Skylab is Falling
July 11, 1979 - Today was the day that America's first space station, the 100-ton Skylab, came crashing back to Earth. The event was greatly anticipated and the source of wild expectations in the months leading up to Skylab's re-entry.
Skylab blasted into space in May of 1973 and got off to a rocky start. A micrometeoroid shield and a solar panel were damaged during launch and deployment. This required some quick emergency fixes to prevent parts of the station from literally melting.
Despite the early hiccups, the overall Skylab mission would be a successful one. It hosted three manned missions during which it orbited Earth 2,476 times. Astronauts performed over 2,000 hours of experiments, including unprecedented solar research.
Ironically, the Sun was the cause of Skylab's premature demise. By 1977 it became clear that Skylab's orbit was deteriorating at a faster-than-expected rate due to unexpected increases in solar activity. Earth's atmosphere was heating up and creating more drag on the space station. Scientists at NORAD correctly predicted re-entry would occur in mid-1979. A media sensation ensued, complete with merchandising, wagering and in some cases - panic!
In an effort to calm fears, NASA announced that the odds of any debris hitting a human were 152 to 1, and the odds of anything hitting a city of 100,000 or more were 7 to 1. Not surprisingly, this did little to settle the anxiety.
With a last-minute rocket blast NASA was able to tweak Skylab's orientation and aim it for "splat-down" in the Indian Ocean. The space station took longer than expected to burn up in the atmosphere and huge chunks of Skylab rained down on parts of Western Australia.
Sheep rancher John Seiler was jolted out of bed by a loud noise. He ran outside to find an amazing display of shimmering lights dropping from the night sky.
It terrified the cattle and horses, which circled their paddocks in fear. The dogs barked and went wild when the sonic booms followed. Then there were thumps-they must have been the biggest pieces crashing down. Finally, the house shook three times. Afterward, there was a burning smell.
The single largest piece was a 2-ton "fragment" of an oxygen supply tank. The Shire of Esperance was where much of the debris was recovered. The local government fined the United States $400 for littering. 30 years later an American radio DJ named Scott Barley paid the debt after raising the funds on his morning show.