What Goes Up
“In April of 1982 I was lucky enough to be assigned the job of NASA senior science representative to Australia — ‘nasa Rep,’ the Aussies called it,” Joe Kerwin said. “So I got on the plane in Houston, and some twenty-two hours and three stops later dragged my weary body into the Canberra airport terminal.
“My new secretary met me in the official Ford, and we decided to drive to the office before she deposited me at the motel. ‘This is your desk, mate.’ she said—and the phone rang. ‘Hello,’ I yawned, ‘nasa representative.’
“’G’day, mate,’ said a voice. ‘I’ve got a bit of Skylab here and was curious; were you still buying them back?’ Incredible! Not in the country two hours, and Skylab, my triumph and embarrassment, had followed me there like the bottle imp.
“By the way, the chap, from a small town near Perth, didn’t have a bit of Skylab. He had a great chunk of it, an intact oxygen tank about eight feet long and well-charred. We informally certified it for him, but NASA had enough samples and didn’t want this one. As far as I know, it’s still adorning the entrance to his pub. Skylab had returned to Earth, sure enough.”
Although the Skylab program had officially been designed to include only three manned missions, there had been discussions of other possibilities, from reboosting the station to launching the second Skylab workshop. Even NASA’s space-race rivals were intrigued by the possibilities the facility offered. If representatives of the Soviet space program had had their way, a much larger-scale version of what eventually became the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project would have involved both nations’ space station programs as well.
Marshall’s George Hardy recalled that before the launch of Skylab, James Fletcher, the NASA administrator, met with the head of the Soviet space agency to discuss the possibility of cooperation in the event of an emergency in
spaceflight, among other topics. “So we got an invitation to go to Russia in 1969, and Bob Gilruth was selected to head that delegation, and then my name was on there,” Hardy said. “I got selected to go because nobody really knew what the Russians wanted to talk about, and there was some possibility that maybe they wanted to talk a little about Skylab, although our management was not terribly interested in talking about Skylab.”
The meeting was cordial but unproductive, so it was agreed that a Soviet delegation would come back to the United States the next year for a meeting at msc to further discuss rescue mission cooperation. “The discussion had been very general about rescue capability—what would we need: common docking systems and things like that and rendezvous capabilities and all that sort of thing,” he said. “And it was very generic discussion.
“About the third or fourth day, they came in and the head of their delegation opened that meeting that day and said, ‘We’d like to make a proposal,’” Hardy said. “And he just laid out flat a proposal where there’d be two missions: one where Soyuz would come to the Skylab, and one where the Command and Service Module would go to the Salyut.”
Under the plan, the Soviets offered to host the first mission on Salyut, and then their mission would be flown to Skylab, which at that point NASA believed was about a year from launch. While the delegations were in the next session, Gilruth called headquarters, and NASA deputy administrator George Low flew to Houston. “Basically the bottom line was that we didn’t want to have a mission with them with Skylab,” Hardy said. “We didn’t want to complicate Skylab to that extent. We thought it would delay Sky – lab. Turns out Skylab was delayed anyway.”
The NASA delegation returned to the meeting with the Soviets and explained that they didn’t believe it would work out to add such a major new element to the Skylab program. There were already obligations, they explained, to principal investigators that wouldn’t allow for such a substantial change to the program timetable. The Soviet delegation agreed that was understandable and suggested that the joint mission could be flown the with second Skylab station, which they knew had been constructed. The NASA delegation explained that there were neither plans nor funding for the launch of the second Skylab.
Savvy to the U. S. system of allocating budget funds on a year-to-year basis, the Soviet delegation said that they understood that the Congress hadn’t appropriated the Skylab-в funds and that they could wait until that happened. “They were told no, that wouldn’t happen,” Hardy said. No matter how the NASA delegation tried to explain it, he said, the Soviets wouldn’t believe that a space agency would build an entire space station with no intent to fly it.
“They couldn’t believe it,” he said. “And it was almost like—they didn’t say this—but you kind of got the impression they were feeling like, ‘These fellows just don’t want a space station with us.’ There has to be another reason, and that’s the reason they would assume.”
