History Podcasts

Skylab crashes to Earth

Skylab crashes to Earth

Parts of Skylab, America’s first space station, come crashing down on Australia and into the Indian Ocean five years after the last manned Skylab mission ended. No one was injured.

READ MORE: The Day Skylab Crashed to Earth

Launched in 1973, Skylab was the world’s first successful space station. The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. However, unlike the ill-fated Salyut, which was plagued with problems, the American space station was a great success, safely housing three separate three-man crews for extended periods of time.

Originally the spent third stage of a Saturn 5 moon rocket, the cylindrical space station was 118 feet tall, weighed 77 tons, and carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time.

Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate–earlier than was anticipated–because of unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, Skylab made a spectacular return to earth, breaking up in the atmosphere and showering burning debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

How Successful Was Skylab’s Return to Earth? (with picture)

The inhabitants of Esperance, Western Australia, never expected to end up on the front pages of newspapers around the world, but that's exactly what happened in July 1979, when the Skylab space station began its uncontrolled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Although NASA attempted to maneuver Skylab so that it would avoid populated areas, and land in the southern Indian Ocean, those efforts were only partially successful.

People around the world speculated about where the space station's remnants would end up, but none could have guessed that much of the debris would ultimately fall over Esperance, a town of only 10,000 people located to the southeast of Perth.

In the event, Skylab disintegrated much closer to Earth than NASA had expected -- and quite a lot of metal ended up scattered around Esperance. The town even issued a tongue-in-cheek fine to NASA for littering, which it never seriously expected to receive. However, a California radio DJ named Scott Barley took up the cause and raised enough money from his listeners to pay off NASA's fine in 2009, on the 30th anniversary of the historic re-entry.

Today in Music History: Skylab crashes to Earth, ELO dedicates song

Electric Light Orchestra, Ekeberghallen, Oslo, Norway. (Helge Øverås, Wikipedia CC BY 2.5)

History Highlight:

Today in 1979, the space station Skylab crashed to Earth after six years in space. Leading up to the event, Electric Light Orchestra took out ads in trade magazines dedicating their new single, "Don't Bring Me Down", to Skylab.

Also, Today In:

1964 - The Beatles appeared live on the ABC Television program "Lucky Stars (Summer Spin)", performing 'A Hard Day's Night', 'Long Tall Sally', 'Things We Said Today' and 'You Can't Do That'. To avoid the crowd of fans waiting for them, The Beatles arrived at the Teddington Studio Centre by boat, traveling down the River Thames.

1969 - Space Oddity by David Bowie was released in the U.K. for the first time. It was timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landing but had to be re-released before it became a hit, later in the year in the U.K. (but not until 1973 in the U.S.).

1970 - Three Dog Night started a two-week run at No. 1 in the U.S. with their version of the Randy Newman song "Mama Told Me Not To Come", which was also a No. 3 hit in the U.K.. The song was first covered by Eric Burdon on his first solo album in 1966 and gave Tom Jones & Stereophonics a No. 4 hit on the U.K. Singles Chart in 2000.

1987 - Heart started a three week run at No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart with "Alone", It made No. 3 in the U.K..

1992 - A range of eight neckties designed by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead went on sale in the US. President Bill Clinton bought a set. The collection grossed millions in the U.S. by the end of the year.

1996 - Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin died from a drug overdose in New York City at 34-years old.

2000 - Metallica's Lars Ulrich was the first witness to testify at a U.S. Senate hearing over copyright law issues concerning free sharing of music files on websites such as Napster and MP3.com.
, singer of Bauhaus, is 57 today. Thin, with prominent cheekbones, a baritone voice, and a penchant for gloomy poetics, Murphy is often called the "Godfather of Goth."

2002 - The funeral of The Who's bass player John Entwistle took place at a church in The Cotswolds. More than 200 mourners filed into the 12th century church of St Edward.

2009 - The Black Eyes Peas "I Gotta Feeling" started a 14-week run at No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart ending the 12-week run of the band's previous single "Boom Boom Pow". It made the band only the fourth to replace themselves at No. 1 in chart history, following The Beatles, Boyz II Men, and OutKast.

2013 - Pearl Jam released their tenth studio album 'Lightning Bolt' which went to No. 1 on the U.S. album chart.

2014 - Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone died of bile duct cancer at the age of 65.

Peter Murphy, singer of Bauhaus, is 59 today.

Guitarist Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi) is 57.

Lil' Kim is either 41 or 42 - sources differ.

