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The Fall of Skylab: A Journey from Orbit to Earth's Atmosphere

Updated: Aug 3

In the summer of 1979, a significant event captivated people across the southern hemisphere - the impending crash of Skylab, America's first space station. As the largest spacecraft ever to fall back to Earth, Skylab's descent became a topic of both fear and fascination. This article will explore the extraordinary journey of Skylab, from its launch into orbit to its eventual fiery demise in Earth's atmosphere.

The Birth of Skylab

Skylab was not merely a space station; it was an orbiting workshop designed for scientific research, including studying the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. NASA, driven by its commitment to further space exploration, dedicated significant effort to successfully launch Skylab into orbit. However, there was a crucial oversight - the lack of a plan for a controlled descent back to Earth. Administrator Robert Frosch justified this omission, stating that the cost would have been prohibitive.

The 82 ton Skylab space station re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on July 11, 1979 — and parts of it landed in Western Australia.

The 82 ton Skylab space station re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on July 11, 1979 — and parts of it landed in Western Australia. (Image Credit: NASA/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Perilous Decline

In late 1978, NASA engineers made a distressing discovery - Skylab's orbit was rapidly decaying. The 77-ton space station had become a loose cannon hurtling towards Earth. Concerns over potential human casualties prompted Congress and the public to demand answers from NASA. In response, the agency formulated a plan to extend Skylab's operational life using the upcoming space shuttle program. By boosting Skylab to a higher orbit, they hoped to buy more time for scientific research. However, funding delays and other complications forced NASA to seek an alternative solution.

The Uncontrolled Crash

July 11, 1979, marked the fateful day when Skylab reentered Earth's atmosphere. Engineers initiated a series of commands in a final bid to control the station's descent. Their goal was to steer Skylab towards the Indian Ocean, where potential debris would pose minimal risk. While successful to some extent, Skylab's breakup occurred slower than anticipated. The fiery spectacle painted the sky as the station disintegrated, scattering debris across a vast section of Western Australia.

"Despite this effort, the debris dispersion stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia," wrote Roger Launius, former NASA chief historian.

Skylab's Impact on Australia

The impending crash of Skylab coincided with a period of declining confidence in the United States government among Americans. Against this backdrop, the Australian town of Esperance made headlines by charging NASA $400 for littering their territory. The crash also inspired a range of unusual safety measures worldwide. In Europe and Asia, fear of Skylab's reentry led to precautions such as sounding air raid-like sirens in Belgium and Devon, England, where holidaymakers sought refuge in an old smuggler's cave.

Skylab Parties and Unconventional Reactions

Amidst the genuine fears surrounding Skylab's crash, some individuals adopted a lighthearted and irreverent approach. Skylab-inspired parties and products became a trend in the United States. Newspapers reported on events such as the "Skylab Watchers and Gourmet Diners Society" gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, where guests wore hard hats for protection. A hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, designated itself an "official Skylab crash zone" and hosted a poolside disco party. Entrepreneurs even sold T-shirts featuring bullseye designs, mocking NASA's uncertainty about the crash site.

This view of both protective shields on the damaged Skylab space station was photographed by the Skylab 4 crew upon its arrival to the complex.

This view of both protective shields on the damaged Skylab space station was photographed by the Skylab 4 crew upon its arrival to the complex. (Image Credit: NASA)

The Unexpected Profits of a Teenager

The San Francisco Examiner, in a bid to inject humor into the situation, offered a $10,000 prize for delivering a piece of Skylab debris to their office within 72 hours of the crash. Little did they expect that 17-year-old Stan Thornton from Esperance, Australia, would claim the award. Skylab fragments had landed near his house, prompting him to collect charred pieces from his yard. With quick thinking and a spontaneous decision to board a plane, Thornton became an unexpected beneficiary of Skylab's fall.

The Legacy of Skylab's Scientific Contributions

While Skylab's uncontrolled fall marked the end of America's first crewed orbital outpost, its contributions to scientific research were substantial. Skylab demonstrated the feasibility of prolonged human habitation and work in space, paving the way for the International Space Station (ISS) that has hosted continuous rotating crews since November 2000. The three Skylab expeditions produced a wealth of knowledge about Earth, its weather patterns, crops, and environmental changes. Additionally, astronauts aboard Skylab conducted studies of the sun, manufactured alloys, grew perfect crystals, and honed their space-based work skills.

Remnants of Skylab: A Rare Australian Space Icon

The scattered debris of Skylab became tangible artifacts, representing both space junk and precious remnants of an iconic moment in Australian space history. The unique opportunity to own a piece of space enticed collectors and enthusiasts alike. Museums in southwestern Australia, such as the Balladonia Museum and Esperance Museum, proudly display various remnants of Skylab, including pieces of sheet metal, airlock fragments, and oxygen tanks. These artifacts stand as testaments to an unforgettable chapter in humanity's exploration of space.

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Skylab's Untimely End: Lessons Learned

Skylab's demise revealed the need for meticulous planning and consideration of every aspect of a space mission, including a well-defined plan for a controlled descent. NASA's experience with Skylab played a crucial role in shaping future missions, emphasizing the importance of preventing large chunks of orbital debris from reaching Earth's surface. The agency's commitment to safer and more controlled reentries ultimately led to advancements in space exploration and debris management.

Skylab and the Unpredictability of Space

Skylab's journey from orbit to Earth's atmosphere serves as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of space. Despite meticulous planning and scientific calculations, variables such as solar activity and atmospheric conditions can disrupt even the most well-designed missions. Skylab's uncontrolled fall captured the world's attention, leaving an indelible mark on the history of space exploration.

In conclusion, Skylab's fall from orbit in 1979 remains a fascinating chapter in space exploration. From its birth as America's first space station to its uncontrolled descent, Skylab's journey showcased both the triumphs and challenges of human exploration beyond Earth's atmosphere. While it may have ended in fiery disintegration, the legacy of Skylab lives on, reminding us of the importance of careful planning, scientific discovery, and the awe-inspiring nature of space exploration.

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