Skylab was the first space station launched by the United States, a spectacularly successful mission that provided a platform for numerous scientific experiments involving ultra violet light, X rays, and the effects of extended space travel on humans.
The state-of-the-art vehicle was launched in 1973 remaining aloft until 1979, and during this period completed 34,981 orbits and was visited by three manned missions. But it was Skylab’s descent that made many more headlines than its achievements.
Its orbit around the Earth began to decay in early 1979, and worried NASA scientists realised they could not predict where the 100 tonne vehicle would come down – the impact on a large city could be catastrophic. An “orbit boost” was planned – using the newly developed Space Shuttle – but funding issues prevented this from eventuating.
As the vehicle continued to reach lower altitudes, the event was picked up by the world’s media, with experts of all persuasions predicting where the most likely impact point would be. Because of the immense complexity of the descent, including the orientation of the vehicle and the “skipping” effect across the upper reaches of the atmosphere, scientists were unable to pinpoint the impact area, although everyone hoped it would be over the ocean.
Skylab “parties” were held around the world, Skylab T shirts decorated with “bullseyes” were sold and bets taken as to where it would land. In addition the “San Francisco Examiner” offered a $10,000 prize to the first person that presented them with an authentic piece of Skylab debris.
In the early hours of 12 July the location of the impact was revealed emphatically when a noise like rolling thunder shook the area around Balledonia in Western Australia and multi-coloured fireballs streaked across the night sky. The thunder was hypersonic “boom” produced by the re-entry, and the fireballs were generated by the associated metal vaporisation.
But many larger parts reached the ground, and a debris trail some 400 km long extended between the small Western Australian towns of Esperance and Balledonia. Because of the remoteness of the area, no injuries or property damage were reported, but there was a mad scramble by locals to collect any Skylab debris they could find.
17-year-old Esperance local Stan Thornton claimed the “Examiner” $10,000 prize when he arrived on their doorstep with a chunk of Skylab and the Shire of Esperance, tongue in cheek, sent a $400 fine to NASA for littering their area. This fine remained unpaid until April 2009 when a Californian radio show host, Scott Barley, raised funds from his listeners and paid the outstanding bill. No interest was charged.
Image: A view of Skylab photographed in February 1974 by the crew of Skylab 4 Command and Service Module before their return to Earth., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.