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Mutiny Aboard Skylab 4—The Stress of Living in Space

Updated on August 31, 2017
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

Skylab 4 Crew
Skylab 4 Crew

Crew of Skylab 4 ring in the New Year with a mutiny in orbit. Maybe it sounds like a terrible science fiction movie or space opera plot but don’t click away. It actually did happen just as 1973 was ending and 1974 was beginning. Mission commander Jerry Carr, pilot William Pogue, and scientist Ed Gibson were in the midst a record 84-day mission, the final one to be conducted aboard the spacecraft before it was withdrawn from service, when they rebelled against NASA.

Skylab Mutiny—Fact or Fiction?

The final crew, the last astronauts to inhabit Skylab, engaged in a rather unusual New Year’s day activity. They mutinied against NASA Mission Control. Many people have wondered what possibly could have happened to cause such an occurrence. Many more wonder if perhaps, the use of the term “mutiny” isn’t a large exaggeration of news reporting agencies, known to sensationalize topics of interest to gain readers.

The Skylab mutiny is neither a matter of sensationalization nor exaggeration. The Skylab 4 crew got into a conflict with Mission Control and after significant discussion between the two parties, the crew felt that it would not be resolved in a satisfactory manner to ensure their wellbeing. They subsequently cut all communication with their home planet for a full day. As for what caused such a serious course of action, that is a more complex matter that goes beyond a simple retelling of the events in question.

History of Problems on Skylab

It wasn’t as if the three crews that preceded the final crew had not experienced difficulties when aboard Skylab. In fact, the problems began long before an astronaut ever stepped foot aboard the space station. Troubles began during Skylab’s construction and testing phases. Skylab’s debut alone was a near catastrophe. One minute into the flight it seemed as if Skylab would destruct after its meteoroid shield, it’s main source or thermal control, was torn away. This resulted in the lab being exposed to devastating solar heat and in all of its solar panels being disabled.

Engineers worked frantically over the next two weeks to fix the damage while controllers tried to keep the space station positioned in a way that limited damage from additional solar heat. NASA personnel managed to save Skylab and keep the U.S. space program from experiencing a potentially irreversible financial loss and harm to the programs public image and reputation.

Yet, while the first manned mission to Skylab lifted off with little delay, the crew’s assignment became focused on completing additional repairs to ensure the spacecraft was still safe to inhabit and its equipment was fully operational. This put enormous psychological strain on the first astronauts to lift off for Skylab, since the changes to their mission suggested that it was unclear how safe their temporary home would be and what they would encounter when reaching it.

This mission alone provided enough drama to last the entire length of the program. From the beginning of this mission onward, there were issues related to differences in understanding of crew needs between the astronauts and ground control. In addition to concerns about the safety of the lab and being tasked with fixing it, which hadn’t been what they signed on for, the first crew had plenty of additional difficulties. Unpredictable problems and changes to the stated mission became status quo for the other crews who lived and worked about Skylab.

Widening Differences in Perspectives and Resulting Issues

The specific problems experienced by the different crews added to the normal day to day psychological stress that was common to all of them. This stress was normal for those working in a high-pressure, high-risk environment, more than 260 miles above the Earth’s surface. Yet it wasn’t always a consideration of ground control when interacting with the crew or assigning tasks. Part of this was due to there being a difference the viewpoints of those on the ground and those in space and the altered perspectives of the crew once aboard Skylab.

The regular view of the moon being replaced with the sight of the entire earth alone had a massive effect on astronauts viewing it. It changed their perspectives of their place in the universe around them. It also made them feel very alone and independent of those on the ground who could not possibly understand what they were going through.

At a 2016 university award ceremony, Edward Gibson described some of this sense of loneliness and alienation during a university award ceremony in 2016. When talking about the hours he spent working outside the spacecraft he remarked: “When you’re out there, it’s a silent world, except for the whispers of your own breath,” he said. “It feels like the world down there doesn’t even know you’re there.”

The inability of the those managing the astronauts day to day activities and well-being to share their experiences led to differences in the understanding of what should be expected of the flight crew. This in turn, led to growing resentment of the astronauts and ground control resulting from the perception the other side was being unreasonable and irresponsible. NASA personnel believed that the crew was putting the mission at risk. The crew felt NASA was putting them at risk.

