Excerpts from "the first rough draft of history" as reported in The Washington Post on this date in the 20th century.
Just where Skylab would fall was the talk of the world when NASA announced that the space station would be crashing back to Earth at an undetermined location. There were Skylab jokes and even a Skylab song. Some of the more fearful took out insurance policies just in case the enormous satellite happened to land on them or their property. Two excerpts from The Post of July 12, 1979:
Skylab, the biggest thing man has ever sent into space, returned to Earth today in an apparently harmless shower of debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia.
While its return had spawned much humor and some real fear, most of the 6-year-old, 77-ton orbiting laboratory simply fell into the sea. Some of the heavier fragments apparently came down in southwest Australia, but by late today space agency officials had received no word of injury or damage.
There were unconfirmed reports that some debris had been found.
President Carter sent a message of concern to Australian Prime Minister J. Malcolm Fraser, saying that he had instructed the State Department to "offer any assistance you may need."
Skylab's end came on its 34,981st orbit, a path which, to the unconcealed joy of NASA officials, took it over vast stretches of ocean and minimal numbers of people.
But the giant satellite did not die without a fight. It remained intact in the atmosphere far longer than had been predicted before breaking up into what a man in Perth described as a "quite spectacular" spray of a hundred or so glowing pieces.
An airline pilot flying at 28,000 feet told National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials here that Skylab turned "a distinct blue glow, then orangy red, you could see the breakup of it start to occur." ...
"The surprise is over," said Skylab flight director Charles Harlan at a news conference in the Manned Space Flight Center. "Skylab is on the Earth somewhere."
Exactly where was not immediately clear.
By Garrett Epps
Washington Post Staff Writer
Before ever launching Skylab, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration faced a dilemma: should it endanger the astronauts who would use the space station or the people living under its meandering orbit -- 90 percent of the world's population?
NASA officials decided to safeguard the space explorers. Yesterday that gamble paid off when 26 tons of metal debris -- the remains of history's largest spacecraft -- missed the populated area of the world, and fell mostly into the sea.
They might, of course, have hit almost anywhere on Earth, from 50 degrees north latitude to 50 degrees south. NASA in 1970 and 1971 looked at the odds that Skylab would hurt people or property and decided that they constituted an acceptable risk. On behalf of the planet, NASA accepted it.
"The conclusion was that the risk was of the same order of magnitude as that from other orbital debris," George M. Low, who as deputy head of NASA reviewed and approved risk figures in 1961, recalled recently.
The question was whether to outfit the Skylab orbital workshop with a retrorocket system that could bring the 157,000-pound space station down safely in a "controlled deorbit." But the installation would cost money, use up precious payload weight, and risk an explosion that might harm the crew.
Balancing this risk against the seemingly remote likelihood of injury to people below, NASA decided to let the spacecraft make a "random deorbit."
This series is available at www.washingtonpost.com