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Space Shack
May 14, 2013 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Skylab, NASA's budget space station, launched 40 years ago today. Designed as an orbiting optical laboratory, she served as a cold war weapon, underwent an historic salvage job, and was the site of America's first space mutiny before landing hard in Australia while waiting for the Space Shuttle to be invented.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (37 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Crews in orbit and on the ground eventually reached a compromise. Routine chores would be placed on a ”shopping list” and the crew could complete these items when they had time and felt up to it. Houston also agreed to leave the astronauts alone during meal times, designated rest periods, and in the evenings after dinner.

The crew got their wish of a reduced workload, which in turn improved their performance, much to NASA's pleasure. But the coup came at a price: none of the astronauts ever flew again.


On earth and in the heavens, abusive labor practices are counterproductive, and the management class is gonna try to ram it down the worker's throats anyways.

Organize: if it's good enough for astronauts in space, it's good enough for you.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:13 PM on May 14, 2013 [30 favorites]


You beat me to it, I was going to quote that exact excerpt. I'm adding that crew to my 'my most awesome astronauts that I know' list.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:18 PM on May 14, 2013


The Apollo-Soyuz co-op missions, including the Soyuz docking at Skylab, fascinated me to no end as a child. Also hail to the brave space-strikers!
posted by Mister_A at 12:20 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the history of class conflict, Astronauts have the unusual advantage of being a hundred miles and a $1 billion rocket away from the nearest scabs.


I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS. ISS astronauts these days all seem pretty happy, so maybe it wasn't necessary.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:22 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS.

If they do (and for that reason), then they learned the wrong lesson and are therefore doomed to learn it again in the future.
posted by Mooski at 12:26 PM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's long out of print but A house in space by Henry Cooper is a great chronicle of all three missions to Skylab.
posted by octothorpe at 12:27 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS.

"You all better stop fighting or I'm turning this space station around!"
posted by backseatpilot at 12:31 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also went right to the "space strike" article. Can someone hope me with my math, though?
Carr, Pogue, and Gibson launched on November 16, 1973, on a demanding 84 day mission. Their plan called for a total of 6,051 working hours between the three men.
but 84 days * 24 hours/day * 3 men = 6048 man-hours, so were the three working just a hair over 24 hours per day?
posted by jepler at 12:32 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"You all better stop fighting or I'm turning this space station around!"
posted by backseatpilot


Eponysterical.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:33 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


...was the site of America's first space mutiny

Actually that was Apollo 7. Those guys didn't fly in space again either.

I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS.

More likely, they're better at weeding out combative personalities.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Purely by coincidence, the annual Miss Universe pageant was held just days later on July 20, 1979, in Perth. Unsurprisingly, the large piece of Skylab displayed on the stage almost upstaged the competing lovelies."
Oddly, I remember watching that at my grandmother's house. I spent the summer of 1979 wanting a piece of Skylab and I was a little bummed when it fell in Australia instead of my backyard.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:37 PM on May 14, 2013


The Apollo-Soyuz co-op missions, including the Soyuz docking at Skylab, fascinated me to no end as a child.

There was only one Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission and neither spacecraft docked with the Skylab workshop.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:40 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oddly, I remember watching that at my grandmother's house.
Photo of the 1979 Miss Universe pageant.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 12:43 PM on May 14, 2013


[aussie accent]

IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA SKYLAB FELL
GO DOWN YOU BLOOD RED ROSES GO DOWN
THAT'S TWENTY BILLION SHOT TO HELL
GO DOWN YOU BLOOD RED ROSES GO DOWN
AAAAAAAAAALL YOU PINKS AND POSIES
GO DOWN YOU BLOOD RED ROSES GO DOWN

[/aussie accent]
posted by tspae at 12:44 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh, I could have sworn they docked one at Skylab. My brain is mixing up the Apollo-Soyuz mission with ISS missions and stuff.
posted by Mister_A at 12:46 PM on May 14, 2013


But the coup came at a price: none of the astronauts ever flew again.

The next opportunity for any US astronaut to fly was several years later on the shuttle, so I wonder if it was the coup or just that there really wasn't much of a chance to fly. Only half of the astronauts from Skylab 2 and 3 flew on the shuttle.
posted by bondcliff at 12:46 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS.

