What, if anything, did NASA learn as a result of the Skylab 4 Mutiny? Did this lead to any changes?

Answer

The main change that NASA implemented after the break down in communications between the Skylab 4 crew and ground control resulted from the realization that The long duration spaceflight should be handled differently than short duration spaceflight.

Until Skylab, NASA's experience, had been restricted to short missions. Because the short duration meant that even getting behind slightly would preclude completing the tasks set out for the purpose, it was crucial everything met the deadline. This meant that everything had to be overplanned and over-practiced to the extent this could occur. Anything that slowed down successful completing of a task was ironed out ahead of time, and things were altered and altered again to optimize the astronaut’s efforts.

This also meant their many constraints in place and the astronaut’s had little to no say in what would occur once they boarded the spacecraft. However, before Skylab, this never became a problem for two reasons. First, knowing exactly what they had to do from one minute to the next took the stress of decision making and scheduling away from the astronaut’s. They knew almost exactly what to expect before they ever launched and so there was some degree of familiarity once they reached orbit.

Second, the mission was short, so it seemed almost like a play. Perhaps you’ve been in a performance at some time or undertaken an activity that required rigorous training and an exact manner or acting or behaving to succeed. You practice and train for the required amount of time, then you perform the task, be it a performance, sports competition, or other activity and that period is done.

Now imagine if you had to continuously train at 100 percent effort, constantly practice while being observed with others telling you what to do differently, then been required to perform a number of tasks all for an extended period. You’d likely feel burned out. However, if you’d managed this short term, those that were training or managing you might not understand that you couldn’t just keep up the pace at which you’d been performing. You might not realize it either until you did, in fact, start to burn out.

That kind of constant pace which was begun during their training before ever stepping about Skylab, doesn't work for long duration missions. Skylab 4 had a mission duration of 84 days. Added to that was however many months they’d been training on the ground. You just can't heavily rehearse 84 plus days without a break and while being monitored 24/7. Planning had occurred by individuals not actually going on the mission who therefore weren’t experiencing the actual requirements, stress, and strain of the constant demands placed on those aboard. NASA’s Expectations came from experience with other crews that were very different and short duration missions which led to faulty assumptions about how the Skylab 4 crew would adjust and respond. The scheduled tasks had been set on earth by those who had never been to space, and so there was also the problem of lack of generalizability.

All of these things resulted in a less accurate understanding of the required workload, how long tasks would take, how the crew would be affected and how they would respond. The regimented schedule and series of expectations led to a lack of flexibility on the part of the ground control and so when the astronauts needed accommodations to be made NASA refused to consider changes. They failed to see how demoralizing being dictated to every minute of the day without recognition of individual needs could be for the astronauts who felt as if they been completely stripped of their autonomy.

According to Robert Frost, an Instructor and Flight Controller at NASA, several changes resulted from these realizations following the strike aboard Skylab 4.

“We paid a lot of attention to these lessons when we developed the operations concepts for the International Space Station (ISS). We have a book called the GGR&C (Generic Ground Rules and Constraints) that prescribes how we schedule the crew.

There are still many tasks that need to be done at specific times, but if a task doesn't need to be done at a particular time, instead of telling the crew when to do it, we put it into the "job jar" and give the crew the autonomy to decide when to do it.

We spend a lot of time reviewing the daily, weekly, and increment plans to ensure we don't overload the crew. We guarantee that they don't have to sacrifice their exercise, sleep, or meal times to accomplish their assigned work. We provide time for them to review tasks before performing them.”

Updated on June 27, 2018

Original Article:

Mutiny Aboard Skylab 4—The Stress of Living in Space
By Natalie Frank
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