The story has been repeated many, many times in places like the Smithsonian Magazine, LA Times, Gizmodo, and more. Some have called it a mutiny, others a strike, but there’s general agreement that it took place.
“Isolated above the Earth, the crew of the third Skylab crew got increasingly annoyed with having every hour of their time scheduled,” the BBC noted, for example. secret space science controversial space of science
“They decided to take a day off. The incident, described in some accounts as a mutiny, taught Nasa managers that the stresses and strains of living in space for a prolonged period were very different to those experienced during a quick dash to the Moon and back.” secret space science controversial space of science
Sounds fascinating, right? Well, there’s just one problem. It never actually happened. secret space science controversial space of science
“No. No, no, no,” former NASA astronaut Dr Story Musgrave told IFLScience over the phone last week when asked if the story was true. Dr Musgrave was the lead CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for this mission, based in mission control in Houston, and responsible for talking between the astronauts and the ground team. secret space science controversial space of science
Skylab 4 was the third (confusingly) and final crewed mission of the Skylab program, and the longest to date. The previous two had lasted 28 and 59 days, but this would last 84. It was the longest humans had ever spent in orbit on a single mission. secret space science controversial space of science
While the Soviets were busy launching their own space stations as part of their Salyut program, Skylab was the first for the US. It was launched into space on May 14, 1973, with the first two crews arriving in May and July of that year. As such, it was a bit of a learning curve for the Americans. secret space science controversial space of science
On those previous missions, and indeed other NASA missions, astronauts had an incredibly tough schedule. From waking up to going to sleep, they would work around the clock for 16 hours, in constant contact with mission control to structure their day and perform experiments, maintenance, and more. secret space science controversial space of science
The longevity of this mission represented a new challenge for NASA. With astronauts not having spent so much time in space before, it quickly became apparent that the workload was too much. The Skylab 4 crew, all on their first and only flight, were supposed to have a day off every tenth day, but when the first three rest days were skipped due to the amount of work that needed doing, things became strained. secret space science controversial space of science
“Mission control was wrong, and the crew communicated how it should be,” Dr Musgrave told IFLScience. “I’ve done those missions. You work for 16 hours, and they’ll give you a break for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but you usually work while you eat.” secret space science controversial space of science
On the preceding crewed missions, Skylab 2 and 3, NASA “got away with it”, according to Dr Musgrave. But the Skylab 4 crew could not keep up with the pace. secret space science controversial space of science
“The crew communicated they’re running too hard,” he said. “And we took a look at it and said goddamn they are right. And so we said we’re sorry. You bet your ass we’re running you too hard. Because Houston was used to running [shorter] missions. We were wrong.” secret space science controversial space of science
The origin of the myth appears to come from the late Henry Cooper’s 1976 book A House In Space and a study by the Harvard Business School in 1979. Depending on which account you believe, the mutiny occurred on either December 27 or 28 in 1973. The following day, the crew returned to work, after NASA agreed to reduce its workload.
“On Dec. 28, the crew staged its strike,” the LA Times said. “Carr turned off the radio link with the ground and crew members spent a full day relaxing, taking things at their own pace and pursuing projects of their own.” secret space science controversial space of science