More likely, they're better at weeding out combative personalities.


Heh, no, they can be plenty combative.

Crew health (including mental health) is given a lot of attention and thought these days. Often, the ground is the one enforcing days off. The crew are really, really type A people.
posted by BeeDo at 12:48 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The next opportunity for any US astronaut to fly was several years later on the shuttle, so I wonder if it was the coup or just that there really wasn't much of a chance to fly.

No, it was the coup. Astronauts who want to fly or fly again do not cross NASA management.

Astronauts have a reputation as devil may care commanders, but Mission Control is just that, they tell the astronauts what to do and when. Unilaterally going against MC or hiding information just isn't done. It's a safety issue.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:50 PM on May 14, 2013


Astronauts who want to fly or fly again do not cross NASA management.

Unless it involves a corned beef sandwich.
posted by bondcliff at 12:51 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The crew are really, really type A people.

You should read Riding Rockets by former Space Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane. Great book, and recounts a lot of his experiences getting in to the astronaut corps. A lot of stuff along the lines of "look, just tell me how many of my toes you would like me to remove to get in. I'll FedEx them over in the morning."
posted by backseatpilot at 12:53 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unless it involves a corned beef sandwich.

Never have found out how John Young managed to get out of that one. I suspect he was clearly a smart guy, real hard worker and it didn't cause any problems, so they sort of let it slide after an official letter of reprimand or some such. Plus Deke Slayton had supposedly ok'd or knew of it somehow, so Deke probably put in a good word or was his angel.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:55 PM on May 14, 2013


Never have found out how John Young managed to get out of that one. I suspect he was clearly a smart guy, real hard worker and it didn't cause any problems, so they sort of let it slide after an official letter of reprimand or some such.

Plus it was pretty early in the space program. Did Alan Shepard get permission for his six iron head and golf balls?

I also think Young and Shepard might have been somewhat golden boys. Hell, Young got to fly to the moon twice.

Somewhere there must be a list of space program pranks, like Conrad and Bean's playboy playmate checklists.
posted by bondcliff at 12:59 PM on May 14, 2013


From Challenges of Space Exploration (previously):
When pilot William Pogue vomited, the astronauts should have informed Mission Control, and they should have freeze-dried the product and brought it back for post-flight analysis. But they did neither. Unbeknown to the crew, their conversation deciding to disobey orders was being recorded, and would later be heard on the ground. As Henry Cooper reports in his book on Skylab, it was the first time astronauts were ever reprimanded in public during a flight. This early incident created a tension between the crew and Mission Control which worsened as time went on, and took the ground nearly half the mission to try to set right.
After several weeks of working 16 hours a day and being annoyed by what they felt was micromanaging of their time by Mission Control, they went on strike for one day.
At the end of their sixth week aboard Skylab, the third crew went on strike. Commander Carr, science pilot Edward Gibson, and Pogue stopped working, and spent the day doing what they wanted to do. As have almost all astronauts before and after them, they took the most pleasure and relaxation from looking out the windows at the Earth, taking a lot of photographs. Gibson monitored the changing activity of the Sun, which had also been a favourite pastime of the crew.
posted by jjwiseman at 1:05 PM on May 14, 2013


It's really too bad that none of the more ambitious Apollo Applications Program projects got off the ground. A manned flyby of Venus! It could've been a catastrophe, but wow.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:07 PM on May 14, 2013


Plus it was pretty early in the space program. Did Alan Shepard get permission for his six iron head and golf balls?

Hell, Alan Shepard battled back from being grounded from flight to "jumping the line" and assigning himself commander of Apollo 13. The only blowback was NASA administrators saying "He needs more training time, put him on the next mission, not this one".

He was such a charismatic SOB, they probably insisted he take the golf clubs.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:12 PM on May 14, 2013


Some jokers painted a big "Skylab Target" bullseye in the middle of the cul-de-sac I lived on back in '79. Apparently, that was a not-uncommon thing.
posted by Cookiebastard at 1:21 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if NASA learned from that experience and has remote override ability for systems on the ISS.

