The Skylab strike and the need for an outer space labour law

For Space Legal Issues’ hundredth article, I wanted to come back to a rather original event in the space environment which took place in the 1970s: the Skylab strike. Blows on behalf of fair labor treatment don’t always have to come from factory workers. Sometimes called the Skylab controversy or the Skylab mutiny, the Skylab strike, a one-day sit-down strike in outer space, is a work slowdown (an industrial action in which employees perform their duties but seek to reduce productivity or efficiency in their performance of these duties) instigated by the crew of the American Skylab 4 mission during some or all of December 28, 1973.

A “strike” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer”.

A “mutiny” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “An open rebellion against the proper authorities, especially by soldiers or sailors against their officers”.

What happened during some or all of December 28, 1973? Did the American astronauts stop working? Should there be, especially considering the fact that private companies are investing outer space, an outer space labor law? How is work organised in outer space? Are astronauts employees, civil servants/public servants, soldiers/militaries? Was it a strike or a mutiny? Have there been similar cases by the past?

Skylab 4

Skylab 4, sometimes referred to as SL-4, was the third manned Skylab mission. Skylab, the only space station the U.S. has operated exclusively, was the first United States of America space station launched and operated by NASA, and occupied for about twenty-four weeks between May 1973 and February 1974. Skylab included a workshop, a solar observatory, and other systems necessary for crew survival and scientific experiments. Skylab 4 placed the third and final crew aboard the first American space station.

The mission started on November 16, 1973 with the launch of three astronauts on a Saturn IB rocket (also known as the uprated Saturn I, an American launch vehicle commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the Apollo program) from the Kennedy Space Center (one of ten National Aeronautics and Space Administration field centres), Florida and lasted eighty-four days, one hour and sixteen minutes.

Skylab 4 was the largest all-rookie crew launched by NASA. The three astronauts, which spent a total of eighty-four days in outer space, were Commander Gerald P. Carr, Science Pilot Edward G. Gibson, and Pilot William R. Pogue. A total of six thousand and fifty-one astronaut-utilization hours were tallied by Skylab 4 astronauts performing scientific experiments in the areas of medical activities, solar observations, Earth resources…

Things got off to a bad start after the crew attempted to hide William R. Pogue’s early space sickness from flight surgeons, a fact discovered by mission controllers after downloading onboard voice recordings, who would then have told the astronauts that they “had made a fairly serious error in judgement”.

The crew had problems adjusting to the same workload level as their predecessors when activating the workshop. The crew’s initial task of unloading and stowing the thousands of items needed for their lengthy mission also proved to be overwhelming. The schedule for the activation sequence dictated lengthy work periods with a large variety of tasks to be performed, and the crew soon found themselves tired and behind schedule. Seven days into their mission, a problem (attributed to insufficient lubrication) developed in the Skylab gyroscopic attitude control system, which threatened to bring an early end to the mission.

On Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in the United States of America, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, Edward G. Gibson and William R. Pogue accomplished a six and a half hour spacewalk. As Skylab work progressed, the astronauts complained of being pushed too hard, and ground controllers complained they weren’t getting enough work done. Other astronauts on the ground team, including the commanders of the previous two Skylab missions, advised NASA that the plans were unreasonable. The crew gained the reputation of “complainers”, and their exchanges with Houston lost their civility. “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” would have said Gerald P. Carr. “We were bound by a common enemy: Mission Control” added William R. Pogue.

According to some, after six weeks the crew announced a “strike” and turned off all communication with ground control for December 28, 1973. “We would never work sixteen hours a day for eighty-four straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space”. Near the breaking point, Gerald P. Carr would have told ground controllers that he and his crew were taking a day off, which they would then have proceeded to do with the radio switched off. “We looked out the window, took showers, and did that sort of thing” remembers the astronaut. “We said that we wanted time off to mess around and do anything we wanted” he added. “They acquiesced”.

The three men are alleged to have stopped work. The three-man crew spent time relaxing and looking at the Earth before resuming communication with NASA, refusing communications from mission control during this period. The ground crew, stuck at the far end of a dead radio hook-up, had no choice but to fume impotently. When Skylab came back online, NASA was much more amenable to discussion. Houston agreed to afford the crew full rest and meal breaks, and replace its minute-by-minute schedules with a list of tasks to be completed, leaving it to the crew to manage its own time. The mission continued for several more weeks before the crew returned to Earth in 1974. None of the three astronauts ever was assigned a spaceflight again. The event, which the involved astronauts have joked about, has been extensively studied as a case study in various fields of endeavour including space medicine, team management, and psychology. “Highly trained military types and scientists fully convinced of the value of their work are likely to push back when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment”. “The lessons here are not just for manned space flight, but for any workplace environment that approximates its conditions, whether in space or on Earth”.

