L5 News: How to Prevent Strikes and Revolts in Space

by Carolyn Henson

From L5 News, March 1980

Potentially catastrophic strikes and revolts in orbit should be prevented by “rewarding outstanding space workers in pre-colony days with positions as colonists and by rewarding colonies having particularly high productivity records with early dates for independence,” proposes researcher Mark Hopkins of the Rand Corporation. His advocacy of such a “space declaration of independence” stands in contrast to current NASA and social sciences establishment philosophy, which looks to elaborate crew selection and training procedures having the effect of ensuring strike-proof space workers.

NASA’s rigorous astronaut selection and training procedures have already failed to prevent work stoppages. At the end of their sixth week in space, the grossly overworked Skylab crew of Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson and William Pogue stopped work for one day.

Hopkins makes the case that the strategy of reliance on selection and training is basically unsound. Space workers, whether the Skylab astronauts of yesterday or the power satellite construction workers of tomorrow, possess intrinsic advantages in any showdown with “the boss” because of the tremendous amount of capital invested in each job.

For example, the three Skylab crew members had control over a three-billion dollar project. It would have taken a Saturn IB launch to bring in another crew. With all that investment unexpectedly idled, no wonder Mission Control was in a sweat over even a one-day slowdown.

When it is so effective to strike, and where there is no other avenue to redress grievances, even carefully selected and trained workers such as the third Skylab crew are likely to exercise that option.

Of course, future management can take several countermeasures against strikes. If and when solar power satellites are built, the cost of space transportation will have dropped to where it would become relatively easy to ship up strikebreakers. However, according to Hopkins, the company will face costs in addition to simple transportation with this strategy. Hopkins describes these costs in the “wage vs. wedge” concept.

“[The wedge] is the difference between the cost of a worker to an employer and what is actually paid to the worker. In today’s America the wedge includes such things as the employer’s contribution to social security and the cost of paperwork involved in dealing with an employee. For space-workers, the wedge will be enormous compared to that of American earth-based workers because it will include the high cost of maintaining the worker in space.

“The effect of this difference can be seen via the illustrative example provided by Fig. 1. Suppose there are two average workers such that their combined productivity and their combined wage is the same as that of a superior worker regardless of whether the three workers are in space or on the ground. Assume that the wage of any particular worker is not affected by the location of his/her employment. Further assume that for earthworkers, the wedge is equal to zero; and for space-workers, that it is very large compared to the wage of an average worker.

“Given these assumptions, the cost to the company of two average workers on the earth would be the same as the cost of one superior worker. Thus, unusually skilled workers would be preferentially drawn into space.”

l5 news wedge

Fig. 1: Why the wedge draws superior workers preferentially into space (from Hopkins, Rand/P-6324)

Because the “wedge” drives up the value of skilled workers, the use of relatively unproductive strike breakers will be more costly than in most industries.

Another countermeasure to strikes becomes available when workers, instead of rotating between Earth and an orbiting “construction shack,” finally gain permanent quarters: a space colony. According to Hopkins,

“in the space colonization phase (particularly in the earlier part of it) sources of employment at the colony other than by the company will be difficult to find. Thus a fired colonist would probably be forced to pull up stakes and return to Earth. In this case a worker would not be merely losing an occupation, the worker would also be losing the home and lifestyle of the worker’s family. Such power gives the company considerable leverage in its dealings with labor.”

Even in the later colonization phase, so long as the space habitat remains a company town, the company may obtain another anti-strike weapon.

“Laws concerning who pays for the use of the colony during a legal strike at the SPS-producing factory could have a major effect on the bargaining power of the colonists and the company. Suppose we divide a colonial worker’s compensation into two parts: that which is necessary to pay for the cost of living in the colony and that which remains. If the company pays directly for the cost of living in the colony, then the situation is familiar in certain respects to that occurring in the space industrialization phase. Namely, there is a wedge which is large compared to the worker’s wage. If the worker receives all of his compensation in the form of a wage, the situation is unchanged. The worker would have to pay for the cost of living and this would still be large compared to what would remain of the worker’s pay. This remainder must be divided between savings, support for dependents, and funds for the purchase of luxury goods from Earth. Thus the amount of savings is likely to be small compared to the cost of living. Furthermore, the cost of living in a space colony is not (unlike on Earth) something which can be greatly reduced during a strike. The dominant portion of this cost is capital charges for the colony itself which cannot be reduced. Finally, with the SPS industry on strike the employment opportunities for the colonists to earn money in a manner relevant to the problem — that is, from sources outside of the colony — would be very limited. The result of these considerations is that if the colonists are forced to pay for their use of the colony during the strike, then their savings, whether personal or in the form of a union strike fund, would be rapidly depleted. Thus the bargaining position of the company would be very strong.