With a trip to Skylab off the table, the talks of any sort of joint space station operation fell apart. “It just wasn’t the time for it. And once that didn’t happen, then the trip to Salyut didn’t happen either, and that’s how we ended up with astp,” Hardy said. “We didn’t want to go to a Russian quote, ‘space station,’ and the Russians didn’t want us to come to theirs if they couldn’t come to ours.” Though the talks about the joint space station operation ultimately proved unsuccessful, Hardy said he has many vivid memories of the process.
“My introduction to that, I can remember it well,” George Hardy said, “I got a call from [Marshall deputy director Eberhard] Rees. I was here doing my job, and this was one morning at ten o’ clock or something. He said, ‘Can you be in Dr. Gilruth’s office this afternoon, by three o’clock?’ I said, ‘I guess so, I’ll see. What am I going for?’ He said, ‘Well, they’ll tell you when you get there.’ That was strange. So anyway, I did; I caught a plane. I got down there; I walked in that office and introduced myself, and [the secretary] said, ‘Oh yes, Dr. Gilruth’s expecting you soon. Have you got your tickets for Moscow yet?’ And that was the first time I knew I was going to Moscow.
“I really had a good time with [Gilruth]. We were coming back from that trip over there in ’69. The State Department had briefed us, and things were pretty contentious back in those days between the two countries. One of the things they told us was typical I guess—they told everybody that went over there, don’t lock your suitcase, ’cause they’re going to open it up anyway. Don’t lock it; they’ll break the lock on it. We all tried to adhere to that, but Gilruth evidently forgot it or something. They broke in, busted the lock on it.
“Here we were coming back through Heathrow Airport, and Bob Gilruth had on his cowboy boots and that ten-gallon hat. He was carrying a suitcase that was tied up with a rope around it, and he had a big bag under his arm; he’d bought a fur or something for his wife over there. It looked like Texas walking down through there.
“When they came over here there must have been twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty of them. I know they had a whole wing at the Holiday Inn down there. And they had buses to take them to the Galleria, shopping. They loved to go to the Galleria. They’d buy flashlights and flashlight batteries; that was their favorite thing to take home.”
Hardy said that he has often wondered since then what would have happened if things had worked out differently. “I don’t know what that would have cost,” Hardy said of the Skylab-Salyut proposal. “I don’t know how complicated that would have been. I don’t know what the political payoff of something like that would have been, or the scientific payoff, but that would have been a real joint mission, a real joint mission.”
In fact, he said, depending on how interested the Soviets had been in the program, it might have been possible to work out an arrangement that would have allowed the second Skylab to be flown. Funding issues aside, one of the biggest issues facing a second Skylab program was the limited number of U. S. Saturn launch vehicles and Apollo spacecraft remaining. Supplementing those with Soyuz rockets and capsules in a cooperative program, Hardy noted, could have opened up new possibilities. “For example, you could have used Soyuz preferentially—four of theirs to our last two Command Modules, all sorts of options,” he said, adding, “They just seemed amazed that we built an entire vehicle and wouldn’t fly it.”
Scientist astronaut Phil Chapman was a member of a committee started after Apollo 14 to study space station possibilities. He was part of a group that advocated launching the Skylab-в workshop after modifying it to make it refurbishable. “The modifications to the workshop mostly involved provisions for replacing consumables,” Chapman recalled. “I think the most costly change was mounting the cmgs in palettes so they could be replaced when necessary. As I recall the additional cost was about $50 million in 1970 dollars. We could have had a permanent space station in 1975 with more real utility than the iss for a total cost twenty times less. Once that was up and running, our proposal was to build a reusable crew transfer vehicle, launched initially by a Saturn IB, and then to work on a reusable flyback booster.”
Chapman said that the possibilities posed by the Space Shuttle were seen by those in charge as making this proposal unnecessary. He said that NASA’s decision to pursue the Space Shuttle was one of the principal reasons he left the astronaut corps in 1972 rather than waiting for a chance to fly.
Plans for the future utilization of the Skylab hardware were not to be. When the Skylab ill crew closed the hatch as they left, it was to be the end of the operational program. On 9 February 1974, just one day after the return of Jerry Carr’s crew, Mission Control did some final systems testing, maneuvered Skylab to a gravity gradient attitude (perpendicular to Earth, small end up and workshop end down, an orientation in which it would wobble but remain pretty stable without the need for electrical power or propellants) and turned off the power.
