Raumfahrt - NASAs Skylab met its demise in Australia more than 40 years ago — but was it really an accident?


NASA's Skylab met its demise in Australia more than 40 years ago.

Under the cover of darkness, the flares were certainly a sight to behold.

Almost kaleidoscopic, they hurtled through the air in a green and red hue, illuminating the barren West Australian landscape below.

In what some would recount as "a spectacular fireworks show", the peculiar scene engulfing the otherwise arid backdrop would have been beautiful — if it weren't for just one minor detail.

These weren't shooting stars or a "huge meteorite".

Rather, it was the burning wreckage of a space station the size of a three-bedroom house, rapidly hurtling towards the west coast of Australia.

NASA's Skylab space station as seen from space.(Supplied: NASA)

It's a larger than life tale, involving an international space agency, sordid conspiracy theories, diplomatic cables, and the tiny town of Balladonia, WA — population, nine.

But in order to understand the demise of NASA's Skylab — and its strange Australian legacy — we need to start from the beginning.

'They forgot Murphy's Law'

Established in May 1973, Skylab was, in many ways, a feat of its time.

The first US space station ever created, it included an orbital workshop, solar observatory, Earth observation and more. Alas, it was not to last.

The project was abandoned by NASA just a year later, under the belief it could be left in orbit until authorities worked out what to do with it.

Two astronauts perform final checks before the first manned Skylab mission.
Skylab included an orbital workshop, solar observatory, Earth observation and more.(Supplied: NASA)

But as veteran broadcaster Jeff McMullen quipped before its untimely demise: "They forgot Murphy's Law — if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. And it did".

As fate would have it, greater-than-expected solar activity in the lead-up to 1979 had heated the Earth's atmosphere, causing Skylab to decay and de-orbit.

The space station was set on a subsequent collision course for Earth, criss-crossing across 90 per cent of the world's population at around 340 miles (about 550 kilometres) an hour.

Where it would ultimately land on July 12, 1979, however, remained a mystery to many — including its creators.

'It was our hope we would never see it again'

News of Skylab's re-entry was a global affair, to say at the least, and despite the uncertain outlook, the event was met with a blithe indifference in many quarters.

Restaurants began marketing "Skylab cocktails" ("Drink a couple and you won't know what hit you"), while beanies embroidered with a bullseye were sold as a safety precaution — the logic being, the US Government "couldn't hit anything it aimed for".

Publicly, of course, America's space agency maintained there was only a very remote chance of Skylab crashing into a heavily-populated area.

Astronaut Edward Gibson performs a space walk on Skylab space station.
News of Skylab's reentry was a global affair, to say at the least.(Supplied: NASA)

But privately, there were concerns — at least one NASA official resigned over the way the United States had handled the disintegration of its largest satellite.

As the spacecraft began to re-enter some 48 hours before its ultimate collision, a command was sent to alter the orbit away from North America "to avoid risking American lives".

Robert Gray from the US State Department would later maintain the decision was made to ensure it landed in the Southern Atlantic or Indian Ocean.

"The most dangerous orbit it could have been on did not have it going over North America at all. It had it going over Europe, over India and over China."

The treasure hunt begins

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and as Skylab began to make its descent in the early hours of July 12, 1979, it became clear the Scottish proverb was ringing true.

Despite NASA's assurances the space station had "fallen harmlessly" into the Indian Ocean at 2:38am AEST, the ABC's talkback line was ringing hot.

The oxygen tank of the Skylab space station that fell over WA in 1979.
The oxygen tank of the Skylab space station fell over WA in 1979.(Supplied: Geoff Grewar)

From Perth to Salmon Gums, callers were adamant that, despite suggestions otherwise, they had witnessed the now-infamous "sonic boom".

As daylight broke, and residents woke to the carnage strewn conspicuously among the arid red soils of West Australia, punters were proven correct.

Debris from the crashed Skylab space station on a truck at Kalgoorlie, 1979.
Despite NASA's assurances the space station had "fallen harmlessly" into the Indian Ocean, debris was found in Australia.(State Library Of Western Australia)

"Old-timers were reminded of the giddy days when Irishman Paddy Hannan found gold nuggets near Kalgoorlie just before the turn of the century, touching off a similar treasure hunt."

An international conspiracy

Though the Skylab space saga had purportedly come to a close, our twisted tale is really only just beginning.

Enter: John Somerville-Smith — a muck-raker for the Toorak Times, with a greying bouffant, lazy drawl and a supposed secret that would cast doubt on assertions the space station's fiery descent upon Australia was but an unfortunate accident.

Somerville-Smith had travelled to Kalgoorlie in the days before Skylab's demise — but far from fortuitous timing, the Melbourne gossip columnist claimed he had been tipped off by the Americans.

John Somerville-Smith claimed he had been tipped off by the Americans.
John Somerville-Smith claimed he had been tipped off by the Americans.(ABC News)

Pressed on who had told him, Somerville-Smith said: "One of the same people who told me Kalgoorlie two years and nine months before".

"They were talking about the American budget, as to how long they could keep the spaceship up in the air," he mused.

"Of course, the budget had been cut down and they were no doubt thinking of bringing it down to cut expenses ever since."

'I think it was a bit foul of the Septics'

While some may argue Somerville-Smith's claim of a sordid conspiracy held little stead, declassified diplomatic cables from the US Department of State — dated September 4, 1979 — lends itself to public opinion at the time about the involvement, or lack thereof, of American officials in the Skylab debacle.

Addressing reports that Skylab was "deliberately brought down near Pine Gap so that secret military espionage equipment could be recovered from it", the cables noted any attempt to reply to the "obvious untruths in the article ... would be counterproductive".



Despite attempts to quash the story, the Australian public were sceptical.

"I think was a bit foul of the Septics [Americans] really to drop it on Australia," quipped one Perth resident, shortly after Skylab's descent.

Others — disgruntled at the space agency's bid to lay claim to the debris, which collectors had hoped to sell — questioned how NASA could have possibly lost control of its own space station.

Ballad of a Balladonia Night

While more than four decades have passed, Skylab's legacy and conspiracy theories remain deeply embedded in Australian culture.

The Shire of Esperance, which had jurisdiction over much of the area where the wreckage landed, fought fire with fines, gifting the US State Department a $400 sanction for littering (in 2009, a US radio station raised the money and duly sent the shire a cheque).

A $400 fine from the Shire of Esperance, issued to NASA.
This $400 cheque was paid by a California radio breakfast show in 2009 in a belated response to a fine levied against America's NASA for "littering".(AAP: James Shrimpton)

Some 300 kilometres north-east, the tiny town of Balladonia (population: nine people) found itself thrust into the international spotlight, when fiery chunks of the space station rained down on the grounds of its hotel.

Then-president Jimmy Carter was reportedly so concerned by the development he personally rang its owners to apologise, while rock group Family cemented the town's position in the history books with its 1979 single, Ballad of a Balladonia Night.

Balladonia night / Jimmy phoned up sorry

Balladonia night / Locals said don't worry

Before the Skylab crashing down / Balladonia wasn't even on the road map

Balladonia night / Never the same again

YOUTUBEBallad of Balladonia Night by Family

As for Skylab itself?

While much of the debris can be found in museums across Western Australia, archaeologists claim there are still pieces out there "waiting to be found, sometimes lying amidst stone tool scatters under the stars".

Godspeed, treasure hunters.

Quelle: ABC News



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