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July 11, 1979: Look Out Below! Here Comes Skylab!

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Old 07-11-2008
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July 11, 1979: Look Out Below! Here Comes Skylab!
1979: The Skylab space station reenters Earth's atmosphere after six years in orbit. It is perhaps the most highly anticipated return of any spacecraft ever, save Apollo 13.
America's first space station, launched in May 1973 as a science and engineering laboratory, was not a success. Originally intended to remain in orbit as a shelter for crews from the new space shuttle program, Skylab was badly damaged during liftoff and plagued thereafter by a power deficit that played a significant role in its premature demise.
NASA's plan was for Skylab to remain in relatively low orbit until a space shuttle equipped with a reboost module could reach it in 1979 and boost it into a higher orbit. Subsequent shuttle missions would focus on overhauling Skylab, making repairs and replacing various components.
It was intended that Skylab remain in orbit throughout the 1980s. It fell well short of that, but there were some achievements, especially in the areas of solar research and the adaptation of astronauts to longer periods in space.
Three crews traveled to Skylab aboard Apollo spacecraft -- spending a total of 171 days aboard and returning by splashdown -- and some repairs were made. The space station was placed in a parking orbit after the third Apollo crew departed, to await the eventual arrival of the first space shuttle. But delays in getting the shuttle program off the ground, coupled with Skylab's deteriorating orbit, compelled NASA to consign its space station to a fiery death.
With Skylab out of control, NASA ground controllers were unable to conduct the routine reentry procedures.
As they prepared to bring Skylab down, the world watched in an atmosphere that can only be described as circus-like. Skylab news coverage was amped up and sensationalized, merchandise was hawked everywhere, and bookmakers took bets on when and where the 77.5-ton space station would hit the Earth's atmosphere.
The San Francisco Examiner, in one of its loopier promotional campaigns (disclosure: I was on the paper's editorial staff at the time), even offered $10,000 (about $30,000 in today's money) to the first person who could deliver a chunk of Skylab debris to the paper's newsroom.
That person turned out to be Stan Thornton, a 17-year-old from Esperance, Australia.
Ground control had struggled to coax Skylab into a position that would cause the spacecraft to break up over the Indian Ocean. Most of it did, but parts of it came down over Western Australia. It also hit the atmosphere at a shallower angle than intended, resulting in bigger pieces, a number of which managed to fall to Earth intact.
A small piece landed on Thornton's roof in Esperance and the kid was off to San Francisco to claim his 10 grand.
Source: NASA, Space.com


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