Experts at Marshall forecast that Skylab would descend from its end-of – mission altitude (about 235 nautical miles) only very gradually. If nothing were done, drag from the very thin atmosphere at that altitude would inexorably pull it down, and it was estimated that reentry and burn-up would occur around March 1983. This estimate was based on the average density of the atmosphere at various levels of solar activity. It was known that between 1974 and 1980 solar activity would be increasing, approaching solar maximum —a time when sunspots, flares, and the ejection of solar particles to and beyond the Earth would be more frequent. Increased solar activity heats the upper atmosphere, causing it to expand. The slight increase in density at Skylab’s altitude would increase drag, causing it to descend more quickly. All of this was factored in.
But the rise in solar activity during the 1970s was far from average. It was the most active solar cycle ever recorded with modern instruments. And through the years from 1974 to 1978, NASA and noaa differed in their forecasts. noaa was forecasting higher drag than NASA.
NASA’s plan when Skylab was deactivated was to visit it again when the Space Shuttle was operational, and the first flight had been scheduled for early 1979—plenty of time. A remotely operated system would remove a propulsion module from the orbiter and place it in Skylab’s docking hatch, either to boost it to a high, safe altitude while plans were made to somehow activate it or to deorbit it safely to a remote ocean. Neither component was yet being built because of NASA’s very tight budget.
But as the sun gradually began to move Skylab’s demise earlier, the Shuttle schedule began to move later. An early 1979 launch began to look risky. Sky – lab would have to be visited earlier than the fifth flight, during the so-called test phase of the program, and Shuttle management didn’t want to risk that. Could anything be done to keep Skylab aloft longer? Maybe something could. In February 1977 a team of eight engineers—four from Marshall and four from Johnson—went to Bermuda to try to wake Skylab up. Bermuda was the only NASA ground station that still had command capability using the “old-fashioned” uhf radio band.
As Bill Chubb, at that time leader of the Support Team for Attitude Control at Marshall, explained, “Four years had passed, and we had no idea of the condition of any of the systems nor did we even know if they were com – mandable from the Skylab ground station network. It was critical that we establish communications, interrogate, and activate these systems to facilitate a controlled reentry.
“In order to evaluate what options were available to us, the state of the onboard systems had to be determined. Ground tracking told us when Skylab would be within communication range. Onboard batteries of the power system were most likely fully discharged. Power would be available on the vehicle only when the solar panels were pointing toward the sun. There was no way of knowing if its attitude would be such that the solar panels would be pointed toward the sun during the passes over Bermuda, making power available to the onboard telemetry system. Even with power available we did not know whether it was operable. On March 6, 1978, as Skylab passed within range of the Bermuda Ground Tracking Station, the onboard Skylab Airlock Module command and telemetry system was commanded ‘on.’ Numerous ‘on’ commands were sent until at last data from Skylab came into the Bermuda Station. It was a moment none of us would forget!”
Charlie Harlan was appointed by Chris Kraft, director of Johnson, in 1977 to create and head up the Skylab Reentry Flight Control Team. He recalled: “We’d send a command to charge the batteries, but there had to be juice on the bus for it to be received. So those guys just sat out there, sending command after command after command. Eventually one would get through.” With persistence the remaining good batteries were finally recharged, and Skylab was ready to be commanded out of its passive gravity-gradient attitude into one that would enable control of drag. What attitudes could the aging control system sustain?
Now that control of Skylab attitude had been reestablished, what was the desired direction in space? The lowest drag would make the station travel like an arrow (end-on) and provide the longest lifetime. But to best control the point of reentry and final destruction, a higher drag and shorter lifetime would be better. During this control period, Associated Press space reporter Howard Benedict (later the executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation for many years) noted that “Jack Lousma, a member of the (second) crew to live aboard the station for fifty-nine days, came by the Control Center and asked if the station could be inhabited again. Chubb said ‘Yes,’ there was enough oxygen and nitrogen for perhaps a ninety-day mission. Lousma noted that there probably was still plenty of asparagus aboard, too—left by past crews.” It was one of their least favorite dishes!