Highlights for Today in Music History are gathered from This Day in Music, Paul Shaffer's Day in Rock, Song Facts and Wikipedia.

Reminds me of Skylab crash. I have a piece of it..

The Day Skylab Crashed to Earth: Facts About the First U.S. .
https://www.history.com › news › the-day-skylab-crash.
11 Jul 2012 — The imminent crash of Skylab midway through 1979 coincided with Americans' declining confidence in their government. The stagnant economy .

40 Years Ago, NASA's Skylab Space Station Fell to Earth .
https://www.space.com › skylab-space-station-fall-40-y.
11 Jul 2019 — Forty years ago today (July 11), NASA's defunct Skylab space station came crashing back to Earth, dropping big hunks of hardware into the .


Stars can't shine without darkness


Approaching asteroid? Is this THE one?

Peter Terren

Here are the photo's. My father took the trailer shot probably in 1979, gave the photo and specimen to me in 2005. I took the fibreglass specimen photo in 2011.
I cant recall whether it was from a heatshield or a tank but I'm not sure if they had composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPD) then.
I should run the Geiger counter over it although there was said to be nothing radioactive in Skylab. Just like there is no radioactivity in your microwave oven or smoke detectors, glowing tritium keyrings, Fiestaware salt shakers, radium watches, ilmenite in the ground.

Oops. Can't import photos from my computer. I didn't put these photos on my website as I didn't "make" them.

If anyone can tell me how to import from my computer please do. I don't want to put it on another 3rd party app just to put it here.

Littering fine issued to NASA

Before long it seemed that without warning, the small coastal community had been thrust onto the world stage.

An American TV station reportedly interviewed Qantas executives who told them the Skylab saga had done one good thing — it had reminded the world that Australia exists.

A makeshift workshop was set up for locals to bring in small pieces of Skylab for the officials to check for radiation with a Geiger counter.

One of the Shire's rangers at one point handed the NASA team a $400 fine for littering, meant as a tongue-in-cheek gesture.

Instead, three decades later, a radio broadcaster called Scott Barley from Barstow, California crowdfunded the outstanding penalty among his listeners and hand-delivered a novelty cheque to the Esperance Shire.

Today, the story has entered local folklore.

An enormous sign hangs from the exterior of the local museum in honour of the tale.


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The space station Skylab, in its death plunge yesterday, sprayed debris over central Australia across some of the most desolate terrain on the face of the Earth.

There were no reports of damage or injury, sparing the United States worldwide embarrassment. It was estimated that 20 to 25 tons of metal survived Skylab’s fall.

For residents in southwestern Australia, the fall of Skylab over the Indian Ocean and the continent provided a celestial fireworks show complete with the sound of sonic booms.

“It was an incredible sight,” said John Seller, a rancher in Australia’s vast outback. “Hundreds of shining lights dropping all around the homestead. We could hear the noise of wind in the air as bigger pieces passed over us. Just after the last pieces dropped out of sight, the whole house shook three times.

“The horses on the property ran mad. They galloped all over the place, and the dogs were barking.”

Jim Kukowski, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said “quite a bit of debris” fell on Australia.

Late yesterday, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) revised its coordinates for the point where the last and largest piece lost its forward motion and started to drop.

NORAD put the site at Kalgoorlie in southwestern Australia, 700 to 800 miles northeast of the position in the Indian Ocean where it first had been estimated to be. NORAD estimated the time of the “decay point” at 9:37 a.m. PDT, give or take two minutes.

“We have received no reports of property damage or personal injury,” Kukowski said. “That doesn’t rule it out 100 percent, but it appears highly unlikely that any debris would fall on anybody.”

He said the area is one of the most desolate in the world, “on a par with the Saharan Desert or worse.”

That, however, did not prevent hundreds of Australians from witnessing the flaming spectacle in the sky.

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The Skylab Program

NASA had studied various concepts for a space station, including inflatable donuts, Chesley Bonestell's magnificent "Wheel," and various other designs since the earliest beginnings of the space program. When the Saturn rocket was developed in the mid-'60s, enabling some heavy lifting into space, the Skylab Program began to take shape. Following cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20, we had a lot of hardware lying around gathering dust, so we put it to some remarkably good use.

At first there were two competing concepts for a space station. The first, called the "Wet Concept," called for launching a Saturn 1B, venting the S IV-B upper stage and refurbishing it, converting it to the space station, while in orbit. The second, or "Dry Concept," called for outfitting the S IV-B while still on the ground and launching it atop a Saturn V. While the Apollo 11 astronauts were actually on the moon in July, 1969, the decision was made to go with the Dry Concept.

