Dial “M” For Mutiny: The Greatest Spaceflight Controversy That Didn’t Happen
(Author’s note: This piece is an extended version of a 2016 blog, which is available via the National Space Society’s website. It is partly based on a talk I gave at Spacefest in 2019. Enjoy.)
Allow me to introduce you all to the Greatest Spaceflight Controversy of All Time, one that will have you hanging on the edges of your seats, leave you with jaws dropping to the ground, and cause you to waste precious data by clicking on dozens of clickbait articles with titles such as, “You Won’t Believe What These Three Crazy Astronauts Did In 1973.” Meet the defendants, Skylab 4 mission commander Gerald Carr, pilot William Pogue, and science pilot Dr. Edward Gibson, who are accused of high bitchcraft. They, for one glorious day, hoisted pirate flags, told (or, rather, didn’t tell) The Man where to shove it, and raged against the machine…all in Low Earth Orbit.
Let me set the scene: the day was December 28th, 1973, just days after the crew surveyed Comet Kohoutek dancing high above the Earth’s atmosphere. According to a Los Angeles Times article from 2015, “As Erik Loomis retells the story, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue were in the midst of what would become a record 84-day mission, the last before the spacecraft was to be decommissioned, when they rebelled against NASA’s remorseless work schedule.” It bears mentioning that the article makes it clear that this was an all-rookie crew, none having previously flown in space.
The article continued: “Almost instantly the crew fell behind schedule, and with no give in the workload, couldn’t catch up. After a month, Gibson was grousing that the mission resembled ‘a 33-day fire drill.’ Carr informed ground control, ‘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.’”
Then, as tensions reaches their apex, the crew finally rebelled, and made their move: “Houston’s response was chilly: The crew had to meet its schedule. On December 28, the crew staged its strike. (In some accounts, it’s called a “mutiny,” which is surely too harsh.) Carr turned off the radio link with the ground and crew members spent a full day relaxing, taking things at their own pace and pursuing projects of their own.”
The Smithsonian website picks up where the L.A. Times article left off: “After that day of silence, they reached a compromise with the ground crew…A reduced workload and the freedom to complete tasks on their own schedule was what they got, while NASA got the reward of watching the final Skylab mission finish on schedule.” But the piece is quick to point out that while the “mutiny” ended, and the crew ultimately got up off their lazy behinds and finished their mission, Carr, Pogue, and Gibson would be severely punished. In fact, the article’s headline reads in super-bold print: “Mutiny in Space: Why These Skylab Astronauts Never Flew Again,” complete with a giant photo of the space-suited crew underneath as if to say, “It was these miscreants who did this.”
Even Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, confirmed as late as mid-2019 that some kind of kerfuffle erupted between the Skylab 4 crew and ground controllers on December 28, 1973: “NASA had continued with a workload similar to that on the shorter Skylab 3, and the crew gradually fell behind on their workload. According to some, after six weeks the crew announced a “strike” and turned off all communication with ground control for December 28, 1973.[unreliable source?] To date, no evidence of this announcement has been located in mission transcripts or audio recordings of the flight. The three men are alleged to have stopped work; Gibson spent the day on Skylab’s solar console, and Carr and Pogue spent the time in the wardroom looking out of the window.[unreliable source?]”
If one Googles “Skylab strike,” in fact, 536,000 search terms show up. So it seems reasonable to think that there is something to this story…right?
All of these things cited make for a persuasive case that the Skylab 4 crew was up to no good in late 1973, and acted out of laziness and/or spite. However, there is plenty of evidence that reveals the crew did nothing untoward or out-of-sorts during their mission. I will discuss how Skylab 4’s story has often been reported with facts and, often, the crew’s own words and actions taken out of context, how several antecedents contributed to the crew’s understandable difficulties during the first leg of their mission, and why this 48-year-old mission — warts and all — still deserves the space community’s attention.
Skylab 4 Workflow Issues, and Incident Enabling Factors
What are some contributors towards the actual workflow issues that dogged the Skylab 4 crew in the first weeks of their mission? Laid out logically and without sensationalism, they make a lot of sense, and it’s easy to see why the crew had some frustrations. In psychology, there is a term called “Accident Enabling Factors” — one can replace “Accident” with a number of different words, such as “Situation” or “Incident.” At any rate, the term describes events that allowed an incident or situation to take place. Let’s explore some Situation Enabling Factors that caused workflow issues during Skylab 4.
