It’s December 27, 1973, and NASA finds itself embroiled in a major crisis. The agency has sent a crew up to the Skylab space station, but now it can’t seem to contact them. Tensions have been fraught between those on Earth and the men in orbit. But now it seems like the astronauts have had enough! They’ve gone totally quiet up there –raising the possibility of an outright mutiny.
The Skylab mission had actually been fraught with issues right from the very beginning. The craft picked up some pretty nasty damage when it was fired into space attached to a Saturn V launch vehicle. And this was just a sign of things to come, as the mission would continuously run into severe obstacles.
Too Expensive To Return
Yet it was almost inevitable that Skylab would run into big trouble. According to History.com, its ability to function properly was undermined by a lack of investment. The craft was built to stay in orbit around the Earth for roughly nine years, but NASA allegedly had no mechanism for safely bringing Skylab back after that time had elapsed. Apparently, the agency’s administrator Robert Frosch had claimed that it would’ve been too expensive to do so.
No Plans For The Future
This failure to adequately prepare for the future essentially doomed the Skylab space station. Without any means of controlling its return to Earth, the craft posed a lethal threat for anyone who might be caught below. Though this wasn’t the only disaster to arise during Skylab’s patchy history.
Refusal To Communicate
NASA’s ability to keep morale high on the space station was extremely questionable, with the third and final team of astronauts left especially disgruntled by the mission’s organizers. So, it looked like a strike was on when this crew went dark and refused to communicate with ground control a couple of days after Christmas in 1973. But is that the full truth?
There had been high hopes for Skylab when it was being devised. It was going to be the first and only space station controlled exclusively by America – a place where vital tests and experiments could take place. By sending astronauts up there, NASA could prove that human beings could survive in space for extended periods. Also, the agency aimed to learn more about the solar system.
Anything But Smooth
In the end, the Skylab mission was successful in many ways. Three teams of astronauts were sent up at different points – meaning that the station was manned for 171 days in total. According to the agency, hundreds of important experiments were undertaken which helped to advance the wider space program. But it was by no means smooth sailing!
Planning For Disaster
The Skylab mission actually faced major issues right from the get-go. As the space station was rocketed to space, for example, an important section was torn apart. According to NASA, a sort of protective shield broke off, which in turn tore away one of its two solar panels. A piece of this shield then stuck to the other panel and rendered it useless.
Way Too Hot
So, what were the consequences of all this damage? Well, with no shield, Skylab was unable to regulate the craft’s interior temperature and it heated up too much for any person to endure. Damage to the solar panels also meant that the craft could only generate a small amount of energy. On top of everything else, the antenna wasn’t working properly, and this affected communications with those on Earth.
Weighing Their Options
Naturally, all of these factors posed a difficult predicament for the flight controllers. They could angle Skylab so that it received more sunlight and therefore more power, but this ran the risk of overheating the station. Alternatively, the team might be able to angle it away from the sun and risk losing too much power.
The mission’s disastrous start meant that the crew of astronauts due to arrive there first were delayed by ten days. But on May 25, 1973, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Joseph P. Kerwin and Paul J. Weitz were finally sent up to Skylab. And the first thing they had to do was fix the solar panel.
You could only imagine just how stressful this terrible situation would have been for the astronauts. In fact, NASA has its own account of the mood of this first Skylab crew during this opening day of their mission. The agency noted, “The astronauts were venting their frustration with four-letter words...”
Even getting from their own spacecraft over to the Skylab station was extremely problematic for the crew. A technical failure meant that they were forced to take matters into their own hands and dock manually. Improvisation had become a key factor of the mission, but the astronauts were ultimately up to the task.
During their first few days aboard Skylab, Space.com notes that the astronauts managed to put up a cover to block out the sunlight. This allowed them to finally get to work in the way that had initially been envisioned. Their arrival to the station had been difficult, but it nonetheless showed that crews were able to fix a space station while floating in space. They then stayed there for four weeks before returning to Earth.
The next crew set off towards Skylab on July 28 and stayed there for 59 days in total, according to NASA. Yet the initial stages of this mission were marred by challenges and technical faults. In fact, things looked so bad that a rescue plan was drawn up, but this never had to be initiated in the end.
This second team of astronauts was made up of Alan Bean, Owen K. Garriott and Jack R. Lousma. Throughout their stay aboard Skylab, these men exceeded NASA’s expectations with their work. They finished the jobs quicker than was expected, but this had a negative consequence for the crew that followed.
Raising The Bar
The third and final team of Skylab astronauts was made up of Edward Gibson, Bill Pogue and Jerry Carr. Things proved difficult for these men – especially because of the previous trio’s work. Because they’d performed better than NASA had initially expected, it raised the bar far higher for the next team.
The third crew ended up being given an extremely busy workload when they arrived on Skylab. Reportedly, the team would be there for 84 days, which was longer than either of the previous crews stayed for. But every moment of the day was absolutely crammed with tasks for the astronauts to complete.
And to make matters worse for the crew, one of them fell ill upon arrival at Skylab. Bill Pogue had been able to withstand incredibly intense physical tests when he was training back down on Earth. Though it seems that the actual journey to space really took its toll on him.
Keeping It Secret
Edward Gibson is the only surviving member of the third Skylab crew, and he talked about the mission in March 2021. He told the BBC that Pogue’s illness caused huge problems for the team, because they’d decided to hide it from mission control. The astronauts wanted to organize themselves before people on the ground got involved.
