The House Government Operations Committee accused the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of deliberately misleading Congress on the dangers of Skylab's fall to Earth when it sought funds in the early 1970s to complete the Skylab project.
"NASA's consideration of the debris problem occurred internally and in an atmosphere of confidentiality in which there was little or no public discussion of the matter by NASA and certainly no candid description of the dangers," said a report released yesterday by the committee.
Skylab, put into Earth oribit May 25, 1973, was left uninhabited in space when the last of three astronaut crews returned to Earth Feb. 8, 1974. The ghost ship fell to Earth July 11, 1979, scattered pieces up to two tons in weight across the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia.
"NASA launched Skylab knowing it did not have in sight any solution for the problems of reentry," the House committee report said, "An inevitable debris hazard from reentry and breakup was conceded in NASA long before the Skylab launches but was not dealt with adequately."
The House report quoted what it said was a "classified" Nov. 24, 1970, report from Dale D. Myers, associate administrator for manned space flight, to NASA acting administrator George M. Low. In the report, Myers assessed the risk to humans from falling Skylab debris.
The House report said Myers told Low there was one change in 55 of a single worldwise casualty, but that the risk could be substantially reduced by spending $20 million.
The report quoted Myers as saying that the changes unfortunately would delay the Skylab launch. The report said Low rejected the suggestion in a confidential memorandum dated April 3, 1971.
On Feb. 29, 1972, the House report says, Low, who was then deputy administrator, wrote a letter referring to "growing concerns regarding the potential national and international problems that might be created by the uncontrolled reentry of orbital debris."
In response, the report said, Associate Administrator Homer E. Newell replied: "We should not evaluate mission profile alternatives . . . since we were instructed to exclude Skylab in our orbital debris investigation."
By May 1973, just before Skylab left Earth, the House report said, Lockheed Corp. studied the debris problem for NASA and estimated 505 pieces would survive reentry and scatter across 3,800 miles to Earth. Batelle Memorial Institute made the same estimate a year later but the estimates were not given Congress until 1977, when NASA realized Skylab would come down sooner than expected.
NASA had little to say for itself about Skylab except that it rejected the claims of 35 people around the world who wrote NASA asking damages for injuries. All except one of the claims was for emotional injury or for inconvenience, Nasa said. The one exception was from an Austrian claiming "car damage."
One claimant said he suffered anxiety from worrying that Skylab would hit him, another claimed loss of sleep, a third nightmares. At least three people said they missed airplanes because the planes were grounded as Skylab was falling. Ten of the 35 claimants were from India.