Skylab 5/9/21

Recollections by Richard Bleil

By the time this blog publishes, a booster from a Chinese rocket should have hit earth. Chances are, nobody was injured, but the potential for a catastrophic result cannot be discounted either. With the velocity of descent and depending on the mass remaining after part of it burns up in the atmosphere, if it happens to hit a major metropolitan center the death and destruction could be significant. The rocket itself is out of control. International conventions require these booster rockets (like the ones the US used on the space shuttle) use any remaining fuel so it will target a remote part of the ocean, so people aren’t injured. Of course, sea life is another story. Apparently, something went wrong, and this particular rocket is falling out of control.

It’s not the first time. Most of my readers probably don’t remember 1979, but I do. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school when, on July 11, the US space station Skylab fell to the earth.

Unlike the Chinese rocket, we had a lot of time to hear about Skylab. Intended to be a permanent space station, acting in part as a launching pad for deep space missions, its orbital decay was very slow. The US Shuttle, in fact, was designed as just that; a shuttle between earth and Skylab, bringing materials and personnel. It was launched in 1973, and its six-year life was laughably short. The space shuttle was too late.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. I remember hearing this question as a trivia question on the radio; name the first US space shuttle. The answer they were looking for (which at the time I knew was what they wanted to hear) was Columbia, but that’s wrong. The Columbia was the first shuttle to be launched by rocket and to go into space, but the first shuttle, which was fully functional and space capable, was actually the Enterprise. (Yes, trekkies, you can celebrate.) She was used to test atmospheric flight, launched from a specially modified 747 for landing and maneuverability tests. The space shuttles never landed under power. They were designed to land as gliders on reentry, and I’m sure a lot of people wanted this concept tested. The Enterprise was launched in September 1976 in its first test flight after Skylab had already fallen.

Unlike the Chinese rocket booster, though, it didn’t happen in a day. Skylab was unoccupied when its decaying orbit was detected. Nasa either couldn’t assemble a rocket quickly enough to get people to it in time, or had decided that people couldn’t have saved it, but I remember there were constant news stories about it. Back before the internet and instant news, we used to get the news by newspapers delivered to our home, radio news (some news stations were news 24/7) or the television evening news. Every day, there was another news story about the decay.

Part of these news stories were about the rush to get people to the space station (as I recall), or efforts by NASA to save the station or at least prolong its orbit by remotely firing control rockets. I distinctly remember that when they tried this, they usually made things worse. (Sorry, NASA, it’s how I remember those stories.)

Scientists predicted that most of the station would simply burn up in orbit (which it did), but that several large chunks would survive the reentry and crash into earth. While they rushed to reassure people that the likelihood of being injured or killed by one of these chunks was minuscule (in part because earth is 70% water and because much of the land is sparsely populated) the certainly couldn’t rule out the possibility entirely.

This acknowledgment, of course, created a good deal of fear around the world. The next obvious questions people were asking is when it would fall and where. Unfortunately, there were a variety of variables that simply made such predictions impossible. NASA would give “windows” of when it would fall, but, as an example, they didn’t know when the fuel for the control rockets would run out, or the effects of their efforts to prevent the crash. There was simply no telling when or where.

I think that most people realized that the odds of being killed by a falling piece of space degree was such that it’s not worth worrying about, but I do remember some of the odd things people were doing to prepare and give advanced warning. Some places even started selling “early warning helmets”. These ridiculous items had high points built in so if they were struck, you might have 0.000001 second of advanced warning, as if the flaming noisy chunk heading towards you wouldn’t give you more of a warning. But I did see one, so although rare, I guess they sold.

The end of the story is that the chunks of Skylab that did hit the earth landed mostly in the ocean and western Australia. While nobody was injured or killed, the one unlucky individual who did have private property damage occurred when a chunk hit the car that was in his driveway. That was a close call but was also the worst of it.

As I write this, I think about this Chinese booster rocket. If anybody is killed, this post will make me look like an insensitive jerk. I truly hope this doesn’t come to pass.



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