One of the three Control Moment Gyros used to control Skylab’s attitude had failed during the third crew’s mission, and another had developed increased bearing temperatures—a possible sign of impending failure. There was very little nitrogen left in the cold gas backup attitude control system. Two cmgs had to be enough to control Skylab and possibly even one. Was this possible?
Charlie Harlan again: “There were some heroes in this story, and maybe the biggest ones were Hans Kennel and his colleague John Glaese at msfc. They came up with what many of us thought was impossible—new control laws for the cmgs to control Skylab even if two of them failed, and new attitudes we could use to control drag. They brought in four guys from IBM who had done the original control system. They completely rewrote the software in Skylab’s IBM computer. They wrote over all the code that wasn’t needed like crew displays and controls. We turned their stuff into commands and sent it up. I remember one day we tumbled Skylab doing that. They’d sent us a matrix, and somehow the rows and columns got transposed and we sent up a bunch of garbage. But they caught it right away and we corrected it.”
Since the goal at that time was to stretch Skylab’s lifetime, drag had to be minimized. The attitude invented for that purpose was called “end-on velocity vector (eovv).”
Hans Kennel recalled: “To reduce the orbital decay the attitude control of the Skylab had to be regained and the drag had to be reduced by pointing the long vehicle axis along the orbital velocity vector. Leading up to reinstatement of active control of Skylab and activation of eovv was the discussion about the health of one of the two remaining functional Control Moment Gyros. It had shown signs toward the end of the original Sky – lab mission similar to the one that failed, and many thought failure of this second cmg was imminent.
“That would have left one cmg remaining, whereas Skylab needed two good cmgs for control. We were told the reactivation mission was ‘off’ unless we could come up with a single cmg backup for eovv. Along with the other things described, we had to develop such a thing and we did. It would have been a ‘hairy’ operation, but it looked like it would work. On the basis of that, the go-ahead was given, and we even adapted the same momentum management methodology developed for single cmg control for use with the two functional cmgs.
“As a side note it was learned after the reactivation phase that the ailing cmg worked better if it was exposed to the sun and not in shadow for extended periods and so we developed maneuver plans for flipping the vehicle from orbital workshop and habitation module forward to Apollo Telescope Mount forward, depending on which end was more favorable for heating the ailing cmg. From that point on it never again showed signs of problems and worked all throughout the remainder of eovv and tea [Torque Equilibrium Attitude]. We developed the necessary control methods, built a simulation to verify the operation, including what kind of data the ground controllers would see, and with the help of IBM the necessary algorithms were implemented on the onboard computer.
“All this was done in record time (we were made aware of the problem on 20 March 1978, IBM got the necessary equations for the onboard computer on 26 April 1978, and eovv attitude was successfully entered 11 June 1978). And it worked very well reducing the orbital decay. This fast response was only possible because we were fluent in apl (a high level computer language); we had all the necessary simulation components due to previous experience; practically all red tape was cut; and the official documentation was done much later.”
The low drag attitude was expected to increase Skylab’s lifetime by about five months, into 1980. But early in 1978, the risk of a Skylab reentry was abruptly dramatized by the Soviet space program. A Soviet spacecraft, Cosmos 954, entered the atmosphere and broke up over northern Canada, spreading nearly a hundred pounds of nuclear fuel over a broad swath of forest. Critics began to question NASA’s plans. NASA assured the public that Skylab contained no radioactive material.
There was talk of extending Skylab’s life by moving it into a higher orbit. Engineers looked at the possibility of launching a booster that could be attached to Skylab. The Space Shuttle, it appeared, was the best answer. Launch on an unmanned rocket would mean figuring out how to automate the reboosting. With the Shuttle, the crews could carry the booster to Skylab and attach it.
However, the same program that offered hope for Skylab’s salvation also brought that hope to an end. The first spaceworthy orbiter, Columbia, was plagued during testing with the loss of insulating ceramic tiles as well as trouble with its engines. A better system for applying the tiles was needed, and the first launch attempt slipped to 1981. Skylab was going to reenter.
The control team now knew what it had to do and prepared a plan for review by NASA headquarters. First they looked at how Skylab’s orbit varied as it moved around the Earth. Some orbits passed over many densely populated land areas; others spent most of the time over water and desert. Using a population-density map prepared by the Department of Defense, they estimated the population under Skylab’s path for each orbit.
