Skylab Goes Down

SkylabAmerica’s first space station goes out with a bang… and lands on Australian soil

July 2009 isn’t only the 40 year anniversary of humanity setting foot on another planetary body, it’s 30 years since America’s first manned space station returned home in spectacular fashion.

Launched in 1973, the 36 metre long, 100 tonne Skylab space station studied solar radiation, microgravity and the workability of humans in space. After early problems such as the loss of a protective shield during launch, Skylab successfully maintained three crews during its launch year.

But when the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets were decommissioned (making docking with the spacecraft impossible) and with no more manned missions planned until 1981, Skylab was left to drift. It eventually broke down altogether.

NASA managed to re-establish contact in the final days to adjust Skylab’s angle for as smooth a re-entry as possible, and final calculations predicted a trajectory across the Southern Ocean and a sparsely populated tract of Western Australia.

Just past midnight in July 12, the townspeople of coastal Esperance, 720km east of Perth, gathered at the town lookout to see the craft light up the night sky as it approached from the Southern Ocean. The burning metal, paint, plastic and glass were a spectacular show as the intense heat of re-entry turned Skylab into a fireball, shaking the town with a sonic boom as it passed overhead towards the desert towns of Balladonia and Rawlinna.

After an orbital velocity of just over 28,000 km/h, it increased to nearly 29,000 km/h as it started its final plunge, friction from atmospheric gases heating it to over 1600 degrees Celsius and slowing it to just 400 km/h as it passed over Esperance.

The craft continued to slow before its final, near-vertical descent not far from Kalgoorlie, about 500 kilometres to the north, but information was slow and sketchy in the days before GPS and Twitter. Canberra officials assured the public Skylab had fallen into the ocean, but the residents beneath the re-entry footprint knew better. Fragments rained down on the town and desert and prompted the shire council to good naturedly issue a $400 littering fine to the US State Department.

Called ‘a bit of a lark’ by then-Shire President Merv Andre, the fine generated worldwide publicity for the small town. Ever since it was written off in late 1979, the Shire has fielded enquiries from around the world from enthusiasts asking if the story was true, particularly since the advent of Wikipedia, which mentions the story of the fine prominently on its Skylab entry. And now that Skylab fever is heating up again, another chapter of history is set to close. In April this year, California/Nevada radio station Highway One raised the funds to pay the fine through listeners of a popular breakfast program.

Today, all that remains of a $3bn technology and engineering project is a collection of charred, misshapen metal, on show in the Esperance Museum, one of the last places you’d expect to find a slice of spaceflight history.