How do satellites die? Sometimes we send them to high-Earth orbit, to spend eternity -- or our version of it -- circling the planet as space junk. Sometimes we kill them off and then bring them back to life, reincarnating them for new purposes. And sometimes we simply destroy them, sending them out of orbit to break up in Earth's atmosphere and plunge into the ocean below.
That last fate is planned for the International Space Station, which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2020. NASA and Roscosmos and others of the world's space agencies have devised a plan that will involve easing the space station out of orbit over the Pacific Ocean -- at which point the structure that has been home to so many astronauts over the years will break apart, its charred remains sinking into the sea.
The ISS won't be the first space station to meet that violent fate. The United States's first human-hosting orbital laboratory, Skylab, was decommissioned in a similarly spectacular way. The station was launched into orbit in 1973. By 1978, however, the station was showing its age. Its equipment was in need of repair. Greater-than-expected solar activity had heated the outer layers of Earth's atmosphere, increasing the drag on the station. Skylab was decaying, and so was its orbit. Fueled in part by the 1978 crash of a Soviet satellite in Canada, fears began to mount that the American station could descend into the Earth's atmosphere, breaking apart at an unplanned location and shooting metallic debris over populated areas. And the fears quickly turned into mockery. A hotel in North Carolina designated itself an "official Skylab crash zone," holding a poolside disco party to celebrate the status. T-shirt designers began selling garments with bulls-eyes printed on them. Other entrepreneurs sold cans of "Skylab repellent" and, in case that proved ineffective, "Skylab insurance." The space station that had been launched in the name of progress had, all of the sudden, become "a 77-ton loose cannon."
NASA's proposal to solve this problem involved the use of a new technology -- the space shuttle -- to boost Skylab into a higher orbit. This would, the agency said, extend the lab's operational life by about five years and then allow it to orbit Earth as space junk (method-of-satellite-death Number One). But executing that plan would be costly, and the shuttle's debut ended up being too delayed for it to be of help with Skylab. NASA needed another arrangement, and quickly. It decided, finally, that the cheapest thing -- the most sensible thing -- would be to destroy Skylab (death method Number Three). The space agency would send the station into a controlled tumble over the Indian Ocean, at a safe distance from land, sending it to a watery grave. On July 11, 1979, with the station declining in speed and descending from orbit, engineers fired Skylab's booster rockets, sending the station into a spiral back toward Earth. Skylab, as planned, broke apart. And most of its pieces fell, also as planned, safely into the Indian Ocean.
What engineers hadn't planned, however, was that the station, as it fell back to Earth, would stay intact for as long as it did. As a result, its pieces ended up being flung farther east than they had anticipated -- as far east, it turned out, as western Australia. Populated areas of western Australia. No one, fortunately, was injured by the debris. But people -- once they realized that the chunks of metal falling from the sky were manmade, and not a sign of impending apocalypse -- were fascinated by it. And amused by it. Pieces of the station that had dropped onto the Australian outback became popular souvenirs. The port town of Esperance, which ended up with several pieces of Skylab within its borders, jokingly fined NASA $400 for littering. Over in San Francisco, the Examiner newspaper offered a $10,000 reward for a piece of Skylab. The reward was claimed.
And all that is how one enormous piece of Skylab ended up playing a supporting role in, yes, the Miss Universe pageant. The pageant, as Amy Shira Teitel notes, was being held in Perth -- about 500 miles away from Esperance -- that year, just four days after the station made its scattered landfall. And "it seemed only fitting," Teitel writes, "that a piece of the station that was such big news in Australia that week be on display." Australian authorities transported a section of Skylab -- one of its cylindrical oxygen tanks -- to Perth, where the unsightly section shared a stage, awkwardly and sort of awesomely, with pageant contestants. The debris consisted mostly of wood and fiberglass insulation that had been shredded and singed during Skylab's fiery reentry to Earth. And though it was purely a coincidence that the section of the space station had ended up falling in Australia, there was something just slightly appropriate about it, too: According to some of the people who saw the displayed debris, the wreckage resembled the feather of an emu.