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“There’s only kangaroos there!”: How the fall of the American station stirred up the Australian outback

A local resident is inspecting a large fragment of the Skylab space station, which fell on her possessions. Photos The Esperance Express

On April 2, 2018, the Chinese orbiting space station “Tiangun-1”, burned at the entrance to the Earth’s atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean. Often it happens – stations and satellites fall into the ocean, leaving no traces, but other cases are known. One of the most famous stories of unsuccessful falls was the collapse of the American Skylab complex in 1979. Then the wreckage covered several farms in the state of Western Australia, which led to a small international scandal and even made then-US President Jimmy Carter apologize to one of the farmers.

The birth of Skylab

The United States first thought about the creation of orbital space complexes in the 1950s, when the father of “Vau-2” and the American space program, Wernher von Braun, spoke about it. In those years, the idea seemed promising, but secondary – all the forces the Americans threw to conquer the moon. The USSR implemented its program for the creation of space stations earlier – in October 1971, launched “Salyut-1.”

The launch of the lunar program required great efforts and significant financial investments. But after the historic landing on the moon more than 400-thousandth state, NASA was threatening a simple one, and because of the cancellation of three missions of Apollo, the space agency had a stock of missiles and components. Instead of building a station in space, as waspreviously supposed , the organization decided to assemble it on Earth and launch a superheavy carrier rocket “Saturn-5”.

Station “Skylab” indicating the modules. NASA Image

The basis of the station was the upper stage of the rocket ” Saturn-1B “, which was re-equipped taking into account the needs of the crew. The complex was phenomenal, for those times, with dimensions: the length is more than 24 meters, the maximum diameter is more than six meters, and the mass is 77 tons.

These dimensions not only allowed the placement of research equipment inside, but also made the astronauts’ stay in orbit as comfortable as possible. They were private cabins, a shower and a separate toilet. The footage of the NASA documentary dedicated to the Skylab shows that astronauts could do gymnastics on board the station. On May 14, 1973 Skylab was taken to near-earth orbit.

NASA film dedicated to the Skylab

Three expeditions: experiments and strike in orbit

When the station was put into orbit, a freelance situation occurred-one solar battery did not open, and the other broke away. NASA quickly took the situation under control and eliminated the malfunction in 10 days, when the first expedition arrived in orbit.

From May 1973 to February 1974, the station visited three expeditions. They studied the adaptation of man to the conditions of weightlessness and conducted scientific experiments. The most remarkable was the third and last expedition into the orbit – Skylab-4. At that time, this flight was the longest in terms of the number of days spent by people in space, and crew members were the first to meet the New Year in orbit. During the expedition, the astronauts followed Cometeka’s comet and the activity of the Sun, and also watched the natural phenomena on Earth.

Once the Skylab-4 crew spent a one-day strike in orbit, disconnecting from the Earth and devoting the day to rest. According to the astronauts, they did this because of the hard schedule of work, which did not leave enough time for unloading. “I do not think that on Earth we were expected to work 16 hours a day for 85 days. So why do we have to do it here ( in orbit – ‘s comment ?), ” Commander Gerald Carr wondered . On February 8, 1974, his crew returned safely to Earth. Since then, there were no people on the Skylab.

“In Australia, the station will not hurt anyone: there’s only kangaroos in there!”

After the return of the Skylab-4 expedition, the question arose of the further use of the station. There were still resources left to receive the astronauts, but for the normal functioning of the complex, it was required to adjust the altitude of the orbit. This would entail additional costs in the form of another “superfluous” launch of a heavy missile, so the next controlled flight to the station was canceled .

As the researchers note , NASA was thinking about pairing the programs Skylab and Space Shuttle. But due to the fact that the Shuttle was not ready by the end of the 1970s, and the increased activity of the Sun had a negative impact on the orbital station, in 1978 NASA finally abandoned the use of Skylab and decided to flood the complex.

While engineers and scientists were counting on the trajectory of the fall of the station, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs were waiting for her in their own way: they drew targets at homes, made special shirts and organized parties under the slogan “Welcome Home, Skylab.”

Particular zeal was shown by the press: The San Francisco Examiner newspaper promised to pay 10 thousand dollars for the wreckage if they were delivered to the editor within 72 hours after the fall of the station. In July 1979, the leading American publications placed stories about the “return” of the station to the front pages. Time Magazine wrote that the fall of Skylab would mark the tenth anniversary of the proudest achievement of mankind in space – a walk along the Moon.

