On stage at the Perth Entertainment Centre, among the glitz and glamour of the 1979 Miss Universe pageant, was the charred remains of Skylab, NASA’s first space station. It might seem like an odd juxtaposition to place a foreign hunk of metal in the same venue as international beauty queens, but the host nation had as much a feeling of ownership over the remains of Skylab as did the United States. Four days earlier, the station had fallen from orbit and broken up as it reentered the atmosphere over Western Australia.
In the mid 1960s, NASA began to lay the foundation for a bold manned exploration program to begin after the Apollo Moon landings. The Apollo Applications Program was designed to extend man’s reach into deep space with longer missions on the Moon, landings on the Moon’s far side, and manned surveys and possible landing missions to our neighbouring planets Venus and Mars. But the AAP goals were more ambitious than anything NASA’s post-Apollo budget could support. Deep space dreams were scaled back and mission relegated to low Earth orbit. When Apollo Applications finally flew, it did so under the name Skylab.
Skylab was America’s first space station, a dry workshop assembled on Earth out of an unused SIV-B upper stage of a Saturn V rocket. Hugely spacious and outfitted with sophisticated instruments and crew comforts, Skylab launched on May 14, 1973 on the agency’s last Saturn V. Between the spring of 1973 and the winter of 1974, Skylab hosted three crews who used leftover Apollo Command Modules launched on Saturn IB rockets to reach orbit: the first arrived on May 25 and splashed down on June 22; the second arrived on June 28 and stayed until September 25; and the third and final crew launched on November 16 and splashed down on February 8, 1974.
That was all the activity Skylab saw, but not because the station had reached the limits of its usefulness. When Skylab launched it had a nine year operational lifetime; it could stay in orbit for nine years before NASA would have to undertake a serious maintenance mission or adjust its orbit. But, as had been the case with the more ambitious Apollo Applications goals, the agency didn’t have the funds to maintain even this relatively modest station.
As the 1970s came to a close, Skylab had fallen into disrepair. It was abandoned, though there was some talk of using the space shuttle then under development to salvage the station, reactivating it into a functional workspace. But mounting problems delayed the shuttle’s debut, and with not way to boost Skylab into a higher and more secure orbit, it’s clear the station’s days were numbered.
Skylab’s orbit steadily decayed. It scrapped along the upper reaches of the atmosphere, losing speed and making its reentry inevitable. Unfortunately, it was also largely uncontrollable at this point. NASA had no way to ensure it would come down harmlessly over an unpopulated ocean instead of a densely populated city. The agency did what it could to make Skylab reenter over the Indian Ocean, but it was a partially successful attempt.
On July 11, 1979, the station’s reentered a few minutes earlier than NASA hoped it would. The bulk of Skylab broke up in the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, but some debris did land inland along the south coast of Western Australia.
Residents in the community of Balladonia on the Nullarbor Plain and in the port town of Esperance thought the world might be ending as fiery debris fell from the sky. Once it became clear the debris was Skylab, people scrambled to find and recover pieces themselves. The Examiner, an American newspaper, offered a reward to the first person to turn in a piece of the station. Esperance, in jest, fined NASA $400 for littering. The fee that was eventually paid in 2009 by Scott Barley, a radio host for Highway Radio in California and Nevada who appealed to his audience to raise the money.
It was pure coincidence that the Miss Universe pageant was scheduled for July 20 in Perth, less than 500 miles from Esperance. It seemed only fitting that a piece of the station that was such big news in Australia that week be on display.
The piece of Skylab that shared the stage with the Miss Universe contestants that night was identified as one of the cylindrical oxygen tanks. Its wood and fiberglass insulation had shredded during reentry, leaving behind a frayed crisscross design that some likened an emu’s feathers. Maritza Sayalero was crowned that night, earning the first Miss Universe title for her native Venezuela.