Skylab weighed about 100 tons, and its launch marked the last launch of the wonderful Saturn V, the rocket that never failed. It had a volume of 283.17 cubic meters and was separated into two "floors" the "upper" floor contained storage lockers and a large empty space for conducting experiments, and two airlocks, one pointed "down" toward the earth and the other "up" toward the sun the "lower" floor was divided into rooms including a dining room with a table, three bedrooms, a work area, a bathroom and a shower. The floors consisted of an open gridwork that fit cleats on the bottom of the astronauts' shoes.

The station was also equipped with an airlock module for the many spacewalks that were required to change film in the external cameras and make repairs to the station. The Apollo Command and Service Modules remained attached to the station's docking mechanism for the duration of the astronauts' stays aboard the station.

The largest piece of scientific equipment was the "Apollo Telescope Mount" or ATM, which had its own solar panels for electricity generation and was used to make apectrographic analyses of the Sun without interference from Earth's atmosphere.

Launch of the unoccupied Skylab, designated Skylab 1 (the occupied missions were officially designated Skylabs 2, 3 and 4, but are generally referred to as Skylabs I, II and III, and are referred to in that manner here) took place on May 14, 1973, and problems set in early on. One minute and three seconds into launch, the meteorite shield/sunshade was torn loose by the aerodynamic forces, destroying one of the solar arrays and damaging the other. The first crew, Skylab I, which was supposed to launch the next day, was delayed for ten days while mission personnel devised a method to repair the crippled station.

In all, three crews were launched, each in turn setting a record for longest human space flight the all-time American record, which stood until Norm Thagard broke it aboard Mir in 1995 (and now held by Shannon Lucid), was set by Skylab III at over 2,017 hours (three months) and 1,214 orbits of the earth. The Skylab program totalled 513 man-days in orbit, conducted thousands of experiments in many different disciplines, and even viewed the rather disappointing comet Kohoutek from Skylab III.

Skylab's orbit slowly deteriorated and it finally burned up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979, more than five years after the last crew left for home.

The final orbit

"They're all studying maps and puzzling over orbital charts, wondering about the predictions on Skylab's fall," explained Blackstone.

On its final orbit, which was predicted to take place in less than 12 hours, the space station would pass over Canada.

But NASA scientists reassured journalists that there was a lot more water in Skylab's path than populated land.

"Iɽ like to take credit for it, but I cannot," said Skylab Coordinator Richard Smith after demonstrating the final orbit that Skylab was expected to take.

Skylab crashes to Earth - HISTORY

On the May 19, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live, the path-breaking comedy program that everyone who was anyone watched, John Belushi played a science commentator for “Weekend Update,” its faux news segment. Belushi began with a staid report on NASA’s announcement of the forthcoming uncontrolled reentry of Skylab, the orbital workshop launched by NASA into Earth orbit in 1973, but quickly became unhinged, smashing to bits a model of the spacecraft on a globe and talking about how the largest segment would be no heavier than about 5,000 pounds, “landing right on the head of poor little Johnny Belushi as he hides, scared, in his basement with an Army helmet on his head!”

A brilliant satire on the repercussions of the uncontrolled reentry of the first U.S. space station, this performance reflected the apprehension felt by many about its demise on July 11, 1979, when it broke up and landed throughout the Pacific, including a few pieces in Australia. It also foreshadowed a negative perspective on NASA that would remain with the space agency thereafter and prompt its officials to ensure that such an incident never occurred again.

The Skylab reentry became the butt of jokes throughout the world, and not a little ingenuity in turning the reentry into an economic boon. One company marketed the “Skylab Survival Kit,” consisting of a hard hat. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a political cartoon that offered a multiple choice test asking readers to “pick the best example of good ol’ American know-how Three Mile Island, DC-10, Skylab, Pinto, mass transit.” All of these items, of course, represented fundamental problems with American technology and management. Skylab became representative of American failure, and NASA took criticism about the propriety of spaceflight if people were likely to be killed by falling objects.

Fortunately, Skylab’s return to Earth proved less catastrophic than predicted by virtually everyone, thanks to maneuvers by NASA to help the spacecraft reenter the atmosphere over relatively uninhabited portions of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this effort, the debris dispersion stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia. In reality, while NASA took sufficient precautions so that no one was injured, its leaders had learned that the agency could never again allow a situation in which large chunks of orbital debris had a chance of reaching the Earth’s surface. It was an inauspicious ending to the first American space station, not one that its originators had envisioned. And it portends important lessons for the future when considering the ultimate fate of the International Space Station (ISS) currently intended to orbit until at least 2020.

