How Successful Was Skylab’s Return to Earth?

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.

Skylab's demise was an international media event in 1979, with people guessing where the space station would ultimately crash to Earth.
Skylab's demise was an international media event in 1979, with people guessing where the space station would ultimately crash to Earth.

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.

Scoping out Skylab:

  • Although Skylab spent more than 6 years circling the Earth, the orbital workshop was only manned for about 24 weeks. Skylab wasn't equipped with any landing controls, so its re-entry was bound to be unpredictable.

  • The Esperance Museum contains numerous artifacts from the Skylab disintegration, including oxygen tanks, a storage freezer, nitrogen spheres, circuit boards, and pieces of insulation foam.

  • The San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 USD prize to the first person who delivered a piece of Skylab to their office. Stan Thornton, a 17-year-old from Esperance, hopped on a flight to San Francisco and claimed the prize.

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