Time period: First, this was the last human-helmed, science-intensive spaceflight mission for quite some time, and NASA knew it. To make way for the next upcoming NASA program, the Space Transportation System (better known as the Space Shuttle), a second Skylab space station, Skylab B, had been canceled, along with a fourth Skylab mission. 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, while possessing a few science experiments, was mainly an exercise in U.S.-Soviet détente in space. So Carr, Pogue, and Gibson were it — long-duration space station missions wouldn’t arrive on NASA’s agenda until well over 20 years in the future, during the Shuttle-Mir program. This Situation Enabling Factor caused Skylab 4 to be loaded and ultimately overwhelmed with experiments.
Space Shuttle development, and how it was being “advertised”: Second, the Space Shuttle — even though it did not yet exist physically — created problems for the Skylab 4 crew. By 1973, the Space Shuttle was being sold to Congress and to the public as being a low-cost, low-impact game changer in how astronauts and space travelers would be ferried to space. During the 1970s, we were being told that the Shuttle not only would be able to carry a variety of payloads and sections of space stations cheaply into Low Earth Orbit, but “regular people” — non-pilot space travelers — would be able to hitch a ride aboard the winged vehicle, which would make space travel as “routine” as commercial airline flights. Bear in mind that some factors, now known to not be uncommon in spaceflight physiology, were not as well understood then as they are now, including space sickness.
By 1973, humankind had 12 short years of spaceflight experience. During that period, it was mysterious as to why some astronauts and cosmonauts — many who had extensive experience flying high performance jets — became ill in space. One famous, visible example of an astronaut who unfortunately suffered debilitating space sickness during a flight is Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart. It was also mysterious as to why some space fliers became sick upon returning from space. A famous example of this is Skylab 2’s Dr. Joe Kerwin, who, despite being a medical doctor, was thoroughly miserable upon returning from orbit in June 1973.
By November 1973, the Skylab 4 crew was being told by various NASA doctors prior to their flight, “You will not get sick in space.” It was a legitimate worry among NASA brass that some kind of illness during their mission would, perhaps, endanger the Space Shuttle program, which was meant to ferry regular people — just like you and me — to and from Low Earth Orbit. Therefore, the crew was loaded up with scopolamine, a motion-sickness drug, right before their flight. This, in retrospect, wasn’t the best idea, and one crew member reported that he felt like he’d had “a couple of glasses of Scotch” due to the medication. This is how Carr, Pogue, and Gibson felt when they launched into space on November 16th, 1973.
The previous crew: Thirdly, Skylab 3 created some problems for Skylab 4. Now, how did sweet Alan Bean, wonderful Jack Lousma, and awesomely mustachioed Dr. Owen Garriott do this? The second Skylab crew gained the moniker “The Supercrew” because they completed 150% of their mission goals by the end of their 59 days in orbit. It bears mentioning that Skylab 3 got off to a slow start, due to — you guessed it — space sickness at the beginning of their time in space. So, Skylab 4’s mission planners, viewing that 150% with excitement, set up the crew’s work schedule to resemble Skylab 3’s at the end of their mission.
A Sickbag, and Alleged Scurrilousness
Guess which crew member got sick shortly after reaching Low Earth Orbit. Was it Gibson, the scientist? You would think it was him. However, it was Pogue, who’d flown with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, America’s “Ambassadors in Blue.” This speaks to the unpredictable nature of space sickness. This would mark the first of two admitted mistakes the crew would make during their mission. Remember, the crew had been told they would NOT get sick in space. The crew decided — pretty understandably — that they would bag up Pogue’s vomit, and not speak of this incident to the ground. However, there was one small problem. All of this was caught on the Channel B voice channel. The ground controllers would discover the crew’s deception after the voice channel was dumped back to Earth.
Shortly thereafter, the crew was confronted about the vomiting incident by Alan Shepard, moonwalker, first U.S. man in space, and then-head of the Astronaut Office. When confronted, commander Carr admitted, “Okay, you guys got us, we hid that, we are sorry, and it won’t happen again.” Because of the crew’s issues with adapting to space, they began to lag behind in their intense work schedule. Remember, Skylab 3’s Bean, Lousma, and Garriott had the same problems with nausea and getting behind in their schedule at the beginning of their highly successful mission.