Might it have turned out differently? Over the years, there has been considerable debate over how serious NASA might or might not have been about preventing the Skylab orbital workshop from reentering the atmosphere. The prospect of saving the $14 billion (in fiscal year (FY) 2013 dollars) workshop would have seemed appealing, given the knowledge that NASA could never launch another module of that size after the retirement of the Saturn V following the 1973 launch of the Skylab workshop. It has been no secret that NASA engineers undertook studies about the potential of flying the Space Shuttle to Skylab and reboosting and reoccupying the workshop.

How serious NASA was in those studies has been the subject of conjecture and myth since then. Most commentators on the subject note that the issue was moot because developmental problems with the Space Shuttle and unanticipated solar events caused Skylab to come crashing back to Earth before the shuttle was ready for flight.

In reality, NASA officials pursued the potential of Skylab reboost and reoccupation aggressively, expending more than $100 million (in FY 2013 adjusted dollars) on the proposed rescue mission. Not only did NASA develop shuttle scenarios to rescue Skylab but it also worked on a robotic reboost capability that went far in the mission planning process.

So what was “the rest of the story” of Skylab, the failed rescue attempt that might have altered fundamentally the trajectory of the space program in the 1980s and 1990s had it been successful? That is a story that I would like to pursue at some time. Stay tuned.

What do you Think? Was NASA serious about trying to rescue Skylab? I would welcome your thoughts on this.

The true story behind NASA’s 1973 Skylab ‘mutiny’

The International Space Station has been in orbit around our planet since 1998, providing the human race with a (semi) permanent habitable space at the front door of the great beyond. That timeline offers an interesting bit of perspective — as you come to realize that America’s latest generation of enlisted warfighters, joining the service within the past two years, belong to the first generation of human beings in history to live their entire lives with a human presence in orbit.

Members of previous generations, however, likely remember a time before the International Space Station — and if they were paying attention to the headlines in the early 1970s, they might also remember its predecessor: Skylab. In many ways, Skylab served as a test bed for systems that would come to be deployed on the International Space Station, and in a number of others, it was completely unique when compared to the array of other space stations that have been launched since.

Small in comparison to the ISS as a whole, Skylab was huge for what it was. Unlike space stations like Mir or the ISS, Skylab was all one section that was launched into space on a single rocket. That rocket happened to be the most powerful platform mankind has ever produced, the Saturn V, which also ferried astronauts to and from the moon on the Apollo missions — and it’s a good thing too, because all told, the Skylab itself accounted for a 170,000 pound payload.

While the early space station offered NASA a chance to see how many of their systems held up to prolonged space flight, perhaps the most important development to come out of the six-year Skylab mission was the way it forced America’s space agency to approach working with astronauts out in the cold expanses of space. All it took to do that… was a mutiny. Well, maybe more like a space-strike.

Skylab 4 was the last mission to take place aboard the Skylab before it was slated to reenter the earth’s atmosphere and burn up, so with budget in mind, NASA placed an emphasis on wringing every last bit of scientific data that they could out of the space station during its last 84 days of operation. As a result, Skylab 4’s rookie astronaut crew of Commander Gerald P. Carr, Science Pilot Edward G. Gibson, and pilot William R. Pogue arrived at the space station aware that they had a daunting schedule ahead of them.

How daunting? The entire 84 day rotation was scheduled to the minute for each of the three crew members: 16 hours of itemized tasks micromanaged by Mission Control each day, followed by exactly 8 hours of recuperation before starting the process over again. The schedule was put together well in advance, and allowed no time for deviation – arguably a foolish decision considering the three men aboard the station had never been in space before.

Pictured in their flight suits with a globe and a model of the Skylab space station are, left to right, Astronaut Gerald P. Carr, commander Scientist-Astronaut Edward G. Gibson, science pilot and Astronaut William R. Pogue, pilot. (NASA)

While the previous Skylab crews had all been experienced astronauts, Skylab 4’s team had to quickly learn how to function in a microgravity environment, but that wasn’t the only snag they hit right away. The human inner ear works much like the accelerometer in a smartphone. It helps the human body understand how it’s oriented and maintain balance. In a zero or microgravity environment, that function becomes compromised, and many astronauts experience serious motion sickness and nausea for a day or so upon arriving in orbit.

