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Skylab 4 Rang in the New Year with Mutiny in Orbit

Working your behind off in space isn't exactly a party.

Whatever you did on New Year's Eve, it probably wasn't as awesome as staring down at the Earth from orbit. Only a handful of people have rung in a New Year from 200 miles up, starting with the crew of Skylab 4, when Gerry Carr, Bill Pogue, and Ed Gibson started 1974 while spinning around Earth. But it wasn't the happiest of New Year's celebrations. The crew was settling into life in space fresh off a mutiny staged against their benefactors in mission control.


Skylab was the short-lived space station program that saw just three crews launch in 1973. This placeholder between the Apollo and shuttle programs was built around the Skylab, a dry laboratory assembled on Earth and launched on the last flown Saturn V. Crews followed on the smaller Saturn 1Bs.

The Skylab 2 crew (the station's launch was labeled Skylab 1) spent 28 days in orbit. Their main objective was to repair the station and install a sunshade to cool the living quarters before conducting solar astronomy, Earth resources experiments, and medical studies. The Skylab 3 crew more than doubled the previous spaceflight record, spending just under 60 days in orbit. They continued maintenance on the station and additional scientific and medical experiments.

Skylab 4 broke all duration records. 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, includingunloading and stowing thousands of items the crew would need to run their planned battery of scientific and medical experiments. They were also tasked with performing a series of observations of the Sun, Earth, and the comet Kohoutek that would be passing by. They had four planned spacewalks that would total a little under a day in length.

But the Skylab 4 crew had a harder time managing their demanding schedule than their predecessors. Perhaps because it was an all-rookie crew; Skylab 2 had been commanded by Pete Conrad and Skylab 3 by Al Bean, both Apollo 12 moonwalkers familiar with grueling flight schedules.


Long work periods and seemingly endless lists of tasks took their toll on the rookie astronauts. The crew found themselves exhausted, falling badly behind schedule. NASA was pushing them too hard, they said, and they couldn't keep working such long hours. Ground crews in mission control disagreed. They felt that the astronauts were complaining needlessly, that they should be working through their meal times and rest days to catch up. It was expensive having a crew in orbit for 84 days, and NASA intended to get all the work out of the men it could manage.

About six weeks into the flight, a few days before New Year's Eve, the Skylab 4 crew hit their breaking point. They announced an unscheduled day off, turned off the communications radio, and got some rest. They reportedly spent the day relaxing, taking in the stunning views of the Earth from orbit.

Gerald Carr inside Skylab, via Thinkquest

Finally, at the end of December, Carr had a talk with Mission Control. 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. With this kind of tension lingering in the air, the first New Year's celebration in space probably wasn't the best party of all time.