The next step was to forecast how Skylab might break up, how much of its bulk would survive reentry and hit Earth’s surface, and over what area. An analysis had been prepared by NASA before Skylab’s launch and was used. The end-of-mission Skylab weighed about 173,000 pounds, and about 50,000 pounds of that was expected to survive reentry.
Putting the two analyses together, NASA estimated that there was an average chance of one in 152 that someone might be struck by debris. But on the very best orbits, it was much less than a tenth of that. These were the orbits that passed over southern Canada, then swept southeast over the Atlantic, skimmed just south of the tip of Africa, up the Pacific and Indian oceans to cross Australia, then across the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean until reaching North America again. If reentry could be contrived to happen east of North America and west of Australia on one of these orbits, Skylab could be safely disposed of.
So the plan was to put Skylab back into its old standard solar inertial, high-
drag attitude, then carefully track what effect that drag was having on its altitude and reentry point. As altitude decreased and drag increased, it would be impossible to maintain solar inertial; asymmetric drag would twist Sky – lab out of control. No problem; the unflappable Hans Kennel and his team had invented torque equilibrium altitude, a variation that perfectly balanced all the forces. Nominally the point of no return would be reached at seventy-five miles altitude. At that altitude, controllers would command Skylab to turn off its cmgs; it would immediately tumble. The known, lower drag of the tumbling configuration would result in a known entry location. And by varying the altitude at tumble time, the team believed it could stretch or shorten reentry to place it on one of the five “good” orbits for that day.
Charlie Harlan recalled, “Another hero was Richard Brown, a Rockwell contractor engineer. He figured out how much power we’d need to perform each maneuver and what attitudes would achieve it. Since our power margins were very small, we’d call Richard in whenever we were planning an attitude change.” Headquarters agonized over the plan. There was a faction that didn’t want to give the public the impression that NASA was in full control; if the scheme backfired, there would be much blame. “This was the ‘God’ faction—they basically didn’t want to do anything,” Harlan said, “so they could blame it on God. But I’m a Deist. I believe God put us on Earth with certain capabilities, and expects us to do our best. My team and I were ready, and pretty optimistic.”
Finally, the call came from headquarters. John Yardley, acting as liaison between Johnson and the administrator, approved the plan. Harlan recalled telling Chris Kraft this and Chris saying, “Charlie, you got your answer. Hang up the phone and don’t answer it again.”
Headquarters had insisted on using predictions of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (norad) regarding reentry rather than nasa’s, “so that there would be one official source.” The NASA team was pretty sure their prediction was better, because they had a better knowledge of vehicle configuration and drag. And in June the NASA prediction was running about two days earlier than the norad one. “We knew the predictions would converge as we got close,” Harlan said. “But the media really wanted to be here for the big event, so we told them unofficially, ‘If you don’t want to miss it, get set up a couple of days early.’”
But before the final demise of Skylab, the general public had lots of advice
for NASA. Headlines in the 5 June 1979 edition of the Huntsville Times reported that “nasa Chief [Robert Frosch] Is Chided for Skylab’s Fall.” When asked where he would be at the time of Skylab’s return, Frosch said that “if not at NASA Headquarters, he would probably be at a bbq in his backyard.” Congressman Robert Walker, R, Pennsylvania, was “somewhat incredulous” that nobody had given any thought at all to tell the public what to do. NASA general counsel Neil Hosenball said, “Our people are the last in the world to know what to say or how to do it [alert the public].”
Other more specific advice came from the public: “Fill a robot plane with TNT and crash into it.” Or “shoot a missile at it.” All these many letters were sent to William O’Donnell, nasa’s director of public information, who said they were all answered. One of those giving him “most pause to compose” suggested having “the astronauts attach balloons (filled with helium) so it will float into outer space.”
A New York restaurant invited people to partake of Skylab cocktails — “two of these and you won’t know what hit you.” A large baseball mitt was erected at Cape Canaveral to catch the station. Another radio station (kmbz, in Kansas) offered $9,800 for a piece of the station. Beanie hats with propellers and T-shirts were sold in San Francisco with a large “x” imprinted saying, “Hit me.” (There were jokes that shirts like this would keep the wearer safe—there was no way the government could actually hit anything it aimed for.)