When you’re out there, it’s a silent world, except for the whispers of your own breath.

It feels like the world down there doesn’t even know you’re there.

— Edward Gibson, Scientist, Skylab 4

Watch Amazing Footage of Actual Spacewalk

Mental Health Concerns

There were common mental health issues experienced by those working in space that led to problems for the various missions. These included hallucinations and distress caused by flashes of light that were believed to be the result of cosmic rays resulting from destructing stars. The lack of privacy and perception of constantly being watched also became seriously troubling for those residing aboard Skylab. It was not unusual for paranoid delusions and interpersonal problems among the astronauts to result.

Perceived lack of social support from ground control could also contribute to psychological disturbances in the flight crew. Residing in space with only the other astronauts for company, it was important for the crew to have support from the individuals managing the mission. Such support helped provide resiliency in problem situations never before experienced when normal coping responses were often unavailable to the astronauts. The lack of such support could increase vulnerability to compounding stress over the course of the mission.

Individual Differences in Crew Characteristics

Loss of control over practically every aspect of life from what they ate, how long they slept and when they showered, to their exercise regimen, who they communicated with and access to contact with friends and family also increased the crew’s vulnerability to developing emotional distress. This distress was handled quite differently by the resourceful, flexible yet stoic first crew, the highly driven second crew and the systematic and somewhat stubborn third crew.

Unfortunately, despite what should have been learned about how variable different astronauts and crews could be by the time the fourth crew was sent into space, individual differences were not fully considered. The mutiny that insured on the final Skylab manned mission largely resulted from the refusal of ground control to view the space mission in a fluid manner and the unwillingness to adjust crew assignments and downtime accordingly. This error, and the inability to recognize that astronauts could not be viewed as interchangeable, had serious consequences for the crew, the mission, public perceptions of NASA, and the future of the U.S. space program.

Conducting the astronaut maneuvering equipment experiment ...
Conducting the astronaut maneuvering equipment experiment ...

Pogue Explains Frustration with Workload Schedule

"You have to put away equipment, you have to debrief, and then you have to move from one position to another, and you have to look and see what's coming up, and we're just being driven to the wall!… There's not enough consideration given for moving from one point in the spacecraft to another and allowing for transition from one experiment to another… When we oppressed bodily from one point in the spacecraft to another with no time for mental preparation, let alone getting the experiment ready, there's no way we can do a professional job! Now, I don't like being put in an incredible position where I'm taking somebody's expensive equipment and thrashing about wildly with it and trying to act like a one-armed paper hanger trying to get started in insufficient time!"

Mutiny Aboard Skylab 4

Skylab 4 was by far the longest of the three missions, running 84 days compared to 60 days and 28 days for Skylab 3 and Skylab 2 respectively. The three men were expected to work more than 6,050 hours during their tenure on the station which included unloading, organizing and storing thousands of objects needed for their experiments, and daily housekeeping tasks. They were also required to keep a log of observations of the Sun, Earth and the Comet Kohoutek that was passing by the station. They were scheduled for four spacewalks that would total almost 24 hours. This amounted to almost a 24 hour work schedule, an impossibility on earth much less when under the stress of living in space.

The crew of Skylab 4 had more trouble keeping up with their demanding schedule than the previous crews. There were several likely causes of this. First, they were scheduled to spend more time working in space than any other astronauts had up until that time. This meant that it was hard to properly prepare them for what they would encounter or what they could expect to experience in terms of stress.

The work schedule combined with the other difficulties previously described led to unanticipated effects which were not adequately addressed when reported to ground control. Additionally, all three of the astronauts were rookies and had no former experience to rely upon and no one aboard or on the ground with first hand knowledge of a similar mission who could help them through the difficulties they encountered.

The three astronauts became increasingly exhausted with each passing day, fell seriously behind schedule and complained to NASA personnel that they were being was pushed too hard. Carr warned that the growing stress was making it even harder than normal increasing to carry out their duties. Mission control didn’t agree and their response failed to address the astronauts problems. It also felt punitive to the crew members, a punishment for raising their concerns in the first place.

