March 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Esperance & Skylab

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

For more than six years, it hurtled through the stratosphere, a 77-tonne assemblage of micrometeoroid shielding, solar panels, coolant loops and booster rockets. But after 34,980 orbits of the Earth, Skylab was finally coming apart at the seams. The fuel tanks were almost empty and the gyroscope was cactus. The funds to haul it to a higher orbit hadn't materialised and a surge in solar activity was playing hell with the drag. There was only one place left for America's first space station to go.

Skylab - conceived by Wernher von Braun, commissioned by NASA and constructed by McDonnell Douglas - commenced its re-entry at 16.37 Coordinated Universal Time on 11 July 1979. Just after midnight local time, it burst through the cloud cover above Esperance, on the southern coast of Western Australia, shattering the calm with a series of sonic booms.

"We thought it was the end of the world," remembered Dorothy Andre, a local. Emergency services had turned out, just in case, and John Coates watched the show with the rest of the crew. "It was a terrific flame, like a burning plane, with all these little pieces shearing off. It was great."

It was also a financial windfall for a 17-year-old truck driver, Stan Thornton. When he learned that the San Francisco Examiner was offering a US$10,000 bounty for the first chunk of Skylab delivered to its office, he scooped a bagful of space junk off his roof and jumped on the first available flight. Arriving in the US with no passport and little more than a toothbrush and a few lumps of shrapnel, he pocketed the cash.

Dorothy Andre and her husband, Mervin, collected as much of the rest as they could find, including a Kombi-sized oxygen tank, and installed it in the Esperance museum. Mervin, who was the shire president, also issued the US government with a ticket for littering.

Courtesy of the Kalgoorlie police, a sizeable piece of debris was transported to Perth, where it was displayed at the Miss Universe pageant, part of the WA sesquicentenary. During the coronation of Miss Venezuela, the platform collapsed under its weight. According to some sources,  Miss Malta's right leg was fractured, Miss Brazil's gown was ripped and Miss Japan was treated for shock.

After Skylab, America's commitment to a permanent orbital station waned. But the drive for a human presence in space continues, and the collaborative International Space Station has been continuously inhabited since 2000 by a roster of astronauts from 14 countries. Three of them are up there right now, walking around.

Stan Thornton married his girlfriend and bought a house. As yet, the US hasn't paid the littering fine.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: March 2007

March 2007

From the front page

Australian carnage

The Coalition killed Holden six years ago

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A gap too far

Despite fine words in response to the latest Closing the Gap report, the PM insists that politicians know best when it comes to the question of recognition

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Planting hope

A community gardening program is bringing hope to asylum seekers

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future


In This Issue

A law that cannot be enforced

The politics of art in Australia

Love goes to a building on fire

The Shins & Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

The host with the most

Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘The Host’

Read all about it

Fred Hilmer’s ‘The Fairfax Experience’

More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Read on

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A gap too far

Despite fine words in response to the latest Closing the Gap report, the PM insists that politicians know best when it comes to the question of recognition

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species

Image of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull’s legacy costs

The former PM’s promise to legislate a religious freedom bill has ensured the culture wars rage on

Image from ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Party of three: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Australian comedian Josh Thomas brings his unique brand of comedy to the classic American sitcom format


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