“An alternative possibility in a strike situation is that the U.S. government would pay for the colonists’s use of their habitat via some program of unemployment insurance. In this case, the positions are reversed and it is the colonists’ position that is very strong. The colonists could hold out almost indefinitely while enjoying a reasonable standard of living and considerable leisure. Only additions to their savings and luxury imports from Earth would be sacrificed. The situation would be even more detrimental for the company if it was not allowed to evict the colonists from the colony for nonpayment of rent for habitat use. Then the colonists would not only be in a position to hold out for a long time, but they also would deprive the company of another major source of revenue.”


Could strikers shut down their power satellites, inflicting power brownouts and blackouts on Earth? Hopkins notes that

“fortunately, from the viewpoint of the public interest, it currently appears that it would be quite difficult to shut down SPS’s by means of a legal strike of workers employed at the SPS’s. [A]…General Dynamics study indicates that an SPS would be so highly automated that only one person would be required as an operator to oversee the equipment in case of trouble. The remainder of the labor force at the SPS would be involved in maintenance, support, and supervisory roles. Thus if there was a strike, the SPS could be run for some time by supervisors and the like. A legal strike would threaten a serious interruption in service only if it was prolonged enough for significant problems to result because of reduced maintenance.”

Sabotage and revolt pose far more serious problems. Hopkins points out that

“if the handful of workers at an SPS were to arrange for an accident which put an SPS temporarily out of commission in the year 2000 and current projections of the cost of electricity are correct, then the loss in revenue from electricity alone would be in the vicinity of 8 million 1979 dollars per day.”

The people back on Earth are unlikely to take such tactics lying down. However, says Hopkins,

“[a] direct test of military strength between the colonists and the government would be suicidal. Barring intervention by a third power, two strategies with some hope of success for the colonists come to mind. One possibility is to seize space assets of large value, then threaten to destroy the assets unless independence is granted. It should be noted that the SPS’s are not only the most valuable of such assets, but destroying a sizable number of them would also cause substantial losses on the ground because of the resulting shortage of electricity. If the initial seizure was successful, the obvious U.S. counter-strategy would be to threaten to destroy the colony and its inhabitants unless the seized assets were returned unharmed. The resulting confrontation could end with the threats of both sides being carried out, which is not something pleasant to contemplate.

“The other strategy is based on strikes, sabotage, and guerilla warfare. The sub-options within this strategy span a wide range from legal tactics to terrorist acts. Instead of being directed against the company in an attempt to obtain wage increases, periodic legal strikes could be aimed at the government and would have as their goal political concessions. In the case of several U.S. colonies the impact of such strikes by one colony would be small. From the colonists’ viewpoint what is needed is a simultaneous strike of all American colonists. The more violent sub-options within this strategy have the same goal of political concessions as the legal strike. As we have seen before, what happens to the SPS’s in these sorts of situations is of great importance.

“Obviously the cost of a revolution to the colonists could be very high. Indeed, virtually every American asset in space as well as the colonists themselves could be destroyed. If we cannot devise some system to accomplish governance that excludes revolts with reasonable assurance, then the possibility of ever building a space colony is seriously jeopardized.”

Mark Hopkins’ solution — give people the chance to earn their freedom through hard work and cooperation with Earth — has worked well in the past. Yet, surprisingly, much current thought on our future in space, from the Moon Treaty’s attempt to place all celestial bodies under an Earth-controlled regime to the speculations of many social scientists, seem to be missing the boat. Are we about to repeat the sad history of past colonial empires? Or will Hopkins’ proposal win out?

Let us all hope so. The lure of space is the lure of freedom. The chance to try out our dreams. Reach for the stars!


Bluth, B.J. “Constructing Space Communities: a Critical Look at the Paradigm,” in Vol. 38, Pt. II of The Future United States Program: Advances in the Astronautical Sciences, ed. Richard S. Johnston, et al. San Diego: Univelt, 1979.

Bluth, B.J. “The Truth About the Skylab Crew Revolt,” L-5 News, Vol. 4, No. 9 (September 1979), pp. 12-13.

Cooper, Henry S.F., Jr. A House
in Space
. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

General Dynamics, Convair Division. “Lunar Resources Utilization for Space Construction.” (To be published by NASA).

Hopkins, Mark. “The Economics of Strikes and Revolts During Early Space Colonization: A Preliminary Analysis.” Rand/P-6324, April 1979.


L-5 Directors Mark Hopkins and Carolyn Henson are both among the founding parents of the L-5 Society.