This is an article I wrote for the Esperance Tide, our lovely little local publication.

In July 1979, Esperance was swept up in a world-wide media frenzy. NASA’s first Space Station, Skylab, was being dragged dangerously close to Earth’s atmosphere. Skylab had been orbiting the Earth for 6 years by this stage, and the drag had been occurring for some time. NASA had been hoping for funds to send a shuttle to Skylab to boost it into a higher orbit, but the funds did not eventuate, and so NASA ground controllers confirmed that they were preparing for a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The year before, the USSR’s Cosmos 954 had re-entered the atmosphere, scattering debris over northern Canada. This led to a lot of concern worldwide about Skylab’s re-entry. In the Philippines, for example, the President had to make a televised address to calm public panic.

NASA ground controllers had tried to adjust Skylab’s orbit so that the debris from the disintegrating spaceship would land in the Indian Ocean. Due to a slight error in calculations, the debris instead landed hundreds of kilometres further east than anticipated, right over the area stretching from Esperance to Balladonia. The debris landed around 2:37 am on the 12th of July, 1979. Locals reported hearing a series of sonic booms and seeing a flaming trail in the sky. As newspapers around the world reported on this event, a newspaper in San Francisco offered a $10,000 prize to the first person to bring a piece of Skylab to their office within 48 hours of re-entry. 17-year-old Esperance local Stan Thornton made it to San Francisco in time to claim the prize.

First launched in May 1973, Skylab was 36 metres long and 6.7 metres wide, weighing in at 90.6 tonnes. During the launch, a micrometeoroid shield and solar panel were torn off, and another solar panel was damaged, putting the entire mission at risk of damage or running out of power. Three astronauts arrived at the orbiting Skylab space station later that month, on a mission called the Skylab 2. The astronauts were Commander Charles Conrad, along with Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin. The astronauts conducted a record-breaking 3-hour 25-minute spacewalk in order to repair the damage to the station. The repairs were successful, and the Skylab 2 crew stayed on board the Skylab Station for 28 days, breaking the record of the Soviet Soyuz 11 crew for the longest time spent in space.

The second manned mission to the Skylab Station arrived in July 1973 and was referred to as the Skylab 3 Mission. The astronauts of Skylab 3 were Commander Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott. This mission broke further records, with a 6-hour 29-minute spacewalk to conduct further repairs to the Station. They also spent a record 59 days in space. The Skylab 4 mission arrived in November of 1973, with Commander Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson on board. The Skylab 4 once again extended the record of the longest spacewalk to 7 hours and spent a record-breaking 84 days in space. While the Skylab 4 crew were in space, the Soviet Soyuz 13 was launched with 2 Russian astronauts on board. The record of 5 people in space at the same time stood for 9 years.

During its six years in orbit, Skylab made possible some very significant achievements in space travel. A great many experiments were done onboard Skylab, as well as observations and photography of the sun and the Comet Kohoutek. Other experiments involved taking two spiders, who were named Anita and Arabella, onboard to see how they were able to spin webs in zero gravity. Skylab also came equipped with a 45 kilogram IBM computer, which operated successfully during the mission, despite only having a 16,000-word memory and a backup system stored on magnetic tape. There were many other ‘firsts’ on Skylab, including the first space shower, which took two and a half hours to use.

The Skylab program cost US$2.2 billion, which would be over US$10 billion today. As well as being a significant part of the US space program, Skylab also led to great advancements in our knowledge of space. Skylab also made possible the development of the International Space station. Around thirty pieces of Skylab have been donated to the Esperance Museum, and are on display as part of their Skylab display which is well worth checking out!

Wild: Stories from Western Australia’s Past is a new podcast, hosted by me - Karli Florisson 

The stories from our past are fascinating, unbelievable, and often, unknown. Have you heard of the Great Emu War or Australia’s first female member of parliament? What about the pirate who lived on an island off the coast of Esperance?


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