But this kind of event, the Skylab strike, had already happened in outer space history. Some space experts say they believe that Russian Vasily Tsibliyev would also have been badly shaken by a series of space failures during a flight and would have been intent on avoiding a risky repair mission. Also, the three-man Apollo 7 crew, in October 1968, was extraordinarily tense before and during the mission since it was the first manned American space flight after an Apollo capsule had burned on the ground during a Florida test, killing three astronauts. Wally Schirra would have refused to do scheduled tests and would have not obey ground control.

The last known rebellion, speaking about the Skylab strike, occurred in June 1995 aboard the Mir station when two Russian cosmonauts, Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov, were to conduct their sixth spacewalk in two months to inspect the outpost’s solar-energy arrays. Tired and edgy, they balked, and ground controllers reluctantly cancelled the work. They were fined, in effect, for mutiny. They had to go to court to get their flight bonuses.

Space Legal Issues

The question of the nature of the work slowdown is not of that importance. Was it a strike? Not really, hence the fact that astronauts are not employees but militaries hired and working for the United States of America via the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). All the astronauts have military grades. Was it a mutiny? A “mutiny” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “An open rebellion against the proper authorities, especially by soldiers or sailors against their officers”. Were the astronauts following military orders given by military people in a military situation? Or were they pursuing scientific experiments directed by “Mission Control” in a scientific one-of-a-kind situation? To answer those questions, it would be interesting to look at the astronauts’ contracts and their precise legal status, as well as those of the people working for Mission Control.

Anyway, what’s interesting about this case is to imagine that there will soon be, thanks to New Space, normal employees working in outer space, in industrial companies for example, on the Moon or in the spaceships. Will those people be astronauts? Will they be considered employees or public servants?

Let’s recall that Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization”. This means that, apart from changing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, all activities that will be carried on in outer space will have to be done under the supervision and responsibility of the States under which the private company will operate.

What we believe, concerning the Skylab strike, is that in a near future, people working in private industries in outer space will be considered employees. They will not be astronauts and that is because of the nature of their task. Let’s remember that Article V of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that “States Parties to the Treaty shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space and shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing on the territory of another State Party or on the high seas. When astronauts make such a landing, they shall be safely and promptly returned to the State of registry of their space vehicle”.

This is a direct answer to Article I of the Treaty which affirms that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind”. Astronauts, because they principally have a scientific mission to achieve, are believed to carry activities out “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”, not for the benefit and in the interest of a private company. It is still the question of the destination we were mentioning in a previous article, concerning the definition of a space object. It implicates the “general aim or purpose”. In France for example, some people are working for national administrations (school, health, military…) and not considered civil servants. In the case of private companies, the destination is to make profits and money. In the case of national (or international) space agencies, the destination is about scientific achievements, national prestige and researches. What would be interesting is to ask ourselves if scientific researches were carried out by private companies. For example, people mining the Moon and conducting at the same time experiments about the lunar soil. What would also be interesting is to ask ourselves if some private activities could be considered carried out “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”. Isn’t going on Mars to build colonies more of a civilizational project than just a private project? That’s what’s interesting with outer space: most of the activities carried out in LEO or in deep space will help humanity.

Let’s mention, speaking about the Skylab strike, that the notion of commercial astronaut have developed in the past years, especially since the recent flight of the VSS Unity (Virgin Galactic), officially entering outer space by US standards. A commercial astronaut could be defined as a person trained to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a privately funded spacecraft. With the advent of private commercial space flight ventures in the U.S., the FAA has been faced with the task of developing a certification process for the pilots of commercial spacecraft. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 established the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and required companies to obtain a launch license for vehicles. The FAA’s Commercial Astronaut Wings Program is designed to recognize flight crewmembers who further the FAA’s mission to promote the safety of vehicles designed to carry humans.

As a conclusion, the Skylab strike raises many questions about astronauts’ legal status, and the need for an outer space labor law that will legally structure private companies’ outer space activities. We hope these questions will be discussed at the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). This is what can be said concerning the Skylab strike.