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Within the space history community, it is commonly known [citation needed] that the rookie Skylab 4 crew was over-aggressively scheduled by ground control. As they fell further & further behind the 24-hour schedule, the relationship between the crew & ground control deteriorated, culminating in the crew switching the radio off for a day and relaxing without communication to the ground before renegotiating their schedule--the mutiny of Skylab 4.

This new (as of June 2020) astronomy.com article purports that the well-known Skylab 4 mutiny was actually just a single orbit's worth of being accidentally out-of-contact, rather than the deliberate full day that I (and I'm sure many others) know of.

But even if the story is mostly false, the Skylab 4 mutiny story would have us believe that NASA grounded the Skylab 4 astronauts as a result of the mutiny, despite the negotiated compromises between the mutinous astronauts & ground control informing future NASA policy.

So how much of the story is true? Was it a full day, or 90 minutes of radio silence? Was the lapse of contact deliberate or not? Why did the Skylab 4 astronauts never fly again? If was only a 90-minute lapse of contact, was that one-orbit mistake really considered "mutiny" enough to ground a rookie crew who had been making a lot of mistakes?

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Background

I believe the astronomy.com article is essentially accurate. The story of the Skylab 4 "mutiny" or "strike" has been greatly exaggerated. The crew took a scheduled rest day instead of working through it as they'd done with previous scheduled rest days (and in fact they actually continued to work, albeit at a relaxed pace). This isn't a new revelation, by the way; dueling "there was a mutiny" and "no, there wasn't a mutiny" articles pop up on popular internet sites on a fairly regular basis.

The "Mutiny"

They went for a couple of hours without communication because each crew member thought it was someone else's turn to handle comms (or, just possibly, they had a brief bout of petulance and left the phone off the hook for a couple of hours, but I personally believe it was accidental).

Apart from that, the air-to-ground transcripts clearly show ordinary communication throughout the day of the purported strike (December 28) as well as throughout the rest of the mission. They did have a serious discussion with mission control about workload which helped with the remainder of the mission.

The transcripts are available on scribd; you can read them for yourself. There's just no sign of a mutiny in them.

Their experiment logs show the crew wasn't idle on the 28th, as well. Observations of Comet Kohoutek were taken (the comet's perihelion was on the 28th or 29th), and, in fact, they had a chat with the discoverer of the comet that same day.

Their Post-Skylab Careers

As for the "they were never allowed to fly again" aspect, there weren't many missions available to fly: the Skylab 4 crew would have been "out of rotation" for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and it was seven years between Skylab and the first flight of the space shuttle -- a long time to wait around with no guarantee of getting a flight. Their post-Skylab NASA careers weren't particularly distinguished, so it's hard to say if they were sidelined or not after the flight.

Gibson resigned from NASA in December 1974 to do research on Skylab solar physics data for Aerospace Corporation of California, but returned to NASA in March 1977 as Chief of the Scientist-Astronaut Candidates, working on astronaut selection and training -- not a likely position to hold if he was considered a "bad astronaut".

Carr was named head of the "design support group" within the Astronaut Office in 1977, but left NASA quite soon after that, and Pogue retired from NASA in 1975.

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  • $\begingroup$ Given that there seems no proof of actual mutiny in the transcripts, is there any proof of astronauts being "grounded" either? $\endgroup$ – Michal Gajda Jun 16 at 11:10
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Things started badly, the astronauts tried to hide Astronaut Pogue’s vomiting. NASA had to figure it out on their own. If there is anything that smacks of mutiny, it’s this because it violates mission rules. NASA never used the word mutiny, but ‘reprimand’ was tossed around. Story from back then:

https://www.nytimes.com/1973/11/18/archives/skylab-astronauts-are-reprimanded-in-1st-day-aboard-learned-from.html

All the other stuff that was called mutiny, like the loss of communication, the grumbling about workload, etc. was never formally called mutiny by NASA. We may never know.

None of the crew ever flew in space again, but there was only Apollo-Soyuz left in the Apollo plan, and the Shuttle was far off. Everybody got grounded until Shuttle, so its hard see how this was a direct cause and effect. The only precedent we have is Apollo 7, which had bad crew to ground issues. Those guys didn’t fly again. We just don’t have enough data to say with the Skylab 4 crew.

https://www.history.com/news/apollo-7-near-mutiny-ground-control-astronauts

Loss of communications was a full orbit, which was 90 minutes. Astronauts gave an explanation, NASA seemed to accept it, no hard evidence to refute it.

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    $\begingroup$ it is fair to say though that while indeed all 3 didn't fly again, only 2 of the Apollo 7 crew would have been likely to anyway. Wally had already announced his retirement prior to the launch of 7. $\endgroup$ – NKCampbell Jun 15 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ That first link is an excellent source. Thank you very much! $\endgroup$ – Anton Hengst Jun 16 at 16:30

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