Opinion: Axiom Space’s First Mission Recalls Skylab Workflow Issues from Nearly 50 Years Ago

Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission retells a story first told in 1974.

According to a SpaceNews article by Jeff Foust published on May 13, Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission, the first spaceflight of non-NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), was beset by what its astronauts characterized as “an aggressive timeline.” Foust wrote:

At a May 13 news conference, the four people who flew on Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission to the station said that while they had a good trip to the station, they overestimated how much work they could get done after their arrival at the ISS April 9 for what was originally scheduled to be an eight-day stay.

“Our timeline was very aggressive, especially early in the mission,” said Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut and current Axiom employee who commanded Ax-1. “The pace was frenetic in the beginning.”

“With the value of hindsight, we were way too aggressive on our schedule, in particular the first couple days,” said Larry Connor, one of the three customers who accompanied López-Alegría on Ax-1. He gave an example of one experiment that was scheduled to take two and a half hours to complete based on preflight training but ended up taking five hours.

While the Ax-1 crew’s activities were reported to pose no safety issues to NASA’s Crew-3, which was completing its long-duration ISS expedition, the article stated that Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, commented:

“There were some real-time dynamics related to the flight crew timelines with the addition of these four Axiom personnel, who did have their own flight objectives…In essence, the arrival of the Axiom personnel seemed to have a larger-than-expected impact on the daily workload on the professional International Space Station crew…there was also some opportunity cost in the form of overly stressing the workload of the onboard ISS members and the mission controllers who support them on the ground,” Helms said. She recommended that future private astronaut missions be managed in “normalized processes” that fully integrate them into overall ISS activities.

These workflow issues hearken back to the problems reported during Skylab 4’s 1973–1974 84-day-long mission aboard America’s first space station, Skylab. The Skylab 4 mission was planned to be the last outing to Skylab, and this crew’s activities were scheduled similarly to the final busy days of the previous mission, Skylab 3. According to the book Homesteading Space, NASA flight director Neil Hutchinson related in an oral history interview that everyone wanted to get as much as possible out of this last hurrah: “The train was leaving the station, and all kinds of experiments and experimenters were running for a seat.” In short, the crew was over-scheduled before they even left the launch pad on November 16, 1973. Other situation-enabling factors, including the transitional period U.S. spaceflight was experiencing during the early to mid-1970s, also contributed to the workflow issues the Skylab 4 crew suffered.

Before long, the crew became aware of the problem. In Homesteading Space, mission commander Gerald P. Carr stated, “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.” Thus, the crew was on a “very tight” (Carr’s words) schedule, and understandably they began making mistakes. Carr added, “We finally reached a point where we just had to take a day off.” In early January 1974, the crew took this day off in agreement with the ground.

However, 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; the ground controllers communicated theirs during the next U.S. pass. 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 significant experiments would be scheduled following dinner. Carr related that this new way of working went “beautifully.”

Skylab 4 went on to have the most efficient, successful Skylab mission of all three crews, thanks to the new workflow system worked out collaboratively between the crew and the ground. However, this didn’t prevent them from being saddled with tales of going on “strike” or, worse, staging a “mutiny” in low Earth orbit. The crew has only been exonerated of their perceived “wrongdoings” within the last decade and was frequent target practice for publications encompassing the L.A. Times, The New York Times, and Smithsonian Magazine.

While it’s good to have plenty of tasks at work, these preliminary reports from Ax-1 — and the Skylab 4 case study — underscore how tasks undertaken during training can be a completely different beast once they’re being done “for real.” Moreover, it’s only being discovered how commercial, non-NASA missions to the ISS will affect NASA missions aboard the world’s scientific outpost in low Earth orbit. These are genuine labor issues that will need to be considered as private human spaceflight continues to shift from the planning stages to reality. Homesteading Space author David Hitt also pointed out on Twitter, “The biggest difference between Ax-1 and SL-4 was that rather than the crew being pressured into an aggressive schedule like on Skylab, this time the crew members were the driver.”

Let’s just hope Ax-1 doesn’t become known decades from now as “the ISS mutiny.”

Thanks to Francis French for aiding me with this article.

Portions of this article were derived from these articles, also written by me:

Carney, E. (2021, November 19). Dial “M” for mutiny: The greatest spaceflight controversy that didn’t happen. Medium. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://medium.com/the-making-of-an-ex-nuke/dial-m-for-mutiny-the-greatest-spaceflight-controversy-that-didnt-happen-f8d879cee7cc

Carney, E. (2019, January 31). Space myths busted: No, there wasn’t a “mutiny” on Skylab — National Space Society. National Space Society — Working to Create a Spacefaring Civilization. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://space.nss.org/space-myths-busted-no-there-wasnt-a-mutiny-on-skylab/


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Emily Carney

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.