Cover of Time magazine of July 16, 1979

The atmosphere of expectation was fueled by an incident that occurred a year earlier: the Soviet satellite Cosmos-954 fell in the Canadian wilderness , causing a radioactive contamination of a large area of ​​the tundra. NASA claimed no dangerous elements on the Skylab, but could not accurately predict the station’s entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere. The US authorities warned that the station could fall anywhere, clarifying that the probability of falling debris per person 1 to 152.

NASA’s last forecast, 1300 kilometers south of Cape Town, was not confirmed : on July 12, 1979, on the radio , it was reported that the remnants of the 77-tonne “Heavenly Laboratory” fell in the Australian steppe near the city of Esperanza. As eyewitnesses recalled , “rain from burning debris” was observed after midnight. NASA made a mistake not only with the place, but also with the time of the fall of the Skylab.

Supposed NASA and the real orbit of the fall of the Skylab station. NASA photo

In Australia, they were not happy that the Americans were so careless about their safety. In one of the newspapers, the words of a NASA employee were conveyed, which stated that the fall of the station in Australia is the lesser of evils, because only kangaroos live there. In response, the city council of Esperanza wrote NASA a symbolic fine of $ 400 for pollution of the surrounding territories.

Call of President Carter

Farmer John Seiler (John Seiler) was sleeping in his house on a farm in Balladonia (a region in Western Australia) when an unexpected phone call came. There are several farms in the district, Perth is almost 1000 kilometers to the state capital, and about 100 kilometers to the nearest major city of Esperanza. The call at this time is exceptional, but Siler picked up the phone.

“Hello, Mr. Syler. Forgive me for such a late call, but US President Jim Carter wants to talk to you, “the voice said in the receiver. “Well, let him speak,” answered the half-hearted farmer, deciding that he was being played. The president turns on: “Mr. Sailer, on my own behalf and on behalf of the US government, we sincerely apologize for this incident. Please tell me, your farm has not suffered “? “A! We need to check the steers. No, do not worry! “, Carter reassured the Australian.

So the inhabitants of Balladonia retell the conversation between the then US president and the Australian farmer – one of those on whose land the fragments of the Skylab landed. It is impossible to vouch for the accuracy of the dialogues – they have long become part of local folklore and pop culture. In 1979, the Truscott brothers even recorded the song The Ballad Of Balladonia Night, based on the fall of the space complex.

Balladonia, the night. Jimmy calls to apologize.

Balladonia, the night. Local people say that you should not worry.

An excerpt from the song “Ballad of the Night in Balladonia”

Farmer John Sayler later told that he was “overwhelmed” with applications for the purchase of Skylab pieces – from a bid of $ 20,000 from the Museum of Western Australia to a businessman from Hong Kong, who promised an ounce of gold for every ounce of the station. Soon after the incident, Sailer started off with farming and began to sell tours to find “space treasures” to all comers. Gradually, the enthusiasm of people came to naught, as finding fragments in the Australian steppes was not easy. It is rumored that after Sailer bought a decommissioned military aircraft, “space debris” on his lands began to come across more often.

Large fragments of the body in a week showed the general public – Perth was just a beauty contest “Miss Universe-79”. The first beauties of the Earth did not refuse to pose against the backdrop of a piece of space debris.

72 hours to get to San Francisco

17-year-old Stan Thornton (Stan Thornton) was at home not far from Esperanza, when his mother asked to check that so rumbled on the roof. On the street, the young man managed to find some strange metal debris: without thinking twice, he packed them into containers and went to Perth to get to San Francisco from there. On the eve of the rangers told him that the newspaper The San Francisco Examiner promised to pay 10 thousand dollars for the wreckage of the station. It remained to have time to deliver fragments of Skylab in 72 hours.

Thornton not only brought the wreckage to San Francisco in time, but also for a few days became the star of two continents. The young man was called on the radio, shot for newspapers, and he delivered a small lecture, where he told about his adventure .

Stan Thornton (left) answers questions from journalists while receiving a check from The San Francisco Examiner. Photo of the Perth Observatory

Taking into account all expenses, Thornton earned about four thousand dollars. After returning home, he got a house and married. Years later, Thornton remained the local star for the town of Esperanza and the state of Western Australia, whose inhabitants are still proud of their “collision” with the cosmos.

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