Today I Discovered Humanity's First Ever Space Mutiny

Image: NASA/Public Domain

Once confined almost entirely to seafaring vessels, mutinies were later co-opted by writers of all sorts of science-fiction. We've seen them in everything from Star Trek to Star Wars, but one real life mutiny has actually occurred in space. So what did the mutineers do? They turned off all the comms for a day and watched the world go by, literally.

Before the days of the International Space Station, Skylab was America's first ever space station and the second successful space station after the Salyut 1. Launched in 1973, the Skylab hosted two successful missions in 1973, each longer than the last at 28 days for Skylab 2 and 59 days for Skylab 3 (Skylab 1 was the initial unmanned launch of the station), each of these becoming record-breakers.

Skylab 4 was the next of the missions to visit the station, and drastically pushed the length of the mission up to 84 days - at that time by far the longest a crew had ever spent in space at one time, and a record that was not to be broken for another 4 years after that. The Skylab missions were constantly pushing the boundaries on what we knew about the effect of spaceflight on the human body and psyche.

Launching on November 16, 1973, the Skylab 4 crew was comprised of Commander Gerald Carr, Science Pilot Edward Gibson and Pilot William Pogue - all rookies who had never undertaken a spaceflight before, let alone stayed any extended duration in space.

The workload Skylab 4 was given was based on that of Skylab 3, despite having almost an extra month in space. The crew lasted 42 days of their stay without issue, but at this point the rookie crew were strained to breaking point.

On December 28, 1973, the crew of Skylab 4 turned off communications from ground control for a day, then spending that one day of freedom relaxing with no tasks to complete and no schedule to follow. Despite the enormity of this action - with each day of the Skylab mission costing around $22.4 million when adjusted for inflation - the team later communicated with NASA ground control and continued on with their mission for a number of weeks after this.

The event has largely been put down to the crew's inexperience and the workload expectations put on them, as well as the added stressors of the environment - between living in microgravity, living in such close quarters to their crewmates and being so isolated from everyone else.

Under this stress the crew gradually fell behind on their tasks, and ground control pushed them to work harder and faster to make up for it. Pogue explained his frustrations:

"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."

Their Commander, Carr, added that "on the ground, I don't think we would be expected to work a 16-hour day for 85 days, and so I really don't see why we should even try to do it up here."

But it was only after the crew's day-long mutiny that ground control finally agreed to compromise. Upon contact being made, Carr's demands were simple: "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."

The crew of Skylab 4 never flew again, and American astronauts weren't to set foot on a space station again until the 90s - but you can be sure the events of the Skylab 4 mission were an important lesson for the advancement of human space travel.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers - the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it's just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


    Fark. Never gonna take a day off again. Boss will call it a mutiny. I spose "Today I Discovered a space crew took a day off" just doesn't have the same ring to it...

      Strange one aint it. On one hand, they just took a day off. On the other, it was after 672 hours, in something the size of a bus, with the same 2 people there every minute. For a 40 hour week, that's nearly 17 weeks without a day off.

      Imagine what it would have been like if they had worked the entire 84 days @ 16 hours a day. That's nearly 34 weeks straight. Don't know about you, but I'd be mental after that.

      Strange thing the story doesn't mention is that after their 'mutiny', they were able to figure a much better schedule that ultimately led to more research than originally planned. Which was far more than they were expected or trained to do after a bunch of stuff was added at the last minute.

      Its a hell of a story.

    On the topic of something that blew my mind was the fact that after France fell in WW2 the British Navy sunk or captured Vichy French ships in various African ports so they wouldn’t fall in German hands.
    At the time, the French Navy was considered the forth most powerful in the world and included some modern battleships.
    Some French crews surrendered to the British but some refused and were sunk.

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