Skylab 4, the third and final manned mission to NASA’s Skylab space station, was launched on November 16, 1973 and concluded on February 8, 1974. It was the longest manned flight – 84 days – in the history of space exploration at that time. Skylab 4’s crew – astronauts Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson – conducted dozens of experiments and demonstrations during their time in low-Earth orbit, including observations of Earth’s resources and the surface of the sun. The three astronauts also performed space walks, floating high above the earth’s atmosphere as they carried out inspections of the space station’s exterior and performed maintenance and repair.
In addition to performing this catalogue of impressive scientific and technical work, the Skylab crew – highly trained, motivated and educated men of impressive military and scientific training – also went on strike.
Shortly after their mission began, the crew refused to work for one day, and had to be persuaded to return to their duties. In other words, a good old industrial action followed by negotiations with “management” took place in outer space.
Skylab 4’s status as a landmark in human space exploration is, then, not just because of its duration, but also because it has important lessons to teach us about labor relations in spaceflight. These issues have thus far only been imaginatively alluded to in fictional stories of disgruntled crew members on board the starship Enterprise, but will become germane if long-duration human space flight – to Mars, or to the Moon to establish lunar colonies – ever becomes a reality. And Skylab 4 holds some lessons for earthbound workplaces as well.
The Skylab 4 mission reminds us that while spaceflight might seem glamorous and pristine, like the gleaming white space suits astronauts wear, on closer inspection it can reveal many of the familiar human and environmental dynamics that make our workplace relationships so fascinating and challenging. It illuminates the tensions that may arise between a rigid, controlling administration and a group of workers ostensibly selected for their discipline and psychological wherewithal to resist the stress of spaceflight. It was, of course, useful for other reasons, too. By noting the Skylab 4 strike, I do not mean to diminish the crew’s activities, or reduce their 12-week stint in space to merely this story.
From the moment the crew went into orbit, their lives were a blur of experiment and regulation, tightly and excessively controlled by a domineering set of NASA mission coordinators at Houston’s Mission Control. Time was limited; a large number of scientific experiments had been planned by an enthusiastic group of scientists on earth.
For every single second of their waking hours the crew was prodded, poked, telemetered, scanned and required to work through long, tedious checklists of activities. Every bodily function had to be recorded and regulated – this was, after all, a mission whose primary objectives included the study of the effects of long-term habitation in space. The three men were designated “astronauts,” but all too often they were made to feel like highly trained and monitored guinea pigs.
This tone of panopticon-like control had been set from the very beginning, when Bill Pogue vomited – an entirely normal reaction to arrival in low-Earth orbit, one which sometimes afflicts even experienced astronauts – shortly after arriving at the station. He decided, in collusion with other members of the crew, to not report the incident to Houston. But unknown to the astronauts, they were being monitored and eavesdropped upon round the clock, and soon they were castigated for the failure to report it. The way that early eavesdropping incident was handled destroyed much of the trust between the Skylab crew and Mission Control.
The astronauts soon realized that they were, for all practical purposes, under total surveillance; they had no privacy and there was nowhere they could “hide” from the peeping eyes and ears of NASA’s Mission Control. And they were severely overworked.
Faced with this remote discipline, the crew asserted their resistance. They had the most combative, unvarnished conversations ever with Houston, a far cry from the sanitized politeness characteristic of astronaut communications with ground controllers.
They became notorious for “complaining.” And they complained about everything. They complained about their towels, they complained about their toilets, they complained about the pockets on their spacesuits being too small, and they complained about their Velcro strips not working.
Matters finally came to a head when Pogue, Carr and Gibson “took a day off” and did whatever they pleased, ignoring their predetermined schedule. For instance, on this self-enforced furlough, Ed Gibson, the resident science pilot, a solar physicist with a PhD from California Institute of Technology, retired to the solar observation station and spent the entire workday recording images at his own pace, not bothering to make any detailed entries in his lab handbooks.
“Negotiations” followed. Carr put forward the astronauts’ demands: “We need more time to rest. 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.” Mission Control, for their part, felt the crew’s “rigidity” was making it “difficult for them to have the flexibility of scheduling needed.” Finally, though, the astronauts were reassured that ground controllers were “very happy with the way you are doing business.” Work schedules were altered, expectations adjusted; the astronauts were made fuller “partners” in their mission’s planning, and work resumed.
The story of Skylab 4 prompted much discussion about the regulation of work in space. For instance, it was clear that workers in space, unless policed by another crew, possessed some rather straightforward advantages in their negotiations with “management.” To begin with, space flight is tremendously expensive, with every minute of space flight time costing thousands of dollars, as the crew – trained at great expense – operates multi-million dollar equipment developed over years of research. Furthermore, space workers cannot be replaced easily; putting another crew in space instead of Carr, Gibson and Pogue would have required a Saturn rocket launch, not an undertaking to be carried out in a rush.
It has since been suggested that the so-called “revolt” or “strike” wasn’t really one at all. But these revisionist accounts do not discount the contentious and irritable relationship between Houston and Skylab 4, nor do they refute the notion that even highly trained military types and scientists fully convinced of the value of their work are likely to push back when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment.
The lessons here are not just for humans in space flight, but for any workplace environment that approximates these conditions. We ignore them at our peril.
Samir Chopra is author of Decoding Liberation, on the philosophical implications of free and open-source software; A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, on the legal status of robots in the 21st century; and other works. He is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College.
A longer version of this article was published in the October 29 issue of OPEN magazine.