In Front Of The Whole World
Though the crew had made a terrible error. In their conversation about hiding Pogue’s illness, they’d forgotten that their voices were being recorded. Mission control had heard everything – and they were furious. Soon, astronaut Alan Shepard was in contact with them, as Gibson recalled. The latter said, “He got on the line and read us the riot act for not telling them immediately... [Shepard] was okay, we just didn’t like being chewed out in front of the whole world.”
By The Book
Also, did you know that Shepard was actually the first U.S. citizen to ever reach space? Yep, he also flew to the moon in a later mission where he played golf on the surface! This point irked Gibson, as such an act wasn’t exactly by the book, yet here he was telling off the Skylab crew for breaching the rules.
To make things worse, Shepard’s lecture to the crew was broadcast to the public. This obviously upset the astronauts, who knew that their loved ones would be watching. Clearly, the relationship between the three men in space and those back on Earth was already becoming incredibly strained.
Too Much Micromanagement
Gibson told the BBC that mission control would instantly overwhelm the crew with orders every time they made contact. Allegedly, the team were being micromanaged to a level they found intolerable. And the astronauts could only take so much before something had to give.
What followed has been described in a variety of ways over the years. Some people have called it a strike, while others have gone so far as to designate it as a full-on mutiny. In any case, the Skylab crew went quiet one day. Mission control was unable to contact them – seemingly because of a rebellion aboard the space station.
Breaking It Down
Though Gibson has his own explanation for the circumstances leading up this “strike.” He explained to the BBC, “One morning we received about 60 feet of instructions, which then needed to be understood and divided up before we even got to work.” After that, they were meant to join a call with mission control – taking up even more of their time.
Minute By Minute
Gibson elaborated on how difficult this was for the crew. He said, “Anyone who has been micromanaged will know that it’s bad enough for an hour – but try living like that 24 hours a day – having your day sketched out minute by minute. It wasn’t constructive and we weren’t getting things done because we couldn’t use our own judgement.”
Time Is Ticking
On top of everything else, the crew members were ordered to undertake half an hour more of exercise each day. This was actually welcomed by Gibson, as the astronauts’ legs could become uncomfortable without being worked. But it still meant that the astronauts had even less time to work up there.
Reaching The Breaking Point
During their initial month up on the Skylab station, Gibson claimed that the crew had to work on all their days off. Mission control expected so much of them, and Pogue’s illness made things even harder for them. Clearly, the relationship between the astronauts and their colleagues on Earth was at breaking point.
Ignoring The Requests
The crew’s workload then started to get away from them. They were really struggling to stay on top of their vast array of tasks, so the men asked mission control to give them a bit of a break. Their pleas, though, were totally ignored and the orders continued to flood in.
The exhausted astronauts then decided to take matters into their own hands, Gibson told the BBC. They agreed that only one of them needed to speak to mission control in the mornings, while the other two could rest up. The astronauts rotated this responsibility, and things became a little easier. But, as Gibson recalled, “That worked really well, except that in our fatigued condition up there, one day we got our signals crossed and we didn’t have anybody listening to the ground.”
Media Takes The Story
For an hour and a half, mission control couldn’t make any contact with the Skylab crew. It looked as if they’d finally had enough of their taxing workload – refusing to speak with their colleagues on the ground. To look at the situation, it seemed as if they’d gone on strike. At least, that’s what the media said when reporters found out about the communication blackout.
Not Entirely True
Gibson told the BBC, “The word ‘strike’ went at light-speed throughout the control room and out into the news media, who feasted on that.” But the astronaut is adamant that things were blown out of proportion. Gibson claimed that it was an honest mistake – the result of exhaustion and nothing more.
Blown Out Of Proportion
“On the ground they interpreted it as a strike,” Gibson explained. “But it wasn’t intentional, it was our mistake. The media created this myth which has been floating around out there ever since and we’ve just had to live with it.” The astronaut seems astounded that the story stuck so much. He explained, “What were we going to do? Threaten to live on the moon?”
Yet even though the story of a so-called strike was blown way out of proportion, the astronauts’ relationship with their colleagues on the ground really was unbearably strained. So, some showdown talks were put on the agenda. The two parties voiced their concerns and grievances, which ultimately led to something of a resolution. Mission control committed to giving the men on Skylab more “autonomy,” according to the BBC.
Appreciating The Opportunity
The mission then finally got back on course, and the astronauts started working far more effectively. Apparently, the men also started to appreciate the unique position they found themselves in. Looking down at our planet from above was also a special experience, Gibson explained. He said, “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 to be able to do that.”
A Grueling 84 Days
After 84 days in space – a record-breaking amount of time – the crew finally came back to Earth in February 1974. Amazingly, despite the rough start, their mission was a huge success. They even overtook the levels of productivity seen in the previous crew. But they were nonetheless mainly associated with a “strike” or “mutiny” in space by the media.
More Drama On The Horizon
As for the Skylab space station itself, there was still plenty more drama to come. Experts had hoped to keep it in orbit for up to a decade after the end of the last crew’s mission. Though unforeseen solar events meant that it began edging back down to Earth before schedule. This could have been disastrous, so NASA planned to fire a shuttle to space in order to push Skylab back up.
But organizational issues meant that this shuttle mission never came to fruition, so NASA had to act fast. According to History.com, in July 1979 a decision was made to activate the booster rockets on Skylab. And this forced the station to descend back to Earth in the direction of the Indian Ocean. This was to prevent any debris from hitting land, but the idea failed. Bits of the station hit Australia – yet luckily nobody was hurt.
Skylab helped to greatly develop the American space program – but it hadn’t been smooth sailing. The project was littered with issues, and it put a great strain on many of the people involved. In the end, though, the efforts of everyone involved have left a lasting legacy on the space missions that have followed.