March 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Esperance & Skylab

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
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.

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