Fast-forward to six weeks into the mission, and the intensity of the crew’s work schedule had affected them greatly. Carr stated in the book Homesteading Space, “The schedule caught up with us. We found that we had allowed ourselves to be scheduled on a daily schedule that was extremely dense. If you missed something, if you made a mistake and had to go back and do it again, or if you were slow in doing something, you’d end up racing the clock and making more mistakes, screwing up more on an experiment and in general just digging a deeper hole for yourself…We finally reached a point where we just had to take a day off.” Skylab 4’s Day Off happened in agreement with the ground on…January 10, 1974, several days after the December 28th date often identified in popular accounts of the “strike.”
Carr’s onboard diaries, the crew’s personal recollections, and mission transcripts all show that this day, the crew took a true day off, which Carr called “the kind of day off I have been harping for.” If you look at all of these sources, the crew seems downright chipper and efficient. I’m not sure myself where the December 28 date came from, since the transcripts show nothing remarkable or scandalous that day.
There was no strike; the crew still did some simple experiments, with Gibson even working at the Apollo Telescope Mount panel. But the crew’s second mistake contributed to the myth that a “strike” of sorts had occurred on Skylab. According to Gibson: “In an effort to increase our efficiency, we occasionally would have only one of us listening to the voice traffic from the ground and responding to it while the other two of us turned off our radios and worked without interruption. We each signed up for an orbit as the radio-response guy. Well one day we made a mistake and for a whole orbit we all had our radios off!” This further contributed to the mistaken belief that the astronauts had gotten “crabby,” and had refused to speak to ground controllers.
Gibson may have inadvertently muddied the waters when claiming that the crew accidentally switched off their radios for one orbit. Historians Jim Scarborough and Lois Huneycutt both have studied the Skylab 4 transcripts from this period, and found no evidence that the crew did anything out of turn during this time, including switching off their radios, and not communicating with the ground. This suggests later claims that the crew had stopped speaking with the ground — which will be discussed further in this piece — were fabricated.
Even after their day off, things did not improve; the crew eventually had what Carr described as a “séance” with ground controllers. Over a U.S. pass, the crew communicated their concerns; during the next U.S. pass, the ground controllers communicated theirs. According to Carr, “The next morning they sent down a teletype message in which they recommended quite a few things.” The crew’s schedule was rearranged, with housekeeping chores put on what was described as a “shopping list,” and no major experiments would be scheduled following dinner. Carr related that this new way of working went “beautifully.”
A National Geographic article on Skylab missions, published in October 1974 months after the end of the Skylab 4 mission, further confirms that no mutiny occurred. Skylab Program Director William Schneider is quoted as saying, “The basic problem belongs to us here.” The article continues: “Crew and ground have a heart-to-heart discussion, and the air clears. ‘A guy needs some quiet time to just unwind if we’re going to keep him healthy and alert up here,’ Carr tells the ground. ‘There are two tonics for our morale — having time to look out the window, and the attitude you guys take and your cheery words.’”
Skylab 4 went on to be a resounding success despite its challenging start, bringing back tons of biomedical data, results from various experiments, Earth observations, and a new perspective on solar physics as powerful flares were able to be observed on-orbit. The crew logged a then-unprecedented 84 days in space, becoming long-duration spaceflight champions. In addition, they surpassed the percentage of mission goals completed by Skylab 3 by the time they arrived home on February 8th, 1974.
However, the “controversy” was just beginning. During the mid-1970s, books and studies started being published that contributed to the belief that some sort of insurrection occurred during this mission, even though it had been declared a runaway success.
What Happened After Skylab 4 Returned, Mid-1970s — Present
It started with a well-intentioned article written by Molly Ivins that appeared in the New York Times on June 30th, 1974, called “Ed Who?” I was directed to this piece by Scarborough, who has also done a lot of work debunking the Skylab mutiny myth. This piece discussed, with some humor, how an astronaut such as Ed Gibson remained relatively anonymous, while “heroes” of the previous decade, such as John Glenn, were still household names. It features interviews with both Gibson and Carr, and briefly references the workflow situation during the earlier part of the mission. But what’s particularly notable is how this article characterizes Gibson in both manner and appearance.