No, they learned from that experience that they need to limit the workload to rational levels and provide time for the astronauts to eat, sleep, and simply relax. One of the big lessons from the last Skylab Mission was that doing so made the crew *more* productive, not less.

And, yes, none of the SL-4 crew flew in space again? Punishment? Well, Gerald Carr retired from the USMC in 1975 and NASA in 1977. William Pouge retired from the USAF in 1975, with some 7000 in the books, and retired from NASA a short time afterwards. Both had been selected in Astronaut Group 5, which was formed in 1966. Ed Gibson was part of Astronaut Group 4 from 1965.

The biggest problem they had getting another flight? The next flight after Skylab 4 was the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, and worse, one of those seats was going to an Original 7 astronaut, Deke Slayton. The flight after that?

STS-1 in 1981. The next two were also test flights. STS-4 was the first mission with real science, it flew in June of 1982. So, basically, there was a big gap in the flying schedule, and a number of astronauts retired during that gap.

Worse, because of NASA's normal rotation rules, the SL-4 and ASTP crews were at the bottom of the list for STS rotations. The only one from those two crews who flew again was Vance Brand, who flew as the commander of STS-5, STS-41B and STS-35*. The big reasons he got further flights was that he was young compared to the rest, he was very good, and after the delay, NASA was very thin on experienced astronauts, so ones that were still flying *and* still held current pilot qualifications in 1980 ended up getting commander slots in the early days of STS.

Only 1/7 from Group 1 flew STS (Glenn in 1998, but as a political stunt,) only one of nine from Group 2 did (John Young commanded STS-1 and STS-9), Group 3 flew none on STS (out of 14), Group 4 only had one of six (Garriott, also STS-9) and 8 of 19 in Group 5, including Don Lind, who was selected in 1966 and finally flew on a mission in 1985 -- 19 years waiting. (STS-51-B)

So, the biggest factor was the odds. Other One Flight guys from these groups -- (Group 1) Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton, (Group 3) William Anders, Walt Cunningham, Don Eilsie, Russell Schweickart, (Group 4) Joe Kerwin, Harrison Schmidt, (Group 5) Charlie Duke, Ron Evans, Fred Haise Jr., James Irwin, Ed Mitchell, Stuart Roost, Jack Swigert, and Al Worden. A couple of these were one-flights for cause, but most? Too many bodies, not enough seats.

And Group 5 had it easy. The nickname of group 6 was XS-11 (The Excess 11) and group 19 was "The Chumps" -- None of Group 19 has flown.


*Don't even get me started on STS flight numbering.
posted by eriko at 1:22 PM on May 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


Deke Slayton had supposedly ok'd or knew of it somehow, so Deke probably put in a good word or was his angel.

At the time, Deke Slayton was the Director of Flight Crew Operations. Between 1963 and 1972, if Deke forgave you, you flew again. This is why both John Young and Gus Grissom got new missions. If he didn't, you didn't -- see the Apollo 15 Postage Stamp Scandal.

It's also notable that Slayton wasn't the guy who would have decided to ground the SL-4 crew. He was much busier (and happier) training for ASTP.
posted by eriko at 1:30 PM on May 14, 2013


If he didn't, you didn't -- see the Apollo 15 Postage Stamp Scandal.

Oh yeah, that!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:42 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


group 19 was "The Chumps" -- None of Group 19 has flown.

Is there a numbering thing going on in the Astronaut Corp? Wikipedia says that the Chumps are group 20.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:43 PM on May 14, 2013


Is there a numbering thing going on in the Astronaut Corp?

No, just my brain.
posted by eriko at 1:45 PM on May 14, 2013


Doonesbury is relevant.

In 1973, Trudeau paused both his ongoing coverage of the Watergate scandal1 and Zonker's arrest and trial for marijuana possession2 to publish a two-week series on Skylab3, satirizing the cost of the project4 and other subjects, including (if my reading is correct) public and media fatigue at repeated space missions, the fragility of human life and circumstances in the vacuum of space, and the fact that American astronauts of that era - being uniformly white men, "raised" from the military, and in peak physical condition - tended to be interchangeable in the public consciousness.

