ed Gibson with one finger.

NASA acknowledges that mission planners did not give the crew time to adapt to allow astronauts to get used to working in zero gravity in orbit, and have completed their work schedules. The number of spacewalks has also been doubled (to four) to see the recently discovered comet Kogoutek.

Thus, the astronauts were already under pressure when they made their first wrong decision.

“We wanted to pull ourselves together before we started to sort things out with the land, so we decided to put off telling them that Bill was not feeling well,” says Ed.

But they forgot that everything they said on board was recorded – the flight control center heard everything.

Soon, the cracking voice of Astronaut Office Chief Alan Shepard was heard over the radio from the Mission Control Center, and the conversation was also broadcast to the public.

“He got in touch and reprimanded us for not reporting everything immediately,” Ed says. “Al was fine, we just didn’t like being chastised in front of the whole world.”

Shepard was the first American to fly into space (a feat that caused Ed to shift his childhood ambitions to flying airplanes to flying rockets) and later landed on the moon as the commander of Apollo 14. While there, he played golf and thought about that the team was being chastised by “the guy who played golf on the moon” seemed ironic to Ed.

He wondered – what do his friends and family think about it? It was not a good start, and it set the stage for growing tensions between the team and the mission control center.


NASA employees at Mission Control Center discuss issue with Skylab

The staff on the ground were not as familiar with this team as with the previous one, because they were busy observing the first and second missions while the Skylab 4 astronauts prepared for theirs.

“Because of this, we really didn’t have a good working relationship – we didn’t have that kind of understanding.”

Each contact began with a protracted bombardment of questions, instructions and demands, Ed says, in addition to a detailed list of instructions from the mission control center that came in via TTY every morning. The requirements for conducting space operations are strict, but it was this extraordinarily difficult micromanagement that led to the so-called “strike”.

“We received about 20 meters of instructions one morning, which then had to be conceptualized and shared before we even got to work,” says Ed.

Then there was a morning briefing, which had to be connected by radio, it took them another half hour.

“Anyone who has been micromanaged knows you can last about an hour with it, but try to live like this 24 hours a day when your day is being sorted out by the minute,” says Ed.

“It was not constructive, and we didn’t achieve anything, because we couldn’t do anything ourselves.”


The Skylab 4 crew communicates on the radio with the Czech astronomer Lubos Kogoutek, who gave the comet his name

By increasing the pressure on the schedule, the flight surgeons also increased their daily training from an hour to 90 minutes – although Ed really enjoyed it.

“It was a real relief to be on the bike and feel the blood flowing from the upper body to the legs. Then I realized how uncomfortable it is when, due to the lack of gravity, the blood is not retained in the lower extremities, ”he says.

Since Bill was still not in his best shape, they worked 16-hour shifts to keep up with their to-do lists and skipped weekends during the first month.

They knew that they would be compared to the previous team, Skylab 3, which exceeded the plan and earned the nickname “Team 150%”.

They even had time to make a few dummies of their successors and dress them in spacesuits waiting in the warehouse – one sitting on an exercise bike, Ed recalls, and the other in the closet.

“It brought a smile to our faces and we had a good laugh at it,” he says.

But they were so busy that the mannequins were not removed or disassembled for a while. Ed got scared when they came into view.

“It felt like other people were there with us,” he says.

Due to reduced morale and overwork, the crew began to run out of schedule, and their requests to the flight control center for a lightening of the schedule were ignored.

“That’s when we made our second mistake,” Ed says of the so-called strike, which started about halfway through the mission.

The three astronauts decided that only one of them needed to connect for the morning briefing, and that they would come to it in turn.

“It worked very well, though one day we didn’t notice the intersection of signals due to fatigue, and in the end no one was listening to the ground.”

The cosmonauts did not get in touch during one complete revolution around the Earth – about 90 minutes. In those days, communication was only possible for about 10 minutes per session, as Skylab passed over ground control stations on Earth – it took some time for constant and uninterrupted satellite communication to become available.