Ivins wrote, “Ed Gibson, 37, is no freak, even by astronaut time. He’s a scientist‐astronaut, a PhD specialist in the field of solar physics. He is a handsome, slender man who looks as though he should be playing the role of the sympathetic young doctor in some soap opera. ‘He’s just dreamy,’ said a red‐haired secretary at the space center. ‘I’d run away with him, if he’d let me.’ Another secretary found other virtues in Gibson. ‘He’s kind‐hearted, gentle and a very particular, neat man,’ she said. ‘And no profanity. I just came over here from Building Two [administration] a few months ago and in Building Two every other word is profanity.’” (I am not sure myself what was going on in Building Two in 1974.)
As I mentioned before, this article was a positive profile, and continued, “Gibson, this combination heartthrob and paragon, is a gentle‐spoken man, reflective and low-keyed. He seemed to enjoy questions that let him try to put his remarkable experience into some perspective, commenting approvingly when he was asked something new, something he had to think about.” The only bad things written about Gibson in “Ed Who?” involve how he was apparently a “pure devil” during his childhood, and “that he once polished off all the communion wine in the vestry.” But during the same time period, Ivins’ observations — that Gibson was neat, particular, and attractive — would be taken wildly out of context for what would become the first mass-market book about the Skylab program.
A House In Space was written by Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., and published in 1976. Looking back at the book critically, it is problematic, and it’s unfortunate that it was the first Skylab book out of the gate shortly after the last mission. This book is the first documented and main contributor to the decades-long myth that some sort of nastiness occurred during Skylab 4. Remember the Molly Ivins article I discussed that painted Gibson as neat, particular, and attractive, right? Here is how Cooper remixed this characterization of poor Ed Gibson, who rather innocently yearned for more color in his flight wardrobe:
“I just get tired of this darn brown!” said Edward G. Gibson, the science pilot, who was thirty-eight years old, and who, since becoming an astronaut in 1965, had gained a reputation as a natty dresser.
(For accuracy’s sake, Gibson somehow gained a year in age thanks to Cooper; he was really 37 when he flew in space.)
Cooper also took the Channel B transcripts, copied and pasted them with little to no regard for context, and presented them as evidence that the Skylab 4 crew had been extremely difficult. Gibson perhaps received the worst treatment, and comes across to those unfamiliar with the mission and Skylab history as a handsome, but spoiled prima donna. On page 11 — barely into the book — Cooper eviscerates Gibson, and in turn the rest of his crew:
“Gibson, a slight astronaut with sharp features who was a civilian and a physicist, and who had a square jaw that apparently never stopped moving the whole time he was in space, was perhaps the contrariest, bitchingest astronaut that ever departed vertically from Cape Kennedy, and his two crewmates were in the same category.”
Cooper completely misses the point that every Skylab crew member made suggestions, or what might be characterized as “complaints.” For example, during the second mission, even sweet, apple-pie-cheeked Jack Lousma took issue with a piece of hardware. According to Michael Collins’ 1988 book Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space, “[Lousma] thought the wardroom table featured ‘the most miserable latch that’s ever been designed in the history of mankind or before.’” Even Collins conceded, “Cheerful as they were, the second crew did find things to grouse about.” Keep in mind Skylab was the last science-intensive, human-helmed program before Shuttle, and mission planners needed to know what worked in space, and what didn’t, so they could improve future flights.
But back to A House In Space. Cooper also reduces Skylab’s nine astronauts to two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and doesn’t portray them as actual human people. Pete Conrad is described as “a bald man with a gap between his front teeth.” Paul Weitz is described as “a muscular astronaut with a perpetual grin,” while Dr. Joe Kerwin is characterized as “reserved and thoughtful.” Kerwin is very talkative in real life; Weitz was far quieter. Dr. Owen Garriott perhaps gets the worst treatment (other than, well, Gibson), and is reduced to being “a slight man with a precise, neatly trimmed mustache.” Literally the only thing the reader gathers about Garriott is that he has a mustache.
