On May 14, 1973, floaty history was made with the launch of Skylab, the first American space station to reach the stars. For six years, the majestic station danced through space before finally touching back down to earth, where its people reacted with amused wonderment. Except for the people of Australia, who reacted by going: "Strewth, what's this bloody rubbish then?"
For all the planning NASA had done to get Skylab into the sky, there wasn't a great plan to keep it up there. Due to intense solar activity, the station was being pushed back towards earth faster than the space agency was able to deal with. So, in 1979, after barely six years of going round and round, Skylab was going to fall, and where it was going to land, no-one knew.
Not precisely, at least. NASA had predicted that after most of the station had burned up during re-entry, its charred remains would likely land in the Indian Ocean and the Australian Outback -- likely. That kind of uncertainty when bringing down an 84-ton irradiated behemoth tickled a lot of people (who weren't in the impact zone, that is). In America, jokesters started selling crash themed merchandise, such as bullseye beanies and a "Skylab Survival Kit," which included a cardboard hard hat. Someone even concocted a Skylab cocktail (which looks delicious) with the promise: "Drink a couple, and you won't know what hit you."
But the people of South East Asia and Australia weren't having a good time. Fearing they'd be hit by a space armageddon as badly directed as the Michael Bay one, the Philippines went into such a panic that its president had to appear on TV to reassure them that the odds of getting beaned by space debris were very low. How low? That grim math was quietly being calculated by NASA, who predicted a 1 in 7 chance of debris hitting a densely populated area and a 1 in 152 chance of some going through someone's head.
Luckily, no one's home (or face) was turned into a smoking crater when Skylab made its ignominious return. But while NASA had avoided murdering someone, they were guilty of a lesser crime. When coming to collect a large chunk of debris that had landed in the Australian Shire of Esperance, they were greeted not just with a parade but a pissed off park ranger handing them a $400 fine for littering. NASA never paid the fine (the ticket had more value as a lesson in humility) but, in 2009, a U.S. radio DJ did send over an oversized check, finally squaring the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with the nation of Australia.
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