In 1973, astronauts on the US space station Skylab downed tools and refused to communicate with mission control. They had complained of being overworked, and when their request for more lenient schedule was denied, they took matters into their own hands – spending an entire day admiring the view from the windows and doing little else.
“We had been overscheduled,” astronaut William Pogue later wrote. “We were just hustling the whole day. The work could be tiresome and tedious, though the view was spectacular.”
Their defiance came just over halfway through an 84-day mission. The astronauts later referred to the incident as their “strike”, others called it a “mutiny”. Either way, it was one of the first indications that prolonged trips into space were going to bring extra challenges that hadn’t surfaced in the relatively quick visits astronauts had previously undertaken.
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As humans get more serious about going to Mars, one of the biggest threats to such a mission could come from the psychological state of the crewmembers themselves.
Researchers are looking to Antarctica to test how our mental health will respond to long-haul space travel. It’s a good analogue for several reasons: it’s dark, with the South Pole having several months of total night over winter, taking away the day-night cycle we’re used to; it’s bitterly cold, with temperatures reaching -80C (-112F) so going outside is difficult. Then there’s the isolation. It’s physically isolated – depending on where exactly you are, evacuation over winter might be impossible. And it’s socially isolated – you live in close quarters with the same few people day-in, day-out.
The Skylab mutiny could have been an example of the “third quarter phenomenon” reported by polar explorers and others. This occurs when people realise they have as long left in their inescapable situation as they have already lived through, and lose motivation. Though not everyone agrees it exists, the phenomenon does appear to show up in various situations, including simulated space missions.