Skylab: the space station that fell out of orbit

Looking to the skies in July 1979, Canadians and the world were on alert for debris from an American space station that was coming back to Earth.

It wasn't likely to end up in Canada, despite concerns to the contrary in 1979

The question is, where will the abandoned space station land? 2:45

Looking to the skies in July 1979, Canadians and the world were on alert for debris from an American space station that was coming back to Earth.   

Skylab, which had been launched into orbit six years earlier, was meant to test the effects of living in space on the bodies of the nine men — three crews of three each — who would go on to occupy it.

But since the last crew had returned to earth on an Apollo spacecraft in February 1974, the space station had orbited the planet empty, just one of the many pieces of space debris that had outlived their usefulness. 

In the years since, Skylab had been pulled lower and lower in its orbit until it became clear that a fall to Earth was inevitable.  

"The story of Skylab's demise is being told in almost every language," said CBC science correspondent John Blackstone.

He was reporting from the Skylab Control Center at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., along with a plethora of international media.

Despite having the word "control" in its name, the centre had no way of affecting where Skylab ended up.

The final orbit

"They're all studying maps and puzzling over orbital charts, wondering about the predictions on Skylab's fall," explained Blackstone.   

On its final orbit, which was predicted to take place in less than 12 hours, the space station would pass over Canada.

But NASA scientists reassured journalists that there was a lot more water in Skylab's path than populated land.

"I'd like to take credit for it, but I cannot," said Skylab Coordinator Richard Smith after demonstrating the final orbit that Skylab was expected to take.

Canada was ready... 

Without knowing for certain where the space station will make its entrance, Canadian authorities are ready. 2:20

Various countries had taken steps to mitigate any problems that incoming space debris might cause.

"Even the Vatican's 12 firemen are on special standby," said George McLean, host of CBC's The National.

In Ottawa, the Emergency Planning Office was taking steps to ensure the safety of Canadian people and places.  

"The chances of debris landing on a much inhabited area of Canada are extremely slight," said reporter Brian Stewart.

Nevertheless, a roster of ham radio operators had been enlisted to report on sightings, should Skylab fall within Canada. 

(The previous year, a Soviet nuclear satellite called Cosmos 954 had fallen in the Northwest Territories and scattered radioactive waste across 124,000 square kilometres.)

... But Skylab landed in Australia 

The space station falls out of Earth's orbit and breaks up in the atmosphere thousands of kilometres away. 3:06

On the next evening's edition of The National, host Jan Tennant informed Canadians they hadn't needed to worry about errant space junk in their backyards.

"The crash landing was at more or less the time predicted by the NASA experts," she said. "And it came down at more or less the place predicted by the experts: at the southwestern tip of Australia."

Still at the Skylab Control Center, Blackstone suggested Canada had remained a possible landing site almost until the last moments.

'The end is here'

"But by noon hour, the word came that Skylab had moved off Canada's east coast without breaking up," he said.

Once word came that Skylab had met its demise, Smith was happy to report.

"We're glad it's down," he said. "We would like to have seen it never sighted over Australia, because that's a land mass."

"And so the end is here. The period has passed."

With that news, Blackstone was one of many international reporters eavesdropping on their Australian colleague's phone call.

"Did you hear anything at all?" the reporter asked, apparently talking to a family member. "You were fast asleep, didn't hear anything at all." 

Part of the Skylab module sits in a parking lot at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., awaiting restoration in a photo from Monday, July 2, 2007. (Eric Schultz/Associated Press)