From the deadly 1886 strike in Chicago for an eight-hour work day to the unions that pushed through the Fair Labor Standards Act that gave us weekends, organized labor movements have played a defining role in US history. Much of the efficacy of these organized labor movements stemmed from union strikes that could cripple entire industries until better working conditions were met, a tactic which has been successfully employed all over the planet—and off of it.
On December 28, 1973, the three crew members of the fourth and final NASA Skylab mission went on strike for 24 hours. The so-called 'Skylab Mutiny' began when one of the crew members killed all communication with NASA's ground control and the men spent the rest of the day relaxing and looking out the window at Earth. According to the official NASA history, the crew members felt as though they were being overworked during their twelve-week stay on the Skylab—the longest continuous duration in orbit ever up to that point.
The rookie crew was working 16 hour days on a number of experiments, and due to their inexperience in space may have underestimated the amount of work they were expected to accomplish during their time in orbit. After the first month had passed, the mission commander Gerald Carr expressed some initial concerns about the working conditions to ground control.
"We would never work 16 hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground," said Carr. "And we should not be expected to do it here in space."
The unrealistic work expectations NASA had for the Skylab 4 crew may have been the result of the Skylab 3 mission, which saw the veteran astronauts finish all of their work well ahead of schedule and ask for more. This prompted NASA to up the workload for the next mission, and the astronauts' day-to-day workload was scheduled down to the minute by flight planners at ground control in order to maximize the amount of data gathered in orbit.
But after nearly two months of this grueling schedule, the Skylab crew had run out of patience.
"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," Carr said in a six-minute long recorded message to ground control before the strike. "If you guys think that's unreasonable, I'd like some straight words on that."
After an hour long discussion, mission control agreed to give the astronauts an hour of free time at the end of each day, but reserved the right to interrupt this free time for opportunistic science experiments as needed. Although mission control also hinted that it wanted to continue to squeeze as much work from the crew as possible ("we naturally would like to continue to get more science per invested hour as we go along"), the Skylab crew and NASA's ground control resolved their problems without issue and were able to successfully complete the remaining five weeks of the mission.
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Today, the Skylab 4 mission serves as an important reminder about the need to consider the mental health of astronauts when planning long duration missions. This is part of the reason why NASA spends so much time, money and energy on space analog missions. During these missions, would-be astronauts spend months at a time cooped up in places like the Concordia station in Antarctica or the HI-SEAS dome on the side of a Hawaiian volcano to study human psychology under these uniquely stressful conditions.
It appears that the Skylab strike also informed NASA's work policy for the International Space Station, where astronauts get the weekends off (except for some chores) and flight planners are sure to include some down time for the astronauts each day. And for that, the astronauts have their intrepid comrades on the Skylab 4 mission to thank.