Ground control accused the three astronauts of complaining for no reason and instructed them to work through meal times, late into the night and during their normally scheduled days off in order to catch up. NASA worried about the cost of having the crew in space for 84 days and wanted them to complete all mission objectives to justify the expense.

Ground Control’s response just managed to make matters worse. Instead of supporting the crew members by trying to find a compromise that would help both parties, NASA increased their expectations for productivity, demanding the three men do whatever it took to complete all of the intended tasks by the end of the mission. It did not seem as if the only people to whom the astronauts could turn to for help cared much about what the mission cost them mentally and physically.

After repeated efforts over the first six weeks of the mission to remedy the situation,right before the start of the New Year, the crew hit their breaking point. At the start of the new year, they took matters into their own hands, announced an unscheduled vacation day, turned off the radio cutting all communication with the ground and logged some much needed relaxation time.

The conflict wasn’t over once the crew reinitiated contact with NASA. In fact, it seemed as if things would escalate to a point where the relationship between ground control and the crew deteriorated, making the rest of the mission impossible to complete. The Skylab crew and Mission Control eventually reached an agreement which included routine chores scheduled by astronauts and secondary to more important goals, and meal times, rest periods and nights being considered “off the clock”. While the crew was satisfied with the reduced workload, which actually improved their performance, there were still consequences for their actions. Although they successfully completed their mission, none of the three astronauts were ever chosen for another space mission.

The most ironic part of this situation was that the main purpose of Skylab 4 was to determine methods of overcoming the problems that have been identified as associated with living in space. Yet this crew experienced more problems than any other crew assigned to the spacecraft or experienced by other American astronauts when in space. When considering the problems to be researched, however, the main concern focused on physical aspects such as diet and exercise to prevent symptoms of prolonged weightlessness.

Yet the more crippling problems including mental health and what contributed to astronauts general sense of well-being were ignored. This, even though they repeatedly brought up these types of problems as they experienced them. NASA continued to ignore the crew’s mental health even when the crew appealed to NASA’s time concerns, and pointed out that the problems would impact their ability to finish on time.

NASA failure was in not recognizing that the crew were just men albeit highly trained ones, who needed the same considerations that Unions provide for workers on the ground. Instead they treated the three men like automatons who were expected to put their own mental and physical health on the line to complete NASA’s objectives. The astronauts perceived themselves to be thought of as if they were no more than expendable instruments that could be put at risk for the benefit of schedule alone.

While the astronauts were punished after being forced to act on their own behalf when NASA refused to do so, there was a positive outcome for future crews. The mutiny had the consequence of forcing NASA to become aware of the importance of truly hearing feedback from those they sent into space. They also were compelled to reconsider how they had been treating the crews under their command. They now realize that behavioral and psychological conditions are among the most serious risks to the outcome of NASA missions recognizing that space travel has permanent mind-altering effects.

© 2017 Natalie Frank

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    • Natalie Frank profile image
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      Natalie Frank 9 days ago from Chicago, IL

      I agree, RTalloni. It seemed like they forgot they were regular human beings and expected so much regardless of the feedback they received or they treated them as if they were nothing but workmen without appreciating the stress they were under. Glad you enjoyed reading it.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 9 days ago from the short journey

      Such an interesting read on every level. To think that what is important in life isn't important in a space lab, for instance "hearing" each other, is truly the ignorance from the highly educated that stuns the mind! Enjoyed reading this perspective very much.

    • Natalie Frank profile image
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      Natalie Frank 10 days ago from Chicago, IL

      I thought it was a joke when I first heard. Then I looked into it and was quite surprised! Thanks for reading and for the comment!

    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 4 weeks ago from North Carolina

      I never knew about this! Very interesting article! Thanks for sharing!

    • Natalie Frank profile image
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      Natalie Frank 2 months ago from Chicago, IL

      I didn't either until asked a question about t on another site at which point did the research. I 'm glad you enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the comment.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Well that was fascinating! I never knew about this. Great article, my friend. I just learned something and enjoyed the experience.