Jason Hutchens: skylab

Jason Hutchens: skylab

1979 marked the sesquicentennial of Western Australia: 150 years of colonisation. Prince Charles embarked on the longest tour of WA ever undertaken by a Royal, and Miss Universe was held in WA for the first time. Oh, and NASA's Skylab re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, scattering debris across southern WA.

Skylab was the United State's first space station. It was launched on May 14, 1973. At the time, the 78-ton Skylab -- essentially a cylinder 118 feet long and 22 feet in diameter -- was the largest object ever launched into orbit. When Skylab was launched it lost a solar panel and part of its external shielding. Skylab astronauts had to rig a "golden umbrella" to keep their habitat comfortable.

Skylab 1 was supposed to orbit the earth until the 1990's, but due to the effect of the solar wind gradually shifted the craft's orbit closer to the earth's atmosphere. Skylab orbited Earth for five years (with no humans inside) after the third crew of astronauts left. NASA decided it was time to warn people that the Skylab space station had dropped out of orbit and was headed toward the earth, where its debris could scatter on a populated area. NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch offered an accompanying risk assessment. He calculated that between 20-25 tons of Skylab material would survive and hit Earth, and that there was a 1 in 152 chance that one of the pieces would hit someone.

A striking, and somewhat confusing, aspect of Skylab's fall onto the Indian Ocean and Australia on July 11, 1979 was the multiplicity of reentry predictions we heard. Differences in the predictions emanating from different organizations gave one cause to wonder which, if any, of the predictions to believe and why different predictions should exist at all. In retrospect, it all worked out reasonably well. About 6 hours before reentry, the convergence in the predictions was sufficient to allow NASA to tumble Skylab somewhat earlier than first planned. The result was reentry on about the safest of Skylab's orbital tracks and in a portion of the orbit having minimal population, although NASA preferred to have Skylab fall just a little earlier than it did, so as to avoid Australia altogether.

The exact day of re-entry was forecast only two days in advance and the exact hour only hours before. Final projections were off by several minutes, and NASA's forecast of an Indian Ocean splashdown wasn't entirely correct.

Over the period before its final descent the world had become fascinated over where the doomed station would land. Washington control center received word that the area southeast of Perth, Australia, had indeed been showered with pieces. Spectacular visual effects were reported and many residents heard sonic booms and whirring noises as the chunks passed overhead in the early morning darkness. Officials waited anxiously for news of injury or property damage, but none came. Skylab was finally down and NASA had managed it without hurting anyone.

For only the second time in its history the National Geographic Magazine stopped it's presses to include the story. The local shire ranger (Mr David Somerville) was photographed giving the director of NASA a littering ticket, which received huge international coverage (the council later waived the fine), and one of the earliest uses of the fax in outback Australia was by the Washington Post newspaper who had a large suitcase sized box that allowed a photo of the Owner of Balladonia, standing with a piece of Skylab out side the front door of the Bar, to be transmitted over phone lines to America.

The US President (Jimmy Carter) personally rang Balladonia Hotel Motel to apologise for Skylab falling on them and subsequently Miss America and the US ambassador came and stayed at the Balladonia Hotel Motel in a "goodwill" gesture.

The San Francisco Examiner had offered $10 000 for the first authenticated piece of Skylab brought to its office within 48 hours of reentry, and on the morning of 13 July a claimant appeared. Stan Thornton, a 17-year--old beer-truck driver from the small coastal community of Esperance, had found some charred objects in his back yard, bagged them up, and caught the first plane for California. He arrived without passport and with only a shaving kit for luggage, but the pieces were identified as remains of plastic or wood insulation from Skylab, and Thornton got his prize.