Read Next: Watch: Take a 'Fly By' Tour of the International Space Station! You Have to See This!

Pogue suffered from this nausea the worst, but the crew agreed that they had anticipated such an issue and that he would manage — opting not to inform Mission Control. Unbeknownst to them, Mission Control was secretly monitoring their conversation, immediately offering up admonishment for keeping secrets from the command and setting the precedent for strained relations between the crew and Mission Control that would go on for weeks to come.

Worse, however, was how Pogue’s short lived illness set the crew back on their regimented task list. With nearly every moment of the 84 day mission scheduled, Skylab 4’s team found themselves falling behind right from the start, and as the delays began to cascade, their relations with Mission Control strained even further.

After more than a month of having Mission Control monitor all conversations, manage the crew’s tasks on a line by line basis, and pushing the astronauts to work faster in order to compensate for how far behind they were, the astronauts were beginning to lose their patience. Gibson was recorded as saying their first month in orbit had been “a 33-day fire drill,” but the mission commander, Gerald Carr, was more to the point about his feelings.

“We would never work 16 hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground,” he told Mission Control, “and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”

Commander Gerald Carr flies a Manned Maneuvering Unit prototype aboard Skylab. (NASA)

His concerns didn’t just go unheeded, according to a number of reports, they were scoffed at. Previous crews had managed the grueling schedule, and Carr’s crew was quickly gaining a reputation as complainers – constantly falling further behind and then lamenting NASA’s efforts to get them back on track. Tensions between the ground staff and crew continued to rise, but Carr wasn’t done fighting for a little off time. A few days after Christmas, he transmitted a text message to NASA.

“We need more time to rest. We need a schedule that is not so packed. We don’t want to exercise after a meal. We need to get things under control.”

NASA, once again, saw Carr’s request as a complaint they could disregard. Mission Control replied with a concise demand: the crew needed to meet their schedule as outlined in the mission. What happened after that is a little known bit of space history: the crew went on strike.

In many accounts, this event is called a “mutiny,” though that may be too harsh a word to put on it. There was no violence, nor was there even any discussion with the command. Carr and his crew simply… turned the radio off.

Read Next: Russian cosmonauts execute 8-hour spacewalk to investigate possible sabotage aboard the ISS

After six weeks of Mission Control micromanaging every individual task, chastising the crew for falling behind, and mandating when each man was allowed to eat, drink, rest or use the restroom, Skylab grew eerily quiet. For one full day, it was just three men in a space station, with no communication whatsoever with the world below.

Aboard Skylab, Carr, Gibson and Pogue enjoyed a nice, long break – finally giving themselves an opportunity to take in the incredible sights of orbit, catch up on some rest, and work on a few of the experiments they had the most interest in. Down on earth, it was a different story.

Mission Control fumed at the strike, but as the hours wore on, they were forced to face some hard truths: the three astronauts in orbit were the last crew to fly aboard Skylab, and each day they weren’t working represented millions of dollars worth of lost research. Frustrated as they may have been, NASA had to accept that Carr and his crew had the leverage in this situation, so when Carr turned communications back on after their “day off,” the voice on the other end of the line was quite a bit more understanding than had previously been the case.

From that point forward, Mission Control provided a list of daily tasks to be completed as the astronauts saw fit, rather than working them through a minute by minute schedule. They also agreed to provide the crew with full meal and rest breaks, rather than expecting them to work as they ate. The rest of the Skylab 4 mission went on without incident, and the lessons NASA learned about how to manage orbital crews continue to be employed to this day.

The final view of Skylab as the crew returned to earth. (NASA)

“Highly trained military types and scientists fully convinced of the value of their work are likely to push back when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment,” Samir Chopra of Brooklyn College explained in his analysis of the strike. “The lessons here are not just for manned space flight, but for any workplace environment that approximates its conditions, whether in space or on Earth.”

However, important as the lessons learned from Skylab 4’s “mutiny” may have been for future crews, it doesn’t always pay to be the crew that takes a stand. None of Skylab 4’s astronauts ever returned to space, likely because NASA still had a bad taste in their mouth over the whole incident. Carr, Gibson, and Pogue, however, maintained a good relationship with one another. When asked what it was like working with Gibson and Carr in 2011, Pogue didn’t mince words.

“We got along together just fine,” he said, “we were bound by a common enemy: Mission Control.”

Watch the video: The View from Space - Earths Countries and Coastlines (January 2022).