On the whole, however, this is not one of my favorite storylines. Trudeau's brand of satire is best applied to divisive political and sociological issues, and beyond the obvious question of whether the goals of the Skylab missions justified their incredible cost there just does not seem to have been much controversy surrounding them.

---
  1. Storyline: Pat Nixon's Senate Testimony (self-link)
  2. Storyline: Zonker's Marijuana Arrest/Trial (self-link)
  3. Storyline: Skylab Mission (self-link)
  4. See Strip: 23 July 1973 for a somewhat more biting satire.

posted by The Confessor at 2:34 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Heartily second the recommendation for Riding Rockets. Before I read that, I was all "Why they retire Mr Shuttle now the big problems are fixed?"; after, more "They kept lighting the fuse? Goddam". And that's before the insights into the NASA astronaut corps culture - if you like your space, then I guarantee you'll read the book in one sitting or your money back.

It makes the ISS seem even more impressive, if just because they built the thing and it doesn't seem to be trying to kill its occupants. Mir, about which I know much less, seems more proof of some sort of space-going god which took pity on the justly terrified. That thing looked more like an orbiting collection of parts from my favourite surplus store than your actual space-age engineering - although it did have a certain retro charm.
posted by Devonian at 2:36 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Wired article where the talk about the complications of docking Skylab with a Soyuz capsule is fascinating. The stuff about settling on a docking part was expected, but it never occurred to me that they would run into issues thanks to the differing PSI and oxygen levels of the air used in each.
posted by modernnomad at 3:36 PM on May 14, 2013


And, yes, none of the SL-4 crew flew in space again? Punishment?

Well, the fact that any of them left the service or even the military can be attributed to their realization they would never get another spaceflight. It's actually been a common experience among astronauts. Some of the Shuttle-Mir crews took the assignments because, for various reasons, it was considered a bit of a step down from flying Shuttle, a political sop, or just a Not Invented Here thing -- and they feared never getting any other chance. I think the 1960s/1970s were a period of very high standards with test pilot personalities and NASA may have been "right" in a broad sense to rein them in, so to speak, with an opaque selection process that often seemed arbitrary to the astronauts affected; despite deliberate attempts to adapt to a Shuttle-oriented crew philosophy, with a lot of non-pilot personalities both military and civilian, not to mention people who weren't even technically in the Astronaut Corps (Payload Specialists often weren't), but George Abbey was FCOD for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and the astronauts' experience could be that some bad publicity (e.g. one guy whose raucous parties eventually received police attention) could be all you needed to ditch your chances, even if in other ways you were professionally exemplary.

This is discussed in depth in Burroughs' Dragonfly.

So I don't entirely discount the "punishment" interpretation. It's certainly not something they alone felt. What was most frustrating was that they rarely got a clear "you're fired" signal; they just stopped getting assignments and the work they were sent to do appeared to decline in value.
posted by dhartung at 4:52 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love how NASA's modus operandi seems to be "Let's do the absolute worst most inhumane thing we can think of - because..
[we're saving money!!]
[I said so, that's why!]
[otherwise we'll look BAD!!]
[I've never been in space and I'm a middle manager type who doesn't get it]
[all of the above]"
Then A Nation Mourns and then they realize not to do that particular thing anymore.

It seems like most of the NASA disasters and problems I can think of, I guess except for Apollo 13, were allowed to happened because of cultural issues. I could be totally wrong but this is what I've surmised when I get obsessed with reading about NASA disasters on Wikipedia once or twice a year.
posted by bleep at 8:09 PM on May 14, 2013


For a fascinating read on what life was like for the crews of Skylab, I recommend Homesteading Space : The Skylab Story by David Hitt, Owen Garriott (second crew) and Joe Kerwin (first crew). Lots of interesting minutia and details of activities and experiments.

A great bonus is the appendix containing Alan Bean's in-flight diary, complete with descriptions of dealing with all sorts of bodily discharges.

It doesn't say if the Playboy cuff checklists prank on Apollo 12 was an inspiration, but Bean writes that "Owen called me up to the ATM and then took my picture with this Polaroid, out came a picture of a naked gal with big boobs. He took some others, turns out they were put there by Paul Patterson prior to launch."
posted by 1367 at 9:23 PM on May 14, 2013


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