Another telling fact about the book is that no sources are listed at its end, so the reader has no idea how Cooper did his “research.” I did ask one Skylab astronaut if he knew if any of the program’s astronauts had been consulted for the book, and he confirmed none of them had. All Cooper had to do was call Johnson Space Center, ask for permission to speak with any of the nine Skylab astronauts, and he would’ve gotten a richer, far more accurate story. A Skylab family member also intimated to me that when his family moved house at one point, that book was thankfully dumped from their library.
Fast-forward to November 1981. By this point, Skylab was no more, having reentered over the Indian Ocean and western Australia in July 1979. But the “strike” story was still alive and well, and published in an oft-circulated Harvard Business School study. Its end reads, “When complaints and blistering language failed to get their message across, the astronauts turned off the radio and would not talk to ground control Houston.” This study is the originator of the myth that the astronauts purposely stopped speaking to ground controllers. Guess what was used as a primary source for this study? You guessed it: Cooper’s A House In Space.
The Tide Turns, and a Myth is Deconstructed
As one can see, this myth propagated itself over the years and decades. However, some authors and filmmakers made an effort to get the Skylab 4 story right. Homesteading Space was written by David Hitt, Dr. Owen Garriott, and Dr. Joe Kerwin, and was published in 2008 as part of the University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey series. The Skylab 4 crew had a lot of input into their chapter, and clarified what really happened on and around December 28, 1973. Space historian David Shayler has also authored several Skylab books, including a biography of mission commander Jerry Carr. These, too, went a long way in debunking the long-held myth. Recently, Scarborough undertook a project to extensively revise the Skylab 4 Wikipedia page to reflect actual events.
The movie Searching For Skylab was released in 2019, and was directed by Dwight Steven-Boniecki. One of the film’s big revelations uncovers, probably for the first time in over 45 years, how Deke Slayton was happy and pleased with the crew’s performance. The crew felt that during a press conference around January 1974 they were “portrayed as a bunch of screw ups,” and were understandably not happy with that. Carr’s concerned wife, JoAnn, contacted Slayton, who in turn informed the crew that they were doing just fine. Slayton would not have offered praise if he had intuited the crew had pulled a diva act; he was not the type of leader to offer false platitudes.
But it’s clear what this story needed was a journalist known for chasing hard-hitting stories (and chickens), and bucking the system. I became interested in this myth around 2013. At several Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and Kennedy Space Center events, I was able to meet and interact a bit with the Skylab 4 crew. They seemed…chronically normal. I had a tough time believing that two military guys — Carr and Pogue — would rage against the machine and drag Gibson into it, since the military power structure does not encourage that. This piqued my interest, and made me want to look a little further into the myth. In 2016, I wrote a well-received story about how a mutiny didn’t occur on Skylab, which is still live on the National Space Society’s website. It has been one of my most cited and popular stories, which makes me very proud.
Why, you may ask, is this story still relevant to me after 45-plus years, especially during a time when the Apollo lunar missions are being celebrated everywhere? The screenshot below pretty much sums it up for me. The Skylab 4 crew was comprised of real human beings, and it’s fraudulent to compress their careers and lives into one often misreported period. When I saw this, I was livid:
I thought we could all do better. I also couldn’t shake the words of Ed Gibson, who once said to me, “When my grandkids Google my name, this is what they see.”
At this point, you might say, “But they didn’t fly in space again! That surely proves they were up to no good.” Carr, Pogue, and Gibson didn’t fly again for the same reasons many of their Apollo-era colleagues didn’t fly again. On March 25th, 1979, Space Shuttle Columbia was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in less-than-pristine condition; the Space Transportation System still required a lot of work verifying its engines, its thermal tiles, and various other systems for spaceflight. Columbia wouldn’t get off the ground until April 1981. By that point, many Apollo astronauts had very understandably moved on to other interests, as they knew they’d be waiting quite some time for a chance at another flight.
This case is also relevant because as people who consume content, we need to think critically about what we are reading. We need to ask ourselves, what might be this story’s provenance? Am I missing something? Does this warrant any digging? Did the person writing this make any attempt to speak to people who were actually there? As you can see, a little digging into oral histories, periodicals, mission transcripts, films, and books easily debunks this myth.
But yet it’s still out there on the Internet, and it still surfaces more often than I’d like.