The Strange Tale of the Skylab's Fall From Orbit

As the world awaits a decommissioned satellite's return to the planet later this week, a look back at the fiery plunge of the Skylab in 1979

Sometime later this week, remnants of NASA's Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS) will come crashing down to earth -- most likely landing in the ocean or somewhere quite remote. Nevertheless, the one-in-3,200 chance that debris hits a person has stirred up quite a frenzy of speculation, with various blogs and news outlets asking if you could be hit.

The story is not unlike that of NASA's Skylab, which fell to Earth in 1979, provoking a frenzy of its own. TIME magazine write:

With varying degrees of fear, anger and fascination, but mostly with a detached kind of bemusement, the world this week awaits an unprecedented event: the fiery fall of the largest machine man has ever hurled into space. The American Sky lab vehicle, nine stories tall and weighing 77.5 tons, is expected to slip into the earth's upper atmosphere, then disintegrate into a celestial shower of flaming metal as spectacular as any of last week's Fourth of July fireworks displays. Somewhere, probably at sea, ten fragments, each weighing 1,000 Ibs. or more, will crash to earth at speeds of up to 270 m.p.h. with the force of a dying meteor. Thus will be observed, after a series of miscalculations, the tenth anniversary of man's proudest achievement in space, the walk on the moon.

It's a paragraph not altogether different from those describing UARS' impending arrival.

Skylab reached Earth in the early morning hours of July 12, 1979, falling in pieces in the small town of Esperance, Australia, a remote spot seven-and-a-half hours away from Perth by car. Esperance resident Stan Thornton was able to snatch up a few of the pieces and fly to San Francisco to collect a $10,000 prize offered by the San Francisco Examiner to the first person to bring in a piece of the lab.

President Carter issued an apology to Australia:

I was concerned to learn that fragments of Skylab may have landed in Australia. I am relieved to hear your Government's preliminary assessment that no injuries have resulted. Nevertheless, I have instructed the Department of State to be in touch with your Government immediately and to offer any assistance that you may need.

The town of Esperance issued a $400 fine to the United States for littering. The fine went unpaid for nearly 30 years, but in the spring of 2009, a California-based radio station took up a collection and paid down the debt.

There are about 8,000 man-made objects the size of baseballs and larger orbiting earth. About seven percent are working satellites, 15 percent are rockets, and the rest is fragments and defunct satellites. Though 8,000 may seem like a lot, USSPACECOM, the military body responsible for tracking the debris, says that it amounts to only three or four pieces per area the size of the airspace over the continental United States up to 30,000 feet. No humans have ever been killed by falling space debris.

If you do happen to find some debris from an American spacecraft, it's not yours to sell: All remnants are property of the U.S. government.

Image: NASA.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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