Skylab story out of this world

Skylab story out of this world


Events
Esperance Museum cultural officer Lynda Horn with Skylab debris on display at the museum. Photo supplied by Esperance Museum.

Esperance Museum cultural officer Lynda Horn with Skylab debris on display at the museum. Photo supplied by Esperance Museum.

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Esperance will again be the epicentre of all things Skylab to mark the 40th anniversary of its crash back to Earth.

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kylab was launched on the final Saturn rocket in May, 1973. Photo supplied by Dwight Steven-Boniecki.

kylab was launched on the final Saturn rocket in May, 1973. Photo supplied by Dwight Steven-Boniecki.

ON July 11, 1979, 10-year-old Dwight Steven-Boniecki went to bed terrified that United States' first space station, Skylab, was plummeting towards earth and his suburban Sydney home.

He wasn't alone in his terror.

In fact the world was captivated by the drama and held its collective breath at the seemingly uncontrolled fall of the nine-storey tall, 70 tonne space lab from its orbit, 435 kilometres above the earth.

NASA, and then the world knew, that it was slipping into the earth's upper atmosphere, where it would begin to disintegrate into a celestial shower of burning wood and metal - to land, who knew where?

"When it was going to impact there was a media frenzy and everybody was terrified,'' said Mr Steven-Boniecki, a self-confessed sci-fi nut.

"I went to bed the night before thinking 'oh my god, this was going to hit our house and our house alone'.

''I woke up the next day and thought 'it didn't hit, fantastic' and then we heard about this fellow in Western Australia who found pieces of it and got $US10,000 for it and myself and my friends thought 'it's good that we didn't die, but imagine how much Lego we could have bought for $10,000'."

Mr Steven-Boniecki had escaped the onslaught, but the residents of Esperance and Balladonia did not and large, burning orbs rained on the eastern Goldfields region as Skylab shot across the sky to a crash with the force of a speeding meteor into the Southern Ocean.

This NASA image shows astronauts training in a water tank for a Skylab mission. Photo supplied by Dwight Stevens-Boniecki.

This NASA image shows astronauts training in a water tank for a Skylab mission. Photo supplied by Dwight Stevens-Boniecki.

Early next month, Esperance will again be the epicentre of all things Skylab to mark the 40th anniversary of its crash back to Earth.

Mr Steven-Boniecki will be one of those gathering for a series of events, culminating on the weekend of July 13-14, to reflect on the space station's international significance, Esperance's curtain-call in its history and to premiere his documentary, Searching for Skylab, at a special screening.

Perth artist David Carson is bringing back his reinvigorated 2002, 3D exhibition, Out of Orbit, which was based on Skylab and is putting together a 360 degree video dome space installation for the school holidays.

WA author Meg McKinlay, whose book Catch a Falling Story is loosely based around the Skylab era, will be at the library for a meet the author and writing workshop.

Local 103.9 Hope FM is offering to record the stories of people's memories of the night and seven-year-old Konii Rollond is interviewing astronaut Edward Gibson, the scientist on the Skylab 3 crew, after winning a 'Talk to an Astronaut' competition.

The local historical society is hosting a history half hour with guest Merv Andre, the local shire president at the time, who will talk about his experience.

Esperance Museum, which has Skylab artefacts on permanent display, has also launched a 'space recycle'' creation competition for students and another one - Skylab styles - for the wider community for 'spacewear fashions'.

Esperance Museum cultural officer Lynda Horn said the locals still talk about the night Skylab crashed through their skies and the anniversary was part of a significant project to ensure the memory of it didn't fade away.

"From the museum's perspective, it is our community's history and we want to capture that history,'' Ms Horn said.

"Even though this was only 40 years ago, it is still quite an important part of our community's history and it has such as international reach - it is pretty significant.

"We have a lot going on for this anniversary, people are starting to talk about it again and are getting excited.''

Clare Burchard found a handy seat on the Skylab debris that fell on her Merivale property. Photo supplied by Esperance Museum.

Clare Burchard found a handy seat on the Skylab debris that fell on her Merivale property. Photo supplied by Esperance Museum.

Mr Steven-Boniecki, who got hooked on space as a child watching the Apollo moon landing with his Polish father Bogumil, is travelling from his home base in Germany to Esperance to be part of the anniversary celebrations and for the Australian premiere of Searching for Skylab on Thursday, July 11.

He will participate in a Q&A session, before an interview with an astronaut and then the documentary will be screened.

The film contains interviews with Skylab astronauts, astronomer Lubos Kohoutek, NASA engineers, engineers from the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station and NASA history experts.

