Remembering Skylab

As a spin off from all the excitement about Curiosity on Mars, Planetary Landscapes posted a photo with a blog asking, ‘Remember Skylab?’

My most vivid memories of Skylab all revolve around the time of Skylab’s crash in Australia in July 1979.  It was really hot news when it re-entered the atmosphere.  Predictions for the crash site varied, but Australia was definitely a possibility   Although Tasmania was so far south it was an unlikely crash site, scientists weren’t ruling anything out.

On Crash day, the students were unusually quiet; fear smothered the school grounds like an oppressive sound-dampening blanket.  I looked around: not even the religious soccer players were performing their daily rites.

In the days of the dinosaurs before the advent of an accessible internet, mobile phones and social media, students’ only means for getting updates were the occasional hand-held radio from which rumours magically emanated, and the more reliable method of harassing teachers for updates.  Those of us in the top academic stream knew the teachers had access to TVs in staff rooms and were hovering over these TVs whenever on break.  Trickle-down effects ensured we had nearly as much and reliable information as the teachers themselves, but this news was still delayed.  It wasn’t like a few weeks ago when Melbournians felt an earthquake and jumped on Twitter for immediate confirmation and news updates while we waited for the paid media to catch up.  In contrast, the efforts of the paid media back then felt arctically slow, partially because of technological constraints and partially because they didn’t have to justify their existence alongside instantaneous social media coverage.

Originally reported to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, it was later revealed that Skylab crashed on to Esperance, a town in Western Australia early in the morning AWST.  This was no weather balloon.

Everyone at my school breathed a deep sigh of relief because Skylab wasn’t going to come screaming down on top of our heads.  Alongside our relief we felt concern for the distant town of Esperance and the people there.  Motivated by concern, over the next few years students repeatedly asked about radiation and toxic substances emanating from the wreckage.  It’s ironic that high school students anticipated long-term ramifications of Skylab crashing on a town while the ‘experts’ seemed to be oblivious.

In true Aussie style a la The Dish, the president of the local town council presented US authorities with a ticket for littering, which remains unpaid.

I wonder if someone could challenge US authorities issuing such tickets on the basis of precedent?

I’m sure the US authorities could monitor the location of the ticket using their resources at Pine Gap.

Ted Bullpit complained bitterly about a piece of Skylab hitting him, spoofing US authorities’ response to the crash in the comedy Kingswood Country episode It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s A Tile!