In July 1979, the nation was obsessed with listening to cassette tapes on Sony’s new Walkman, watching the Wimbledon wins of Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova…and calculating the odds that space station Skylab might fall on our heads.
Using leftover hardware from the Apollo program, NASA created Skylab, the United States’ first manned space station, and launched the craft on May 14, 1973. For the next nine months, 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments were performed on board, collecting vast amounts of data and proving that humans could live and work in space for extended periods of time.
With every Skylab mission, a new record was set for time spent in space, with the third and final crew spending 84 days. NASA strived to offer a “highly satisfactory living and working environment for crews”, with room for personal privacy and recreational activities including books, music players, playing cards, and other games. However, it was a window with a view of Earth that was the favored means of relaxation for astronauts.
One additional mission was planned that would have deployed the Space Shuttle to move Skylab to a higher orbit, extending its life further through repairs by future Shuttle missions. However, development of the Shuttle was delayed and ultimately the Skylab was left in an orbit that was expected to last until at least the early 1980s.
Intense solar activity heated the outer layers of Earth’s atmosphere, causing Skylab’s orbit to decay faster than expected. Facing the inevitable, NASA made adjustments to reorient the space station in such a way that it would return to Earth over the ocean. Reentry began as predicted on July 11, 1979, but a miscalculation resulted in a 4% error, with the station burning up more slowly than expected. The largest pieces broke up in the atmosphere, but debris rained down on an area of Western Australia.
By this point, Skylab’s reentry had become an international event. Popular items for sale included hats and t-shirts sporting bulls eyes. Wagers were placed on the time and place the space station would hit.
The San Francisco Examiner even offered a $10,000 prize for the first piece of Skylab delivered to its offices. Two dozen pieces were recovered by Stan Thornton, a 17-year-old from Esperance, southeast of Perth. A Philadelphia business man flew Stan and his family to San Francisco to collect the prize.
In a way, Skylab still survives today. Two flight-ready space stations were built, but only one was ever launched. The second craft, known as Skylab B, is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.