It’s been almost half a century since the three astronauts on board the Skylab 4 space mission famously fell out with mission control. Soon afterwards, reports began to circulate that they went on strike. But Ed Gibson, the only one of the crew still alive, says the idea that they stopped work is a myth.
Bill Pogue got sick soon after the three astronauts arrived at the space station.
It came as a surprise because Bill had been nicknamed “Iron Belly” during training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He could endlessly tolerate sitting in a rapidly rotating chair while moving his head backwards and forwards and side to side, without being sick.
But this was the first time the three men had been in space and evidently resistance to motion sickness back on Earth didn’t mean much up there.
Commander Jerry Carr suggested Bill eat a can of tomatoes to settle his stomach.
Ed Gibson was sitting between the two men, and remembers the can floating past from left to right before his eyes.
“Then I remember some bad noises coming from Bill, and a barf bag floating back from right to left,” he says.
“We felt discouraged because we knew we had so much work to do – that’s when we made our first mistake.”
Ed is 84 now and the Skylab 4 mission began in November 1973 but time hasn’t dulled his most vivid memories – the Earth from space, the blazing corona of the sun and the silence of a spacewalk. He’s the last one of the astronauts able to share the story, because Jerry Carr and Bill Pogue have both died – Carr last summer and Pogue in 2014.
The Skylab space station was a research platform in orbit where astronauts helped scientists to study the human body’s response to space flight, carried out experiments and made observations of the Sun and Earth. Skylab 4 was the final mission and as a result it had a long list of tasks to fulfil.
The 84-day mission – the longest ever at that point – was on a tight schedule. Nasa was very concerned about someone getting sick, which would have meant losing precious time.
Nasa accepts that mission planners had not given the crew the typical period of adjustment to acclimatise to working weightlessly in orbit and had packed their schedules with large amounts of work. The number of spacewalks was also doubled, to four, to observe a newly discovered comet, Kohoutek.
So the astronauts were already under pressure when they made their first bad decision.
“We wanted to get organised before starting a big flurry with the ground so we decided to delay telling them about Bill being sick,” says Ed.
But they had forgotten that everything they said on board was being recorded, and that mission control was listening in.
It wasn’t long before the voice of Astronaut Office chief Alan Shepard came crackling over the radio from down in mission control, an exchange also broadcast to the public.
“He got on the line and read us the riot act for not telling them immediately,” says Ed. “Al was OK, we just didn’t like being chewed out in front of the whole world.”
Shepard had been the first American to travel into space – a feat that led Ed to shift his childhood ambition of flying in planes to flying in rockets – and later landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 14. While there, he had driven two golf balls, and the idea of “the guy who was playing golf on the moon, bawling us out” for a breach of protocol seemed pretty ironic to Ed.
He wondered what his friends and family back home must have made of it all. It wasn’t a good start, and laid the groundwork for more tension between the crew and mission control.
Staff on the ground hadn’t got to know this crew as well as its predecessors, because they’d been busy overseeing the first and second missions while the Skylab 4 astronauts were preparing for theirs.
“It meant we didn’t really get a good working relationship – we didn’t have that rapport.”
Every contact began with a prolonged bombardment of questions, instructions and demands, Ed says, on top of the detailed list of instructions from mission control that arrived via the teleprinter every morning. All space missions are tightly run but these unusually heavy levels of micromanagement were what led to the so-called “strike”.
“One morning we received about 60ft of instructions, which then needed to be understood and divided up before we even got to work,” says Ed.
Then there was a morning briefing they were all expected to radio into, which took another half an hour out of their day.
“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,” says Ed.
“It wasn’t constructive and we weren’t getting things done because we couldn’t use our own judgement.”
Putting extra pressure on the schedule, flight surgeons had also increased the daily exercise regime from an hour to 90 minutes – though Ed actually enjoyed having this extra time to exercise.
“It was a real relief to be on a bike and feel the blood from your upper body go down into your legs. It made me realise how uncomfortable it was to have no gravity keeping blood pulled down into your lower extremities,” he says.
With Bill still not at his best, they worked 16-hour shifts to try to keep up with the to-do lists and skipped their rest days for the first month.
They knew comparisons would be made with the previous crew, Skylab 3, which had done more than expected of them, and earned the nickname “the 150% crew”.
They had even had time to fashion some dummies of their successors and dress them in the spacesuits waiting in storage – one was sitting on an exercise bike, Ed remembers, and another in the lavatory.
“It put a smile on our faces and we had a good laugh about it,” he says.
