Skylab and the Sit-Down Strike in Space

It was a one-of-a-kind event: in 1972, during a mission on the Skylab space station, a group of American astronauts, frustrated by an unreasonable work schedule, organized their own version of a sit-down strike in space. They won all their demands, but in the end, NASA had its final revenge.

Skylab4_crew2

The Skylab 4 space strikers.                                                     photo from NASA


In 1972, NASA launched “Skylab”, a space station cobbled together from the empty third stage of a Saturn V rocket which was intended to study the medical effects of long-term space flight on humans. The project was a disaster right from the start. On launch, a protective cover on the rocket failed–one of the Skylab’s two solar panel arrays was torn away and destroyed, and the other one was stuck and wouldn’t open. Without the solar panels, none of the onboard equipment would work, so when the first crew was sent to Skylab in early 1972, its primary task was to fix the remaining solar panel at least enough to deploy it, and to jury-rig a “solar screen” that would shade the space station and prevent the interior from overheating (there was not enough electricity from just one solar panel to run the cooling system). The first Skylab crew spent 28 days making the space station habitable (barely). Later in the year, another crew spent almost two months aboard Skylab, completing most of the repairs and then performing a number of medical and engineering experiments.

The third crew, launched in November 1972, consisted of Mission Commander Gerry Carr, Science Pilot Ed Gibson, and Pilot William Pogue. NASA had big plans for them–since this was to be the last scheduled visit to Skylab before the station was mothballed and put into a parking orbit, NASA wanted to get as much experimental data as they could to make up for all the earlier delays and problems, and dozens of scientists on Earth wanted to make sure their particular experiments got done. The crew was scheduled for up to 84 days in space, with 6,051 hours of work between the three of them, involving medical observations and data recording, four different spacewalks to inspect and repair equipment on the space station, four days of observing and photographing Comet Kohoutek as it approached the sun, 84 hours of solar observation, and 80 assignments to photograph specific places on the Earth’s surface below. The Skylab crew, however, had already hinted that they had different ideas–this was the first trip into space for all three of them, and during mission training Commander Carr had pointedly remarked several times that his crew would need some time to get used to the unfamiliar surroundings.

Trouble began within hours of docking with Skylab. Pogue, like so many astronauts before him, had gotten spacesick and threw up. The three crew members decided that it was no big deal, and didn’t report it to Mission Control. But unknown to them, NASA specialists on the ground were monitoring the astronauts through a set of recording devices, and when they downloaded the audio overnight and heard about it, they were furious with the crew. Things got worse from there. NASA began to send daily schedules by teleprinter to Skylab, specifying every activity to the minute. After two weeks, the crew found themselves falling behind the tightly-structured schedule–whereupon Mission Control began demanding that the Skylab crew cut their sleep breaks and work through meal periods to catch up. Not surprisingly, the astronauts began to object that the schedule was too tight; NASA responded that the crew was just being “rigid” and complaining too much. Commander Carr, on behalf of the crew, decided that he had to draw the line: the teletyped minute-by-minute schedule was, he told NASA, “no way to do business”, and the demand for more work time was intolerable. Carr declared, “We would never work 16-hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”

Over the Christmas holiday things eased up a bit, as the crew were given some time off (which they spent making a makeshift Christmas tree out of empty food containers).

But within days, NASA was once again pressuring the crew to catch up, and again demanding that they work through scheduled breaks. By now, even the astronauts on the ground were chiming in, with former Skylab Commander Alan Bean bluntly telling Mission Control, “You have to lighten up and let these guys catch their breath.” Carr’s crew, Bean pointed out, was cooped up in the cramped Skylab for a much longer time than his crew had been, and couldn’t be expected to keep up the same scheduling pace. NASA ignored him.

On December 28, the crew reached their breaking point, and before they went to sleep Carr issued an ultimatum. Over the radio, he announced to Houston that he was sending down a message detailing the crew’s concerns about the schedule, that he wanted to talk about it the next morning, and that no further work would be done aboard the space station until the crew’s concerns were addressed. In effect, the Skylab crew went on strike.

The next morning, for over an hour, the radio crackled back and forth between Skylab and Houston. “We need more time to rest,” the crew declared. “We need a schedule that is not so packed. We don’t want to exercise after a meal. We need to get things under control.” When Houston replied that the schedule needed to be met, Carr simply turned off the radio and the crew took their own unscheduled day off. They spent the next 24 hours sleeping, taking pictures, or just looking out the window and relaxing, while NASA fumed impotently, unable to do anything about it.

On December 29, an agreement was reached. NASA conceded that they would no longer interfere with the crew’s rest periods or meal breaks, and they would no longer assign any major tasks for the evenings after dinner. Instead of scheduling all the tiny routine chores to the minute, Mission Control would simply send a list of tasks that needed to be done that day and let the crew do them as they had time.

With the reduced work load and the astronaut participation in setting the schedule, things got better. The last six weeks of the flight went without any more blowups, and all the work got done.

But NASA did not forget or forgive the rebellion. When the three Skylab astronauts returned to Earth in February 1973, NASA publicly declared that they were happy with the success of the mission, but privately took steps to insure than none of the three ever flew again.

Today, in business schools, the Skylab strike is still cited as an example of unrealistic expectations by management, along with unnecessary micromanaging and over-control.

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