When Skylab Came Crashing Down

SkylabFour decades ago, NASA’s pride and joy plummeted to Earth. No one was hurt, but that was down to luck, not judgement. Drew Turney reports.

The swampy east Florida coast and the dusty, scarred desert of Western Australia couldn’t have felt farther apart in the late 1970s – culturally and geographically. But one July night reminded us in spectacular fashion that we’re all passengers on spaceship Earth.

It was the night the USA’s first manned space station came home.

Skylab was the last program to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s famed Launch Complex 39 before it was decommissioned and retooled for the Space Shuttle program which would dominate America’s space aspirations for the next generation. It was also the last unmanned mission to lift off from Complex 39 until February 2017 when current tenant SpaceX launched its CRS-10.

Carried aloft on a modified Saturn V – the same rocket that had carried Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon – Skylab was the result of NASA’s ‘wet workshop’ space station concept. Using a spent rocket body as a living and working quarters, the idea had come from German rocket scientist Werner von Braun as far back as the mid 60s, long after Operation Paperclip spirited the best and brightest minds from the Nazi war effort to America.

With public interest in space travel waning and the popularity of the US government plummeting thanks to the quagmire in Vietnam, budget cuts scuppered further moon landings and a Saturn V was freed up. NASA reworked von Braun’s plans for the hardware available, and Skylab was born.

After a successful gestation it had a troubled delivery. Damage during the May 14, 1973 launch saw the loss of its protective shield/sunshade as well as one of the main solar panels. Fragments from the destroyed sunshade stopped the other solar panel from deploying, leaving Skylab overheated and underpowered, problems the first follow-up mission (Skylab 2) spent a lot of its time and resources repairing a few weeks later.

But before long, Skylab was in business. Weighing 77 tons, 25 metres long and about six and a half metres in diameter, it packed a lot of living and working activity into its compact size, with about a quarter of the dimensions and a third of the pressurised volume of the International Space Station.

80 experiments yielded almost 300 findings in everything from human vestibular function to copper-aluminium eutectics, some of them suggested by US high school students who got to design them and analyse the data when it was reported back.

Skylab could change direction and attitude without liquid propellant using large spinning gyroscopes, which saved a lot of fuel, but the real killer app was the solar observatory. For the first time, we saw the existence of coronal holes in the ejecta streaming away from the sun, areas of lower-density plasma that are colder and darker than the rest of the fiery halo. There were up to 10 film and still cameras on board, one of them a TV camera that recorded video electronically, transferred to magnetic tape or sent back to Earth by radio, the mid 1970s version of emailing a jpg.

None of the appointed crews were terribly interested in movies or games, so NASA provided books and music. It pioneered new paradigms in food after Apollo crews had complained so bitterly about the cubes and squeeze tubes of the space race age. It engineered a toilet and shower, improving cleanliness and hygiene, but vacuuming excess water out of the air so it didn’t float off and damage equipment was tricky, so they used wet washcloths just as often. Each crew member (three on each mission) had a small sleeping area with a curtain, sleeping bag and locker.

But despite the concessions to comfort, Skylab was no paradise. Bending over to put on socks in minimal gravity strained stomach muscles, utensils and bits of food floated away, and gas in drinking water led to considerable flatulence. Experiments, repairs and exercise filled astronauts’ days, and after dinner it was time for household chores and preparing for the next day’s work – instructions radioed from Mission Control were printed out on spools of paper that sometimes ended up 15 metres long. And despite the dart set, playing cards and their books and music, the window looking back towards Earth was the most popular recreational pastime.

Skylab‘s cameras took 150,000 exposures and 173,000 frames of film across six years in flight (171 days of which were manned), all of it stored in five aluminium vaults to protect against the radiation that would otherwise cause the film to fog over. The largest vault weighed just over a ton, and the 80kg piece of aluminium recovered after Skylab‘s re-entry (the heaviest piece of wreckage found) was thought to be its door.

Skylab orbited Earth nearly 2,500 times during its three manned missions, each one breaking the previous record for human spaceflight set by the Soviet Union’s space station Salyut in 1971. The record for Skylab 4, 84 days, would stand until broken by Norman Thagard’s 155 days aboard Mir in 1995.

With its birthplace already undergoing a massive retrofit and the US space program knee-deep in the next phase of spacecraft technology with the Space Shuttle, Skylab‘s days might have seemed numbered. In fact, the three missions had only used 17 of the 24 months worth of supplies and life support, and plans were drawn up for further research, including having the Space Shuttle propel it to a higher orbit where it could perform a whole new swath of experiments. The Skylab 4 crew had even left the hatch unlocked and a bag of supplies to welcome the next mission.

Skylab wasn’t supposed to reach the atmosphere until 1983, giving the Space Shuttle program plenty of time to mount a mission to retrofit, reposition and repurpose it. Still drifting at about 450 kilometres up, ground control re-established contact in March 1978 to recharge its batteries, but when it was clear by the end of the year no shuttle mission would be ready in time and the orbit had degraded much faster than planned, NASA unwittingly created the media event of 1979 by abandoning Skylab to its fate.

