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The Skylab Mutiny, or how NASA learned to be (a bit) flexible

On December 28th 1973, more than 400 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, three men decided they had had enough. The crew of the American space station Skylab – Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson and William R. Pogue – switched off radio communications with NASA Mission Control for a full day. They spent that day relaxing and staring down at their home planet. The next day they switched the radio back on and went back to work. They had already been in space for six weeks; the mission would last six more.

The “Skylab Mutiny” is (so far) the only strike to take place in space. Labour hours in space were (and are) staggeringly expensive: a single day on Skylab was worth about $22.5 million in today’s money. A workforce refusing orders for an entire day was a serious event, one that would have a huge effect on spaceflight… and employment psychology.

Employee dissatisfaction IN SPACE!

The crew of the Skylab-4 mission felt they were being overworked, and it’s hard not to sympathise. Theirs was to be the longest time in space ever attempted up to that point – more than 80 days – and they got off to a rocky start. Dozens of extra mission tasks were added just before launch, with no time for extra training, and the astronauts struggled to get these new jobs done in zero gravity. Pogue was sick enough to vomit (equal parts gross and serious in zero-g) on the first day and the crew elected to keep it a secret from Mission Control, only to discover that their on-board tape recorder was running; NASA downloaded the recordings automatically and reprimanded the crew. The crew of Skylab-3 – a shorter mission, staffed by veterans (all three Skylab-4 astronauts were in space for the first time) – had been happy to work on their day off. The Skylab-4 crew wanted to rest on their day off, for which the were constantly chided by Mission Control.

By the sixth week the mission was well behind schedule. The astronauts were exhausted. Every moment of their working day – in some cases up to sixteen hours at this point – was micromanaged from the ground. “We need more time to rest,” Gerald Carr begged. “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.” NASA wasn’t sympathetic. Eventually the crew took matters into their own hands.

A space station is a pressurised environment, both literally and figuratively. The extreme conditions – lack of both personal and emotional space, constant physical discomfort, long days of draining work, the complete inability to leave, or even just duck out for a fag – requires a certain type of temperament.

In her excellent book Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach describes the changing psychological profile of your average NASA astronaut. The early missions were crewed by real men, full of the right stuff. Pep and vigour and zing and all those other 1950s words. They were almost exclusively ex-test pilots, and were used to danger, high-pressure decision-making and a huge level of personal autonomy. These attributes might be perfect for a quick jaunt to the moon and back, but were less attuned to a lengthy stay on a space station. Space station missions can be… really boring. A pre-determined schedule full of mundane tasks and experiments, hardly anything to do in your off hours other than sleep, essentially zero autonomy or choice over what you do, no privacy whatsoever: space station living sounds glamorous but the reality is a bit different.

Today’s astronauts are selected using very different criteria – they’re happy to do boring tasks as long as they know the reason why, they have high levels of emotional intelligence, good self-care and team-care skills, and are excellent communicators – but NASA learned other lessons from the Skylab mutiny. Chief among the astronauts’ complaints was their lack of autonomy. They resented every moment of their day being scheduled, especially when they also needed time to deal with personal issues. The more they fell behind, the harder they were worked, which bred serious resentment. They kept their personal issues from NASA but felt it was right to do so: when discussing covering up the early puking incident, Gibson said, “It’s just between you, me and the couch. You know damn well every manager in NASA, under his breath, would want you to do that.” They knew that honesty was expected of them but equally feared that admitting to problems would lead them to being reprimanded or ostracised.

Lessons from low Earth orbit

Any of this sound familiar? The non-stop, completely monitored working environments of space stations – Skylab, Mir and now the International Space Station – are your average workplace dialled up to 1000, and the learnings from them can be applied to a terrestrial office environment.

In the years since the Skylab Mutiny – after being overworked for six weeks, does taking a day off for the sake of your mental health really seem like a mutiny? – NASA have made a lot of changes. There’s strong evidence that mixed gender teams produce better results than single gender teams, and NASA have embraced diversity with results in mind. They create better tools to cut out boring or repetitive tasks, to give astronauts more autonomy and more interesting work to do. Astronauts are encouraged to make the most of their free time, and although their days are still heavily scheduled (there’s a lot to do, and every minute up there costs a fortune) short-term “business as usual” scheduling is an organic daily process.

It’s not exactly flexible working. You can hardly work from home when you’re a space station astronaut (or, wait, are you always working from home?) But an understanding of why flexible working is desirable – autonomy, establishing and pursuing one’s own goals, transparency, and an environment where people from different backgrounds and sectors can thrive – might have gone a long way to averting the Skylab Mutiny, and hopefully will keep astronauts satisfied and productive as they explore the Solar System… and people down on Earth satisfied, as they explore a flexible future.

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