On the May 19, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live, the path-breaking comedy program that everyone who was anyone watched, John Belushi played a science commentator for “Weekend Update,” its faux news segment. Belushi began with a staid report on NASA’s announcement of the forthcoming uncontrolled reentry of Skylab, the orbital workshop launched by NASA into Earth orbit in 1973, but quickly became unhinged, smashing to bits a model of the spacecraft on a globe and talking about how the largest segment would be no heavier than about 5,000 pounds, “landing right on the head of poor little Johnny Belushi as he hides, scared, in his basement with an Army helmet on his head!”
A brilliant satire on the repercussions of the uncontrolled reentry of the first U.S. space station, this performance reflected the apprehension felt by many about its demise on July 11, 1979, when it broke up and landed throughout the Pacific, including a few pieces in Australia. It also foreshadowed a negative perspective on NASA that would remain with the space agency thereafter and prompt its officials to ensure that such an incident never occurred again.
The Skylab reentry became the butt of jokes throughout the world, and not a little ingenuity in turning the reentry into an economic boon. One company marketed the “Skylab Survival Kit,” consisting of a hard hat. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a political cartoon that offered a multiple choice test asking readers to “pick the best example of good ol’ American know-how; Three Mile Island, DC-10, Skylab, Pinto, mass transit.” All of these items, of course, represented fundamental problems with American technology and management. Skylab became representative of American failure, and NASA took criticism about the propriety of spaceflight if people were likely to be killed by falling objects.
Fortunately, Skylab’s return to Earth proved less catastrophic than predicted by virtually everyone, thanks to maneuvers by NASA to help the spacecraft reenter the atmosphere over relatively uninhabited portions of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this effort, the debris dispersion stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia. In reality, while NASA took sufficient precautions so that no one was injured, its leaders had learned that the agency could never again allow a situation in which large chunks of orbital debris had a chance of reaching the Earth’s surface. It was an inauspicious ending to the first American space station, not one that its originators had envisioned. And it portends important lessons for the future when considering the ultimate fate of the International Space Station (ISS) currently intended to orbit until at least 2020.
Might it have turned out differently? Over the years, there has been considerable debate over how serious NASA might or might not have been about preventing the Skylab orbital workshop from reentering the atmosphere. The prospect of saving the $14 billion (in fiscal year (FY) 2013 dollars) workshop would have seemed appealing, given the knowledge that NASA could never launch another module of that size after the retirement of the Saturn V following the 1973 launch of the Skylab workshop. It has been no secret that NASA engineers undertook studies about the potential of flying the Space Shuttle to Skylab and reboosting and reoccupying the workshop.
How serious NASA was in those studies has been the subject of conjecture and myth since then. Most commentators on the subject note that the issue was moot because developmental problems with the Space Shuttle and unanticipated solar events caused Skylab to come crashing back to Earth before the shuttle was ready for flight.
In reality, NASA officials pursued the potential of Skylab reboost and reoccupation aggressively, expending more than $100 million (in FY 2013 adjusted dollars) on the proposed rescue mission. Not only did NASA develop shuttle scenarios to rescue Skylab but it also worked on a robotic reboost capability that went far in the mission planning process.
So what was “the rest of the story” of Skylab, the failed rescue attempt that might have altered fundamentally the trajectory of the space program in the 1980s and 1990s had it been successful? That is a story that I would like to pursue at some time. Stay tuned.
What do you Think? Was NASA serious about trying to rescue Skylab? I would welcome your thoughts on this.