A psychic from California somehow got Harlan’s home phone number. “She called me several times with predictions. I’d say, ‘How do you know that?’ And she’d say, ‘Numerology.’ But she predicted impact on Dover, Delaware, and she never called back afterwards.”
Meanwhile the press was having a field day. Some people in Washington DC, had started a Chicken Little Society. There were bumper stickers (“Chicken Little was Right!” “Good to the Last Drop”), T-shirts, slogans, and contests—a kind of gallows humor. The New York Times chided NASA soberly. Officials in England offered advice: “Being inside a house would protect you from small pieces. . . .”
Garriott recalled: “I was greatly amused and annoyed by what I considered to be a gross overreaction by the press and criticism of NASA. I had an interview request from one of the Houston press about it. I noted that I/we didn’t invite him to drive down into our community. And since he did, he was exposing our children to a greater risk of being hit by his car than we at NASA were exposing his family to by Skylab reentry. That was not too well received and didn’t make it to print. The statistics were simple and required some estimation, but I believe they were true.”
On 9 July headquarters opened the Skylab Coordination Center to keep everyone informed. On the tenth the forecast was made that entry would occur the next day between 7:00 a. m. and 5:00 p. m., Eastern daylight time. On the other side of the world in Australia, headlines warned of the impending reentry. Sydney’s Sun newspaper ran a front-page headline, three lines deep in bold letters two inches tall, “skylab on aust crash course.”
“Skylab is on a crash course that could bring debris down on southwestern Australia, American authorities said today,” the article, dated 10 July, read. “But it could still re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on any of 12 final orbits—including some over Sydney. The Western Australia State Emergency Service went on full alert this morning. ‘All we’ve heard is rumours,’ ses director Mr D. L. Hill said today.”
Another Sydney paper, the Daily Mirror, announced the same day “sky – lab zero hour near.” Stacked below it was the headline for another article, informing readers, “But here’s some down-to-Earth good news — $10 a week tax cut plan.”
Harlan and his team stood by to make their last decision. At midnight it appeared that Skylab would reenter on the very best orbit. But the predicted debris “footprint” was immense—nearly four thousand miles long by one hundred wide because the heavier pieces would be less affected by drag and would travel a lot farther. And it looked like the western edge of that footprint might just overlap the U. S. east coast. So the tumbling command was given early, with Skylab just under eighty miles high, and the impact footprint moved east as predicted.
But things rarely go exactly as predicted. Skylab’s breakup altitude had been calculated from its design structural strength requirements. The actual vehicle was stronger than the specs required. It held together longer than was calculated, breaking up over the Indian Ocean. Most of the debris fell harmlessly into the water, but some chunks fell in western Australia along a line from south to northeast of Perth. (Nine days later, Perth hosted the Miss Universe pageant, and a piece of the fallen spacecraft was on display during the event.) “Thank God—and Charlie’s team—no one was hurt,” Kerwin said.
47- Johnson Space Center officials and flight controllers monitor the reentry of Skylab.
A ground track of Skylab in its last hour or so of existence on 11 July starts from mid-Canada and moves easterly out into the North Atlantic. It then moves southeast into the South Atlantic, just as planned. It passes south of the Cape of Good Hope and turns northeast across the Indian Ocean toward Australia, beginning to seriously break apart and the lighter pieces to burn up. Some smaller pieces scattered down on tin roofs in Esperance and other nearby cities, but a few of the larger chunks (such as the film vault and the oxygen and nitrogen tanks) presumably carried on overhead into the Outback. Some are doubtless still there, awaiting some adventuresome explorer to find them.
The raining of debris on Australia prompted legal action—the town of Esperance fined the U. S. State Department four hundred dollars for littering. Kerwin recalled that his primary emotion at seeing the end of his onetime home was simply relief that nobody was hurt. “I think we’d seen it coming for long enough not to be surprised or regretful,” he said.
In Australia the reentering spacecraft put on a show for those who saw it. The Skylab control center actually got a phone call from the captain of a commercial aircraft flying along Australia’s west coast. It was night, and he excitedly described the multiple streaks of flame blazing through the sky.
