Launched in 1973, Skylab was the world’s first successful space station. The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salynut 1, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. Unfortunately, NASA spent far less time and energy planning how to gracefully bring the space station back to Earth at the end of its mission. Skylab carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time. Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate–earlier than was anticipated–because of unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, Skylab made a spectacular return to earth, breaking up in the atmosphere and showering burning debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia. No one was injured.
All week there had been mounting speculation over where the spacecraft would come down. In India, the police in all states were put on full alert and the civil aviation department was planning to ban flights across the sub-continent during the crucial hours of re-entry. Beginning in June of 1979, as Skylab’s re-entry approached, many American newspapers jokingly proposed “Skylab insurance”. The San Francisco Examiner went one step further, offering a $10,000 prize to the first person to deliver a piece of Skylab debris to its office within 72 hours of the crash. Knowing the orbiter wasn’t coming down anywhere near the United States, the newspaper felt it was making a safe bet. In Australia, 17-year-old Stan Thornton of tiny Esperance awoke to the commotion when Skylab broke apart in the atmosphere and pelted his house with space station fragments. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a few charred bits of material from his yard, hopped on a plane without so much as a passport or suitcase and made it to the Examiner’s office before the deadline.