Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Skylab Made Us All a Little Chicken Little

SKYLAB WAS MANKIND'S first semi-permanent off-world home. Shot into Earth orbit in May of 1973, the combination laboratory and apartment housed nine men during its cumulative 171 days of occupancy.

Its last three-man crew vacated the premises in February 1974, after a record 84-day stay, leaving behind an assortment of supplies including film, food, and a roll of teleprinter paper for future visitors. Then, using their own spacecraft, the astronauts nudged the space station into a higher orbit and returned to their planet.

Damaged upon launch, Skylab began life as a fixer-upper.
NASA photo taken by the lab's last departing crew.
For five and a half more years, Skylab circled the globe patiently awaiting new residents or the boost of a passing space shuttle, but neither one came.

Without assistance, the nearly 100-ton satellite gradually lost its war with gravity and drag and began falling back to Earth, reentering the atmosphere 40 years ago today, July 11, 1979.

Though its return was long forecast, the imminent arrival of a large falling house, superheated by atmospheric friction, set off a planetary frenzy.

While NASA -- America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- had put the laboratory in orbit, it had utterly and completely failed to make adequate plans for either keeping it there or gently landing it in some pre-ordained safe place.

Project Apollo, which provided launch vehicles for the lab and its three separate crews, had long since ended. The shuttle program was years behind schedule.  Only a year earlier, a Soviet-launched nuclear satellite crashed in Canada, spreading radioactive debris.

Now, NASA could identify a swath of Earth over which its wayward space station may come down, but it could not say precisely where. In Europe, some people panicked. In America, some held parties.

Poster board headgear promised
.00193 nanoseconds of warning you've been hit
The San Francisco Examiner newspaper offered a $10,000 bounty for the first piece of genuine wreckage brought to its offices. The rival San Francisco Chronicle promised $200,000 to any subscriber whose home sustained damage. Some enterprising folks cashed in by offering early-warning headgear.

NASA downplayed the risk, predicting the odds of any individual being struck by its falling object were about 600 billion to 1. Some of the implements aboard the disintegrating station: a 5,000-pound airlock, a 4,000 pound lead safe and a half-dozen 2,700 pound oxygen tanks.

Still, the space agency -- in a last ditch effort to influence the outcome -- fired the station's remaining booster rockets upon reentry, aiming it toward the Indian Ocean. They missed.

Skylab broke up in the sky, raining parts over rural Western Australia, earning NASA a $400 fine from the Shire of Esperance for littering. There, resident Stan Thornton collected some some of its fragments and flew to San Francisco to collect his prize.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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