Of Mutiny and Myths: A Skylab Story


(Updated on 30 December 2019 with info from @jasminchill on experiment record data.)

Hey, look! Pete’s wearing one eye patch! Maybe it’s a mutiny!

There’s a story – a myth – about Skylab, and people like it a lot.

The story – the myth – goes like this: Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard, and they went on strike. They mutinied.

It’s a great story. People like it. People want it to be true. It’s exciting. It’s a triumph over the people over The Man. It’s a victory for labor.

It’s not true.

Well, it’s half true. Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard.

The real second half of that story is this: “…so they had an adult conversation with Mission Control and changes were made.”

It’s not as good a story, I’ll admit. I can understand where people wouldn’t want it to be true.

But it is true.

Sorry.

All that’s easy to say. Either version is easy to say.

So let’s get into the “Citation Needed” part.

Over a year ago, prompted by Wired, of all outlets, I posted a thread on Twitter about this. Since then, I’ve reshared it on occasion as needed. It’s needed more than it should be. People on Twitter really like the mutiny myth. Again, I can understand why.

Traditionally, I would just let it go, categorizing the Skylab mutiny folks in a group with the moon hoax folks and the flat Earth folks that it’s better for your mental health to just let be. The problem is, there are now people who believe it – I mean, journalists and historians, for heaven’s sake – because they don’t know any better because it’s so ambient.

What prompted me to get engaged was a Wired UK article titled “The weird history and terrifying future of mutiny in deep space.” Sexy, no?

The article said this:

As often happens with sci-fi, when it came to space mutinies fiction was way ahead of reality. The first – and, as far as we know, last – instance of outer space crew rebellion would not happen until 1973. On December 28, the three-man crew of Skylab 4, the third manned mission to US space station Skylab – Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue – turned against their bosses at Nasa mission control, shutting off radio communications for several hours.

If you see articles saying the mutiny happened, my advice is simply to apply this litmus test: What sources do they use?

I tried that with the Wired UK article. It didn’t surprise me that they had no sources supporting their claim, since it didn’t happen. But I was a little disappointed that a magazine I respect would publish something this fringy with no supporting evidence.

In fact, there’s only one source cited as to whether it happened or not:

(Some experts, including spaceflight historian David Hitt, dispute that the interruption in communications was intended as a protest.)

Pro-tip as a former journalist: If a story quotes “experts” as saying something didn’t happen and no one saying it did, you should probably be suspicious.

If you’d like to read more about the “mutiny,” here are some sources that actually support their version with research:

As a free gift, I’ll provide the sources that the Wired UK article didn’t. There are two respectable sources that argue for a strike.

Without question, there were workload issues that had to be resolved, but the escalation of that seems to be the work of space author Henry SF Cooper, who published “A House in Space” in 1976. Cooper was a writer who worked to make spaceflight accessible and exciting to the public, and as a result things were sometimes … oversimplified. This is one.

Four years later after Cooper’s book, in 1980, the Harvard Business Review published “A Strike in Space” about Skylab as a case study.

And, again, the story has the advantage that a lot of its facts are true. There were issues with the crew being overloaded. There were tensions with mission control. There was a disruption in communication, just not the way they describe. (There was one communications pass where each astronaut thought another was on the radio, and none were.) It’s just that last bit of the strike story – the part about there actually being a strike – that isn’t true.

This is not a mystery. It’s not unknowable. If you’re not sure what to believe, the mission transcripts are online. Look through them yourself. You can start with the most common day, December 28, the day mentioned in the Wired article. Not only will you not find a strike, you’ll find the crew talking to Dr Lubos Kohuetek, the discoverer of the comet they’d observe on a spacewalk the next day.

But you don’t have to stop there. You can read the entire transcript in case they got the date wrong. When I first posted all this on Twitter, I said the first person to find the mutiny gets an astronaut-signed copy of Homesteading Space. It still remains unclaimed, and the offer remains open.

During a subsequent online discussion of this, Twitter user @jasminchill noted that, in addition to the mission transcripts, the experiment data logs also belie the mutiny myth. One of the most famous experiments performed during the supposed mutiny time frame were the Comet Kohuetek observations, which were conducted with instrument S054, the x-ray spectrograph. The observation logs show no day off on December 28 or 29.

EM6CRoPUYAAGmOk.png

It does amuse me a little how the story is escalating. I saw a tweet lately claiming that the crew declared their mutiny before disabling their radio, and only restored it when they eventually needed to come home. I’d watch that movie, but, no, it didn’t happen.

While some of the Skylab mutiny versions are fun, as a whole it’s too annoying to replace the Skylab UFO conspiracy as my favorite crazy thing I’m cited as an expert on.

In conclusion:
Earth is round.
We landed on the moon.
No mutiny on Skylab.