What Happened To Skylab In 1979 And Why?

At the time of writing, Skylab is the only space station to have ever been used solely by the United States of America.

Skylab weighed around 90,610 kilograms, with The Apollo command and service module, also known as ‘CSM’, which was attached to the space station, weighing in at 14,000 kilograms. Skylab had some truly exceptional pieces of equipment, such as the Apollo Telescope Mount, a multiple docking adaptor, and even a zero-gravity shower!

During its time in space, Skylab had only three crewed missions - Skylab 2 in May 1973 for 28 days which involved making extensive repairs to Skylab, Skylab 3, which took place in July 1973 for 59 days, and its final crewed mission, Skylab 4, which took place in February 1974 for 84 days.

All of these missions consisted of three-man-crews, and throughout the time that Skylab was in space, astronauts performed ten spacewalks. There were also around 2000 hours of scientific and medical experiments logged throughout the entire time it was in space.

So what happened to Skylab? Space stations use Earth’s gravity to keep them in orbit. Orbital decay occurs when the orbit of an object around a center of gravity is disrupted, causing the object to be pulled toward the center of gravity.

In the case of Skylab, Earth was the center of gravity, and so, when Skylab’s orbit decayed, it was pulled towards Earth.

After a while, NASA noticed this, and they attempted to take control of where it fell by firing its thrusters, forcing it to start falling to Earth. This, unfortunately, lead to its disintegration when it reached Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979, and Skylab sadly no longer existed.

Could Skylab Have Been Saved?

The last crew to leave Skylab used their Apollo spacecraft to boost the stations’ orbit high enough for it to survive until 1983. However, the sun went through a period of high activity in the late ’70s, and unfortunately, this caused our atmosphere to expand.

This expansion of the upper atmosphere increased the drag on the station. After a while, the drag managed to slow the station down, causing its altitude to drop as a result, and increasing the orbital decay, bringing the space station even closer to Earth.

NASA, who was developing the Space Shuttle at the time, contemplated using it for a rescue mission to boost the space station.

If they were able to use the Space Shuttle to bring Skylab up to a higher orbit, they would be able to stop the effects of orbital decay and therefore prevent Skylab from disintegrating in Earth’s atmosphere and allowing it to be used for a further five years. 

Unfortunately, the Space Shuttle was not ready until 1981, and because NASA hadn’t included any provisions to get the Space Station safely back down to earth in their plans and assembly of the station, Skylabs orbital decay was inevitable.

Where Did Skylab Fall In Australia?

Skylab was actually supposed to fall into the Indian Ocean, and this is where a lot of it ended up. It also, however, fell across a 150-kilometer wide area in the southwest of Australia, leading many Australian locals to happen across pieces of debris from the space station.

Hilariously, the Australian town of Esperance actually sent NASA a fine for $400 for littering, after NASA’s plans to boost Skylab’s thrusters slightly and control its descent into the Indian Ocean failed, leaving large pieces to fall into Esperance.

The US space agency never actually paid the fine. In an even more amusing twist, a radio station in Nevada, California called The Highway thought it would be a good idea to encourage viewers to call in and donate money to pay the fine, and the fine was paid on the 30th anniversary of Skylab’s fall to Earth in 2009.

Skylab fell in Australia, as well as the intended Indian Ocean, because upon its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere the space station didn’t burn up the way that NASA expected it to. This was due to a 4% calculation error in how long it would take to burn up. Thankfully, there were no injuries!

When the day that Skylab would fall to Earth approached, many people had parties, with Skylab bullseyes being printed on t-shirts, mocking the fact that it was unknown exactly where Skylab was going to fall.

A newspaper actually advertised a $10,000 prize to reward the first person who was able to bring a piece of the Skylab space station to their offices in San Francisco!

Where Is Skylab Now?

So, a space station was completely destroyed in our atmosphere, with loads of debris falling to Earth in its wake. But… where is it now?

After Skylab’s’ disintegration, many of the Space Stations pieces fell and landed in Australia. As a result, quite a few of Skylabs pieces are on display in Australian museums and can be seen today! There’s actually a NASA museum in Balladonia, Western Australia, with some on display.

Interestingly, this might be quite a strange place for a museum, as Balladonia has a population of only 14 people. They must love space!

Many Australian locals had discovered pieces of Skylab, and because officially any fragment of Skylab is the property of the United States Government, quite a few of them gave up their piece of the space station, sending them into the space company so that they could be examined.

However, in 1979, after examining all of the debris, NASA decided to mount each piece on a plaque, returning the debris plaques to the Australian locals that were kind enough to send them out to NASA for examination as a gesture of goodwill.

Some of Skylab also landed in the Indian Ocean, its originally intended target - although not as much as originally expected.

Skylab is technically all over the world - alongside the parts of the space station that are in the possession of a few lucky Australian locals and museums, small parts of Skylab debris, and even some canned meals and toothpaste have surfaced online on auction sites over the years.

Gordon Watts