Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Houston, We Have a Labor Dispute

It has long been rumored that a strike in outer space occurred in 1973. Astronauts say that isn’t quite true, but the real story is still a testament to the potential of strikes — or even just the threat of strikes — to shift the balance of power in the workplace.

Astronaut Ed Gibson on the Skylab 4 space mission. (NASA)

For decades, rumors have circulated about a strike in space. The story goes that in 1973, the three astronauts on the Skylab 4 mission took an unplanned day off to protest ground control’s management style, and the job action resulted in improved working conditions. It’s a great story.

According to Skylab 4 crew member Ed Gibson, that’s not exactly what happened. But his telling of events, though it differs from the tidy and entertaining “space strike” narrative, is still a tale of overwork, micromanagement, and perceived noncompliance bringing management to the table. And Gibson’s account still confirms that even a whiff of collective action can shift the balance of power in workers’ favor.

Earlier this year, the BBC broadcast an interview with Gibson, the last surviving Skylab 4 crew member, conducted by Witness History producer and presenter Lucy Burns. “We’ve only had one reporter other than you talk to us in the past forty-seven years,” Gibson told Burns. He set out to correct the record.

Gibson maintains that the crew didn’t mean to go on strike. But what did happen had a similar effect in terms of giving the astronauts leverage and intervening in a bad (extraterrestrial) workplace dynamic.

Overworked in Outer Space

Ed Gibson, Gerald Carr, and William Pogue left Earth for NASA’s Skylab space station in November 1973. The pressure was on from the beginning: theirs was to be the final flight before the station was decommissioned, and NASA had plenty of work in store for the crew. The previous Skylab crew had also been remarkably efficient, setting the bar for performance high.

The trouble started almost immediately, when Pogue got nauseous during the launch. The crew hoped that Pogue’s nausea was temporary — if not, it would pose a major obstacle to completing the work ahead — and decided not to tell ground control about it just yet. But ground control was listening to their conversations and “read the riot act to us about not telling them immediately,” Gibson recalls.

Management and workers thus got off on the wrong foot, and tensions only mounted from there. NASA had tasked the crew with carrying out a high volume of experiments studying the earth, the sun, their own bodies, and miscellany such as how spiders make webs in space. Pogue was still not feeling well, and the workload soon proved too heavy to bear.

“Net result,” Gibson told the BBC, “we fell behind what mission control desired. So they decided they were going to help us out by giving us detailed instructions every morning. We got our instructions over a teleprinter. One morning we had about sixty feet of teleprinter message to cut up and divide up and understand before we even got to work.” The instructions were overwhelming, accounting for every second of the day, and they didn’t make completing tasks any easier.

The crew began making mistakes, causing frustration all around. To make matters worse, the media was reporting on it in real time. A news report from 1973, headlined “Hectic Pace Upsets Skylab Astronaut,” observed that Pogue had made several errors. It quoted Pogue saying to the scientists on the ground that with work schedules so tight, “Someone is getting the short end of the stick, and I don’t want to be held to blame for it.”

“When we’re pressed bodily from one point of the spacecraft to another with no time for even mental preparation, let alone getting the experiment ready,” Pogue reportedly told ground control, “there’s no way we can do a professional job.”

Pogue added colorfully, “I don’t like being put in an incredible position where I’m taking somebody’s expensive equipment and thrashing about wildly with it and trying to act like a one-armed paper hanger.”

Strike by Miscommunication

Speaking to the BBC, Gibson explained the crew’s experience being micromanaged in terms that will sound familiar to plenty of workers confined to Earth.

“I don’t know if any of you have ever had to do something under conditions of micromanagement,” he said. “It’s bad enough for an hour, but try twenty-four hours a day. We’re just not constructive that way. We’re not getting things done the way we should because we couldn’t use our own judgment.”

“If you missed something,” recalled Gerald Carr before his death, “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.”

Lacking time even to shave, the Skylab 4 crew grew beards. They started to get, as Carr recalled, “testy.” The situation was unsustainable, and something had to give.

In late December, the crew got permission for a day off from ground control. It was accounted for in their contracts, but the crew asked for it at a particular time when morale was especially low. The astronauts still conducted some simple experiments throughout the day, but for the most part, “We took our day off and did what we wanted to do,” Carr said in an interview with an Air Force historian in 2000.

“We all took a shower. Bill and I did some reading and some looking out the window, doing Earth observations, photographs and things,” Carr remembered. All in all, “We had a good day.”

But “one of the things we did is we got careless with our radios,” said Carr, “and we forgot to configure for one of our passes.”

Every morning, the crew had a thirty-minute call with ground control. Already behind on their work before they woke up each day, Gibson said the crew “decided we’d be smart on this thing and just have one person listening to the ground control line and pass on needed information to the other two.”

“Well that worked real well,” Gibson told the BBC, “except in our fatigued condition up there one day we got our signals crossed and we didn’t have anybody listening to the ground.” The crew had no communication with the ground for a full orbit of the earth.

Ground control apparently thought it was intentional. “On the ground they interpreted it as a strike,” Gibson said, and “the word ‘strike’ went at light speed throughout the control room and out into the news media.” The rumor of a strike in space has stuck ever since.

Turning the Tables

The astronauts’ radio silence hadn’t been on purpose, and they hadn’t taken the day off without permission as some second-hand accounts suggest. But even just the temporary belief that they had gone on strike — and the sudden awareness that they conceivably could — seems to have helped change the dynamic between the Skylab 4 crew and ground control.

A few days later, administrators called a “crisis meeting.” The crew expressed their frustrations with NASA’s heavy-handed management style. They asked to be given a list of tasks instead of a down-to-the-minute schedule, and to be trusted to use their own judgment in deciding how to complete them.

At the end of these talks, ground control agreed to try letting them set their own schedules. As a result, the crew’s performance improved dramatically. When they returned to Earth, it turned out that their efficiency actually exceeded that of the superstar crew that came before them.

In addition to less stressful and more effective work, the Skylab 4 crew also had more time to enjoy themselves in space, including marveling at their miraculous view of the earth. “You really got to know the earth like the back of your hand,” Gibson told the BBC, “and you really appreciated it.”

Gibson believes that NASA learned a major lesson from this series of events. “Our mission proved that micromanagement does not work, except where a situation like lift-off or re-entry demands it,” he told the BBC. “Fortunately, that hard lesson got passed on for future space flights and crews.”

And the lessons from Skylab 4 aren’t confined to the space sector. The story of the accidental “strike” in space underscores the extent to which all workers who are overworked and laboring to meet impossible expectations actually have power to turn the tables, a hidden leverage.

No operation that relies on human labor can continue without the compliance of those performing the work, which is why the short-lived notion that the Skylab 4 crew had gone on strike appears to have helped precipitate discussions in which the astronauts were able to secure a better arrangement.

Strikes work, and strike threats work too — be they intentional or accidental, on Earth or in space. Sometimes bosses just need a little reminder that, in the words of an old labor anthem, “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”