It also uses footage from reels of NASA tapes that he picked up from eBay.

Astronauts Paul Weitz, Alan Bean, Bruce McCandless and Owen Garriott have died since the film was recorded, making these their last interviews on film.

"Skylab is a forgotten part of NASA's history,'' Mr Steven-Boniecki said.

"It falls in the shadow of Apollo and rarely gets more than a passing mention in books and documentaries.

"It was, however, a learning tool.

"The film celebrates the pioneering achievements performed during this time, complemented by the astronauts themselves explaining the importance of conducting them in space.

"The goal of this film is to debunk public perception of the project being a forgotten failure.

"By using archival material strongly anchored in fact, we show Skylab to be nothing but a success, from its launch in 1973, even through to the fiery impact in 1979.

"They learnt so much.''

Skylab was advocated by famous rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in the 1960s - the men believed a space station would be an important early step in space exploration.

It was launched by NASA on May 14, 1973, on the last ever Saturn rocket - but the launch didn't go smoothly as it lost one of its main solar panels when its micrometeroid shield was peeled off from the vibrations.

It was manned by three teams of three astronauts on three missions - who spent a total 171 days onboard - proving that man could last in space for long periods of time.

A total 270 experiments were conducted over its lifespan, which collected a huge amount of medical, scientific and solar data, which is still being used today.

A fourth mission was planned, but was stymied by delays in the development of the Space Shuttle and didn't eventuate.

NASA underestimated how quickly solar activity would cause Skylab's orbit to decay and by 1978 the organisation realised it was coming back to earth again - but it had no plans for re-entry.

As the date of re-entry approached, Skylab parties were held around the globe and Skylab-themed products became popular.

In Brussels, authorities planned to sound as many as 1250 air raid-type sirens, African nations were warned so they could alert ships and planes in the potential danger area and New York paramedics were put on stand-by in case of debris crashing into the city.

The San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 reward for the first person to arrive with a piece of verifiable Skylab debris within 48 hours of the touch-down - which its management probably thought was a pretty safe bet.

It was won by 17-year-old Esperance lad Stan Thornton, who jumped on a plane from Perth without luggage or a passport, but with pieces of burnt Skylab debris which had landed on his house.

Mr Steven-Boniecki, who has a background in television production for Foxtel and Channel Nine, said Skylab was pioneering - including in its development of TV transmission of its missions, which were probably more significant than Apollo's.

He said some of the data gathered remained to be analysed 45 years later.

"What they did up there was amazing,'' Mr Steven-Boniecki said.

"They still use data to plan missions for the International Space Station (ISS) because they measured everything.''

NASA thought Skylab had crashed at 10:30pm off the WA South Coast, but at about 12:30am Esperance locals were woken by six sonic booms.

Others who had ventured up to Wireless Hill were amazed to see bright orange sparks zooming across the sky, like comets, but coming straight at them.

Overnight, Esperance and WA became a focus of the world's media.

NASA officials came to inspect the debris and talk to people who took pieces to the local shire.

"For me, as a kid, Skylab was the epitome of failure,'' Mr Steven-Boniecki said.

"How could NASA let a space lab crash land in Australia?

"How incompetent do they have to be?

"This is the thing, what they learned in the time it was coming down, they learned how to strategically make the thing hit remote areas.

"They didn't intend it to hit Esperance, but they were able to plan it so that it was not in anybody's immediate danger and this is the stuff they learned on the fly, as it was coming down to earth."

Ms Horn said Esperance's Skylab Community Project began in April and was gathering momentum as the anniversary approached.

What is your Skylab story?, the oral history project partnered with HopeFM, is significant in trying to capture for posterity the local's Skylab accounts.

"We are encouraging people to contact the radio station to record their story,'' Ms Horn said.

"Lots of people like to talk about Skylab... and this is something we can continue on with, with that partnership well past the anniversary and hopefully with more people talking about it, they will visit the radio station and have a chitchat with the volunteers there and record some stories.''

Ms Horn said while the Skylab Community Project had a strong local focus, it was also looking outwards.

"A lot of people know that Skylab crashed here... what we are trying to do is make people aware of what the purpose of Skylab was, before it became of interest to us,'' she said.

"Without Skylab we probably wouldn't have the International Space Station (ISS) and the capacity of what they have with the ISS.

"It really paved the way.

"For a lot of people here, it was just a space station falling out of the sky into our backyards, but there was a much bigger story behind it.''

Want to know more?

  • searchingforskylab.com
  • esperance.wa.gov.au/esperance-museum
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