Skylab, NASA’s first space station: the “mutiny” of its astronauts and how the laboratory ended up destroyed

NASA launched its first space station on May 14, 1973: its name was Skylab and it was the second in history, behind the Soviet Salyut 1.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of experiments were performed on it, receiving nine astronauts during the nine months following its launch. But his life was eventful and his disappearance, traumatic.

Designed by Raymond Loewy, Skylab orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979. It was 35 meters long and weighed 90-6 tons.

The Skylab 1 mission, that of its takeoff, was not manned. On his second mission received its first crew: Pete Conrad, Joseph Kerwin and Paul Weitz, on May 25, 1973. They returned to Earth on June 22 of that year.

Alan Bean, Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma made up the third mission, sent on July 28 and returned on September 25.

The last mission, Skylab 4, It was the most emblematic of all, and not for a fact that generated pride neither among NASA nor among astronauts. What was it that happened?

The trauma of the Skylab 4 mission

Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson and William Pogue were the three members of Skylab 4. They arrived at the space laboratory on November 16, 1973, and left on February 8, 1974, staying 84 days, longer than previous astronauts.

The problems started for Skylab 4 when Pogue got sick to his stomach. To “get better”, Carr’s recommendation was that he eat a can of tomatoes: this made Pogue worse.

“I hear some strange noises coming from Bill and a vomit bag floating from right to left”, Gibson said, as he recalled in conversation with the BBC. “We were bummed out because we knew we had a lot of work to do and that’s when we made our first mistake.”

The astronauts did not inform the Control Center in Houston about their companion’s illness.

“We wanted to get organized before the big fuss started on Earth, so we decided to delay letting them know that Bill was sick.”

However, from Houston everything was heard, and the legendary Alan Shepard, the first American in space and head of the Astronaut Office, scolded them.

Obviously the crew took it badly, which created a tension between the astronauts in Skylab and the Control Center.

“We really didn’t get a good working relationship,” Gibson told the BBC.

From the Control Center, in order for the astronauts to carry out their work, they were constantly pressured. Here comes a key word: micromanagement. In Houston they managed the crew down to the smallest detail, something that exasperated them.

Pogue was still sick, and the morale of astronauts in space…was rock bottom.

There they made their second mistake: rotating to tune in for the morning briefing. The normal thing was that the three were pending, since communications at that time were reduced to ten minutes, as Skylab passed over the ground control stations.

There was a neglect that caused them to be out of communication for 90 minutes. From Houston, the thought was that the astronauts had mutinied.

A mutiny in space. Something hard to believe.

“On Earth they interpreted it as a strike,” Gibson said. “But it was not intentional, it was our mistake. The media created this myth that has been floating around ever since and we’ve just had to live with it.”

“What were we going to do? Threaten to live on the Moon?” jokes the astronaut.

NASA would say years later that there was a mix-up, but the damage was done.

After a tense meeting in which everything was said to each other’s faces (thousands of kilometers away), things were ordered. His productivity was total, returning to Earth on February 8, 1974.

Skylab disintegrates, for what reason?

But something else happened. There was no fifth mission, which was interpreted as the result of NASA’s discomfort with the incident. And, to top it off, Skylab had suffered significant damage at the time of its launch into orbit.

The portal A brief history notes that the meteoroid shield dislodged 63 seconds after liftoff, ripping out one of the station’s two solar panels and jamming the other.

Although it was repaired, there were other situations that prevented its improvement. Skylab’s orbit was declining, and it was expected to fall to Earth before 1980.

On July 11, 1979, the lab disintegrated over the indian ocean, leaving metal fragments along 6 thousand kilometers, from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia.

Back on Earth, the last three astronauts, Carr, Gibson, and Pogue, were said to have sabotaged Skylab. Something totally false, since they all remained working with NASA in different situations.

Pogue died in 2014 and Carr in 2020. Gibson remains alive, aged 85.

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