But they were so busy, the dummies weren’t taken down and disassembled for some time. Ed remembers the momentary jolts of alarm caused by catching sight of them in the corner of his eye sometimes.
“It was like other humans were up there with us”, he says.
Low on morale and overworked, the crew started to fall behind, and their requests to mission control to lighten their schedule went unheeded.
“That’s when we made our second mistake,” says Ed – the so-called strike, about half-way through the mission.
The three astronauts decided that only one of them needed to tune into the morning briefing, and that they would take it in turn.
“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.”
The astronauts were out of communication for one whole orbit of the Earth – about 90 minutes. In those days, communication was possible for only about 10 minutes at a time, as Skylab passed over ground control stations on Earth – it was some time before constant and seamless satellite communication became available.
“The word ‘strike’ went at lightspeed throughout the control room and out into the news media, who feasted on that,” Ed says.
“On the ground they interpreted it as a strike. 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.”
To Ed, the idea made no sense whatsoever. “What were we going to do? Threaten to live on the moon?”
In a recent article, Nasa offered a different interpretation of the origin of the strike story, suggesting that the confusion could have stemmed from a day off the crew had around that time – which it would have legitimately earned after Jerry and Bill completed a seven-hour space walk on Christmas Day.
At the end of the day, CAPCOM (capsule communicator) Richard Truly jokingly called up to the crew, “Hey, if you want to I guess you can take tomorrow off,” referring to the planned off-duty day on 26 December.
“We’ll have our answering service up tomorrow,” Jerry Carr replied in jest.
In Jerry’s own account from 2000 he talks about the crew feeling restored by a day off, but being careless with their radios. There is nothing to suggest the day off was taken without permission.
Transcripts of conversations with ground control suggest that at most there were a couple of hours of missed communications – nothing long enough to deserve the label “strike”.
Strike or no strike, the tensions between the crew and ground control were real. A crisis meeting between the two parties was called on 30 December.
“It was a very tense two orbits of discussions with them,” says Ed. Both sides aired their frustrations, and ground control agreed to loosen their grip on the schedule and give the astronauts a bit more autonomy.
Jerry later referred to it as “the first sensitivity session in space”.
It’s not a great deal of fun to train hard, do a good job and then have that story riding us forever
Things improved dramatically after that. Not only did productivity increase, they began to actually enjoy being in space.
Ed’s speciality is solar physics and he enjoyed spending his off-duty days continuing to study the sun through the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM).
He also spent time just looking out of the window and taking in the view of Earth.
“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,” he says.
Every third day he would be able to speak to his wife and four children for a few minutes, and this was a precious highlight.
He remembers passing over the Americas and describing the coastline and weather in some detail to his five-year-old daughter. She listened and said, “Dad, I have a question – when you come back can we go bowling?”
“It brought me back down to Earth and made realise we were in a totally different world up there,” he says. The Gibson family still laugh about it now.
The Skylab 4 crew splashed down into the Pacific Ocean on 8 February 1974, five days after completing their fourth and final spacewalk.
They returned with a productivity record that exceeded even that of the 150% crew, despite the heavy workload they had been given.
“I’m proud that we did a lot of good work, which moved Nasa along and got it ready to build the International Space Station,” says Ed.
They didn’t know about the strike story until they came back to Earth.
The narrative really took on a life of its own when a New Yorker article in 1976 referred to “a sort of sit-down strike one day about half-way through the mission”.
From there the Harvard Business School built a case study on the perils of micromanagement called Strike in Space, which sourced the New Yorker article.
The story persists in some more recent reports, where the incident is referred to as “the mutiny in space”.
Unfortunately a version of it also appeared in the New York Times obituary for Bill Pogue in 2014.
How does it feel for Ed, knowing that’s what people think happened?
“It’s not a great deal of fun to train hard, do a good job and then have that story riding us forever,” he says.
“Every time someone talks about that flight, the strike comes up. I’m sure God’s going to ask me when I get to heaven, if that’s where I go, about what happened.”
Amazingly, he says, in the last 48 years only one other reporter has been in touch with the Skylab 4 crew apart from the BBC, to ask them for their account of what happened.
In addition to two space novels, he has written a book which offers his own account, We Enter Space, but is still looking for a publisher.
None of the three astronauts went to space again, but Ed stayed with the space programme and helped select and train other crews. He became lifelong friends with some of the people in mission control.
And he agrees that the episode does hold some lessons about micromanagement.
“Our mission proved that micromanagement does not work, except where a situation like lift-off or re-entry demands it,” says Ed. “Fortunately, that hard lesson got passed on for future space flights and crews.”
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