That was the clue for the team to turn off their consoles and go home. Airline pilot Bill Anderson gave an even more useful visual report when he noted that he and his passengers saw separate fireballs change from a “bright blue into an orangey-red” as the debris broke up and descended into the lower atmosphere.
A woman in the town of Esperance in southwest Australia was among those on the ground who saw Skylab fall. It seemed like “a shower of sparkling lights—like a rocket—passed overhead with no sound, until about a half a minute or so, [then] there was this loud boom,” she said.
Once more, giant bold letters graced Sydney’s Sun. Above the headline “skylab hits wa station,” was followed by a distinctly local angle to the story: “The world stood in awe today as Skylab tore itself apart in a spectacular display and spattered the Earth of a remote West Australia sheep station,” the 12 July article begins. “But Noondinia Station manager John Seiler’s only complaint was: ‘It scared my horses.’”
When Skylab fell, Stan Thornton was a seventeen-year-old truck driver’s assistant living in Esperance, a remote coastal town set in the Bay of Isles, some 440 miles southeast of the capital Perth. He calls his resort hometown “a real paradise.”
That momentous evening in a region known for incredibly clear night skies, Stan traveled with his sister and some friends to a local lookout and watched in fascination as a profusion of bright, colorful man-made meteors ripped across the starry heavens, indicating the end of Skylab. The following morning his mother Elsie “went out to [their] backyard, which had only been mowed and cleaned the previous day, and found charcoal pieces spread all over the grass.” After Elsie had told her son about the burnt chunks of debris, he gathered up a few sizeable pieces and went to the local State Emergency Services (ses) office with his friend Ray Rose.
Local ses manager Phil Arlidge contacted a Perth radio station at 6:00 p. m., as he’d heard about a reward on offer for the first person to deliver an authenticated piece of Skylab to a newspaper office in San Francisco within seventy-two hours. The radio station was up to the challenge Arlidge’s call presented and confirmed with him that the San Francisco Examiner was indeed prepared to pay a ten-thousand-dollar reward—on the proviso it reached their office in America within three days. Stan Thornton was about to be involved in the race of a lifetime.
48. Owen Garriott with an oxygen tank, one of the largest pieces of Skylab debris to be recovered, at the U. S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville al.
Things began to happen in a hurry, according to Stan. “The radio people were in Esperance with the help of a Swan Brewery Lear Jet within two hours. They had already contacted Qantas to arrange my ticket and passport, and the next day I flew out of Perth for the United States. In San Francisco I was greeted at the airport by Qantas manager Gil Whelan, who had arranged a limousine, and I was taken straight to the downtown Examiner office.”
Stan had delivered the pieces with twenty-four hours to spare and was presented with his bounty. The newspaper’s reporters wanted to know everything about him and how he had found the Skylab debris. “There was a press conference at the Examiner office, and after this they locked the pieces into a briefcase to be sent to NASA,” he recalled. He suddenly found himself an instant celebrity and will never forget the experience. “For someone who had not been out of Esperance, it was pretty over the top,” he recently reflected. Within a couple of days, Ray Rose and Stan’s family had joined him in San Francisco to celebrate his good fortune. NASA examined the
charred fragments and Stan said they later told him the pieces were “some type of balsa wood from the insulation.”
Recently moving to a new home just south of Perth with his partner Kerry and their two children, his famous “dash for cash” still brings back vivid memories for the truck driver/laborer, and despite the passage of time Stan said he still has a degree of friendly notoriety among his family and friends. “The only part of my life that really changed over here,” he reflects with a shy smile, “was the word ‘Skylab’ was placed in front of my name. Even today I am actually still greeted as ‘Skylab.’”
People said a lot of nice things about Harlan and his team after it was over—including a headline in the Toronto Star, “How Charlie saved Canada from Skylab!” But the kudos he remembers most fondly came in a splashdown party skit put on by his neighbors. It featured a song called, “A Salute to Charles: He Couldn’t Keep It Up.” An excerpt (to the tune of “The Eyes of Texas Are upon You”):
The parts ofSkylab are upon you
All the live long day
The parts ofSkylab are upon you,
We hope they will decay;
Did you hear the Skylab coming,
Was it a big surprise?
Little ladies in Australia Are saying, “Damn your eyes! ”