Public interest was already high because of the Soviets’ loss of Kosmos 954 earlier in 1978, a nuclear-powered reconnaissance satellite which had come down along a 600 kilometre path near Great Slave Lake in the west Canadian Arctic, prompting a 124,000 square kilometre clean-up operation by US and Canadian authorities to recover the irradiated debris.

Where, the world now wondered, would nearly 100 tons of US space junk land? NASA calculated a one in 152 chance debris would hit a human, but only a one in seven chance it might strike a city of 100,000 or more. And the public – still primed for all things space thanks to events from Apollo to the global phenomenon of Star Wars a couple of years before – loved every minute of it.

Hats and T-shirts sold by the thousands. Residents in Bellevue, Nebraska painted a huge target at the end of their cul-de-sac to give Skylab something to aim for. Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos appeared on national TV to reassure everyone they were safe. The San Francisco Examiner offered $10,000 to the first person to deliver a piece of Skylab wreckage to its offices.

Re-entry was estimated to start between July 10 and 14. In the final hours NASA radioed a last command to reorient Skylab, aiming for the ocean 800 kilometres south of Cape Town, South Africa. Re-entry began at 16:37 UTC on July 11, 1979, almost ten years to the day since Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.

Esperance is still a sleepy beach town along the farmland southern coast of WA about 600km East of Perth, halfway to the SA border. Just a few hundred kilometres north you’ll find townships like Norseman, Balladonia, and eventually Kalgoorlie, all of them characteristic of the country’s inhospitable desert interior with prefab motel buildings and weathered pubs huddling against the extremes of the climate and endless environment around them.

With global interest in the re-entry high, residents around the region had word Skylab might pass nearby, and the lucky ones who’d gathered at the Esperance town lookout just past midnight got a light and sound show to remember.

Skylab entered the atmosphere at almost 29,000 km/h – its orbital speed of 28,000 km/h plus the effect of Earth’s gravity pulling it down faster the lower it fell. By the time it approached the WA coast from the Southern Ocean, friction that had heated the craft to 1600º celsius had slowed it to around 400 km/h.

It passed over Esperance in a fireball of different colours as the glass, plastic, metal and paint burned, shaking the town half a minute later with a sonic boom and racing overhead towards Balladonia and Rawlinna, 270 and 470 kilometres northeast respectively. It had been just 16 kilometres up – much lower than expected while still intact – its smouldering remains slowing to a near-vertical descent in the middle of nowhere (the nearest civilisation is an airstrip at Plumridge Lakes, nearly 200 kilometres to the west).

The next morning Canberra assured the nation Skylab had fallen into the ocean, but Esperance residents including 17 year old truck driver Stan Thornton – who’d been at the lookout with his sister and her boyfriend – knew better. Thornton’s mother heard noises on the tin roof of the family home’s chook shed, but it wasn’t until the next morning that Thornton found about 20 fragments, like charcoal from a wood barbecue, on the back lawn.

Thornton’s boss, who picked him up for work later that morning, had heard about the $10,000 Examiner competition on the radio. The next day, under the auspices of both Qantas Airlines and The Examiner, a young man who’d never been outside WA was on a plane to California with pieces of charred space junk in his hand luggage.

He duly showed up at the Examiner’s office and remained in the US for a week sightseeing while NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama labs authenticated Thornton’s cargo, determining it was balsa wood from Skylab‘s insulation. He received his giant cheque while watched by a Channel Seven news crew who’d flown from Perth for the occasion.

Capitalising on the worldwide interest in his coastal community, then-Shire President Merv Andre issued a $400 fine to the US State Department for littering, a council ranger presenting it with a flourish to a NASA official. Obviously thinking it was all in good fun, NASA hadn’t paid the fine 30 years later, but in 2009 a California radio DJ asked listeners to donate money to clear the debt. He was invited to Esperance and given a key to the city for his efforts, even though the Shire Council had written it off years before.

NASA representatives came to Western Australia not just to humbly accept their littering fine but retrieve wreckage for further research. Some is back in the US on display in various NASA and museum facilities, including a battered oxygen tank that enjoyed a starring role on stage during the 1979 Miss World Pageant a week or so later in Perth.

It was an occasion no less dramatic than Skylab‘s return when, moments after the crowning of Venezuela’s first ever winner, the stage collapsed. It supposedly had more to do with the number of people rather than the weight of the tank, but Miss Malta got a concussion and Miss Turkey suffered severe bruising. Apparently Miss Japan was quite traumatised.

Today Esperance Shire Museum contains over 70 items relating to Skylab including pieces of the vehicle itself. Staff have recently been working hard to tidy up and properly catalogue everything because along with the rest of the world, they’re going to remember that night 40 years ago when a piece of human spaceflight history rained down on a small town chook shed.

It’s a great example of the wonder, delight and whimsy that connects people and places who’d otherwise have nothing whatsoever to do with each other and ultimately, that’s what humans venturing into space is all about.