299. I Survived Skylab

skylabAt the top of this post is a drawing, done with deliberate crudeness. I wish I could have used the original, but it existed before digital cameras and Pinterest. I have searched the internet without success for the image I remember. There are dozens of modern Skylab T-shirts. but none like what you see here.

In 1979, Skylab came crashing back to Earth. NASA knew it was going to happen, but could not prevent the event; it even predicted the date, July 11. The world partied in the face of danger – especially since the chances of being at ground zero were billions to one – and I Survived Skylab T-shirts were worn everywhere. The one I remember had a silly looking cartoon schmuck holding an umbrella over his head while Skylab was flashing down behind him.

If anyone still has a picture of one of those original T-shirts, post it on Pinterest and I’ll provide a link.

No one had intended Skylab to come to such an end. It was in reasonably high orbit, about 275 miles when he last crew came back to Earth. It still contained plenty of air and water, although the gyros were failing. It could have been remanned, and there were tentative plans to shift it to to a still higher orbit. No one took it too seriously, though; the vessel was old and battered, and NASA had turned its attention to the Space Shuttle.

In fact, most people at NASA thought the next Skylab crew would be ferried up by the Space Shuttle.

Nature had other plans.

By 1973, it was predicted that Skylab would deorbit years earlier than NASA was predicting, but NASA failed to listen. Increased solar activity had heated the atmosphere, causing it to expand. Low Earth orbits are still within the tenuous ranges of the outer atmosphere. Although the life of such orbits is measured in years, all things within a few hundred kilometers of Earth eventually come down. Now NASA was facing the fact that the Space Shuttle would not fly before Skylab’s orbit became critical. Not only could Skylab not be saved, it could no longer be equipped for a controlled deorbit.

A Russian Cosmos had crashed into northern Canada only a year before. The second stage of the Saturn which had launched Skylab had remained in orbit two years, then crashed into the North Atlantic in 1975. NASA was aware that the potential for disaster was great. It was predicted that up to 25 tons of debris might survive reentry, and there was no way to determine where it might land.

If Skylab had landed on Omaha – or Paris – we would be living in a very different world, with a very different attitude toward space exploration. In point of fact, Skylab struck the Earth in the desert of western Australia. No one was injured. Property damage was minimal.

The Shire of Esperance sent NASA a fine for littering.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Everybody has to carve out his own niche. In my science fiction, I concentrate on the next couple of centuries. In these posts I concentrate on the early space program. I have not yet written about the space shuttle, which always seemed to be like Grandpa’s pickup truck that he bought after he was no longer young and had sold his hot rod. Sorry, my prejudice, which I am sure I will someday reverse without apology.

I am even less interested in the ISS. I remember too well that, during its planning – before the feds told them to shut-their-mouths and not bite the hand that was feeding them – the scientific community complained loudly about all the research that would go unfunded to feed the ISS.

The ISS, symbol of American-Russian friendship, boldly going where everyone has already gone before. Sorry, my prejudice again.

If you are interested in the ISS, there is a plethora of available writing. If you want to know more about early space stations, try to find Living in Space by Giovanni Capara in your local library. Published in 1998, it is a detailed study of all the space stations before ISS.


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