Ed Gibson exits the airlock

“The word ‘strike’ flew at lightning speed from the control room to the media feasting on it,” says Ed.

“On earth, everyone decided it was a riot. But this was not intentional, it was our mistake. The media created this myth that has lived on ever since, and we just had to come to terms with it. ”

Ed believes that the very idea is meaningless. “What could we have done? Threatening to live on the moon? “

In a recent article, NASA offered a different interpretation of the origin of the strike story, suggesting that the confusion could have arisen from the team’s day off around this time – which it would have legitimately earned after Jerry and Bill completed the seven-hour spacewalk. for Christmas.

At the end of the day, CAPCOM (capsule communicator), Richard Truly jokingly addressed the crew, “Hey, if you like, I think you can take a vacation tomorrow,” referring to the planned weekend of December 26th.

“We’ll have an answering machine tomorrow,” Jerry Carr jokingly replied.

IN Jerry’s 2000 report said the team felt recovered from the weekend, but were careless with their radios. There is nothing to indicate that the day off was taken without permission.

Transcripts of conversations with ground control suggest that a maximum of a couple of hours were missed – nothing to call these events a “strike.”

Strike or not, the tension between the team and ground control was real. A crisis meeting between the two sides was held on December 30th.

“It was two intense discussions,” says Ed. Both sides expressed their disappointment, and ground control agreed to loosen control of the schedule and give the astronauts a little more freedom.

Jerry later called it “the first manifestation of empathy in space.”

After that, everything improved dramatically. Not only had their productivity improved, they had begun to enjoy being in space.

Ed’s specialty is solar physics, and he enjoyed spending his days off continuing to study the sun through the Apollo Mount Telescope (ATM).

He also spent his time just looking out the window and staring at the Earth.

“The earth is a beautiful place, and I got to know it like the back of my hand. I think about how lucky we were, we succeeded, ”he says.

Every three days Ed could talk to his wife and four children for a few minutes, and those moments were precious.

He remembers flying over America and describing in detail the coast and the weather to his five-year-old daughter. She listened and said: “Dad, I have a question – when you come back, are we going to play bowling?”

“It brought me back to Earth and made me realize that we are there in a completely different world,” he says. The Gibson family still laughs at this.


The Skylab-4 crew splashed down in the Pacific on February 8, 1974, five days after completing their fourth and final spacewalk.

They returned with a performance record that surpassed even the team’s performance by 150%, despite the heavy workload.

“I am proud that we did a lot of good work that pushed and prepared NASA to build the International Space Station,” says Ed.

They did not know about the history of the strike until they returned to Earth.

The legend really took on a life of its own when, in a New Yorker article in 1976, they wrote about “a kind of sit-in one day, about halfway through a mission.”

Based on this, Harvard Business School conducted a case study on the dangers of micromanagement called Strike in Space, which referred to an article in the New Yorker.

This story is preserved in some later accounts, where the incident is referred to as a “mutiny in space.”

Unfortunately, she also appeared in the New York Times obituary to Bill Pogue in 2014


One of the four space walks of the Skylab 4 crew members

How does Ed feel knowing that people think this is what happened?

“It’s not fun to train hard, work hard, and then listen to reminders of this story forever,” he says.

“Every time someone talks about this flight, a strike is mentioned. I’m sure God will ask me when and if I go to heaven about what happened. “

It’s amazing, he says, that in the past 48 years only one reporter has contacted the Skylab 4 team outside of the BBC and asked them to talk about what happened.

In addition to the two space novels, he wrote a book that contains his own account. It’s called We Enter Space and is still looking for a publisher.

None of the three astronauts went into space again, but Ed remained in the space program and helped select and train other crews. He became friends for life with the staff of the flight control center.

And he agrees that the story is instructive from a micromanagement standpoint.

“Our mission has proven that micromanagement does not work unless a break or a comeback requires it,” says Ed. “Fortunately, this hard lesson has been passed on to future space missions and crews.”

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