However, just reading through the transcripts for the mission, you can easily find out that’s not true. On both December 27 and 28, the crew worked a full day, including observing Comet Kohoutek from the station, and were in constant communication with the ground.
One day that could have been misconstrued as the “strike” is Monday, December 10. This was the day when the crew finally got their first day off on the mission, although they stilled worked intermittently. This was not unscheduled – NASA had given them permission, and the crew made the most of it.
“So we took our day off and did what we wanted to do,” commander Jerry Carr said in a NASA interview years after the mission in 2000. “We all took a shower. Bill and I did some reading and some looking out the window, doing Earth observations, photographs and things… We had a good day.”
Another possibility is Wednesday, December 26, 1973. This was when the crew had another day off, enjoying some leisure time aboard the station. As well as having a shower, they played darts, listened to music, and took some time to catch up on sleep.
Carr does note, however, that during the course of one of their rest days (it’s not clear which one he’s talking about) they “got careless with our radios”. Skylab was not in constant communication with the ground but instead went through periods of acquisition of signal (AOS) and loss of signal (LOS) on each 93-minute orbit. During one AOS period on their day off, the team seemingly forgot to switch on their radio.
“So the press just thought that was wonderful,” said Carr. “They said, ‘Look at that. These testy old crabby astronauts up there won’t even answer the radio now. They’ve turned off their radio and they won’t listen to the people on the ground.’ So we have lived under that stigma all these years.”
There was undoubtedly some tension between the crew and the ground during the mission. This was evident right from the start, when an ill-informed decision by the crew led to some problems.
After the launch on November 19, 1973, one of the astronauts – Bill Pogue – became sick and vomited into a bag. The crew did not want to alert ground control for fear it would cause a fuss, so they had a discussion and decided to throw the bag away. Unfortunately, they’d left their radio on by mistake. NASA had heard the whole attempt at a cover-up.
“They were reprimanded by [Apollo 14 astronaut] Alan Shepard on the air,” author Dwight Steven-Boniecki, director of an upcoming film called Searching for Skylab, told IFLScience. “This created bad blood from the outset.”
Frequent back and forths between the astronauts and NASA, perhaps more so than there had been on other missions, were a testament to the continued tensions. The astronauts were constantly bringing up the issue of their workload and asking for more free time.
For example, on December 27, when discussing upcoming time off, the astronauts were keen to have an extra two hours on the morning of January 2 so they could sleep in. NASA, however, wanted them to take the time off on the previous day.
“I think our first choice would be to slip the day off one day to January 2,” commander Carr radioed down, according to the transcript. “The reasoning here is… that one of the nicer aspects of the day off is to sleep in an extra two hours.”
NASA did not agree. “There is a strong feeling here that we would like to keep January the 1st as the day off,” Carl Henize, the capsule communicator at the time, responded. “That’s partly due to not wanting to rejuggle schedules too much… We will chew it over and let you know.”